Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce could face a Melbourne Cup-sized field of candidates in a New England by-election, with One Nation, Labor, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers and former independent MP Tony Windsor all looking to stand in the poll.
And the National Party is already making preparations in case the High Court rules against Mr Joyce and orders a by-election, with campaign booth ‘captains’ contacted and rosters being prepared for volunteers to work on pre-poll stations – though the party has not yet printed flyers or hired a campaign office.
The High Court this week held three days of hearings on whether the so-called “citizenship seven” – Mr Joyce and six senators – were validly elected in accordance with section 44 of the Constitution. Chief Justice Susan Kiefel has said the bench will endeavour to deliver its rulings “as soon as possible”.
The Turnbull government has a one-seat majority in the lower house and is therefore sweating on the ruling in Mr Joyce’s case; Labor has said it will not provide a ‘paired’ vote in the event Mr Joyce has to re-contest his seat.
This would see the government temporarily reduced to 75 seats in the 150 member House and Labor ramp up its attempts to de-stabilise the government and force through a banking royal commission and reverse cuts to penalty rates.
National Party operatives in New England told Fairfax Media on Friday there was a growing expectation that a by-election will be ordered by the High Court - despite repeated assurances from Mr Turnbull, based on advice from the Solicitor-General, the government was confident Mr Joyce would survive.
The expectation on the ground is that Mr Joyce will win a by-election and, if anything, increase his primary vote from an already high 52.3 per cent in 2016.
“People have the shits about this,” A National Party operative said. “Barnaby was born here and we voted for him. There are more important issues to worry about. I wouldn’t be surprised if increases his margin.”
For his part, Mr Joyce told the Northern Daily Leader on Friday that he was enduring “an anxious wait, it would be ridiculous to say anything else. I’m hoping the decision either way is made as quickly as possible, so we know exactly what we're off to next”.
“If it goes against us, we go to a by-election straight away. If it goes with us, we just get back to work,” he said.
Mr Joyce said he was prepared to face voters again “but we won’t get ahead of ourselves, we’ll stay humble and let people make up their own mind. I hope the work I’ve done in the electorate puts me in good position to be looked at favourably”.
Labor senator Sam Dastyari, on a recent tour through the seat, said his party would stand a candidate in the by-election, though the ALP typically does not poll well in the conservative seat.
Mr Windsor, a rival of Mr Joyce who previously held the seat and who has joined the High Court fight against the Deputy Prime Minister, is also a chance to stand. He declined to reveal his intentions when contacted by Fairfax Media.
A spokesman for One Nation said the party had not yet selected a candidate but had strong support in the seat, and would likely enter the contest.
“People feel let down by the Nationals, so there are a lot of calls from locals for us to run, and we have to give that consideration once the High Court makes it ruling,” the spokesman said.
In the unlikely event One Nation won the seat at a by-election, the party would achieve official party status for the first time, which would ensure more resources and staff.
Similarly, Shooters MP Robert Borsak told Fairfax Media that “we are certainly considering it [standing a candidate], if we can find the right candidate we will”.