MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia's former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce will return to parliament after he won an essential by-election for his seat, just over a month after he was kicked out over a dual citizenship crisis that cost the conservative coalition government its majority.
Joyce, who was widely expected to win, said he was "utterly humbled" by his sizeable victory in the rural New South Wales seat of New England, in which he looks likely to increase his primary vote by an additional 10 points.
ABC election analyst Antony Green reported that Joyce is on track to achieve a primary vote of about 64 percent, a significant increase on his 52.3 percent primary at the last federal election in 2016.
The win gives the government and its embattled prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, some much-needed breathing space, as it restores its slim one-seat majority. The government is already claiming the victory as a vote of confidence of its performance, despite a series of polls showing its growing unpopularity.
"This has been a stunning victory," Turnbull told supporters as he joined Joyce at a pub in the town of Tamworth to celebrate the win.
Exit polls were predicting "the largest swing to the government in the history of by-elections in Australia", Turnbull said, adding it was a sign of confidence in his government.
Joyce added that he was "completely and utterly humbled", after winning from a record field of 17 candidates.
"I say to the people of New England, that I never take anything for granted, and for every person who voted for us and voted for us for the first time," he said, the ABC reported.
Joyce was one of the “Citizenship Seven” whose eligibility to sit in parliament was thrown into doubt when it was found they were dual citizens, a status that is barred for federal politicians under Australia’s constitution to prevent split allegiances.
The High Court ruled on Oct. 27 that Joyce, along with four of the seven other lawmakers, was ineligible to remain in parliament, forcing a by-election. Joyce was found to be a dual citizen of New Zealand, a status he has since rescinded.
A by-election occurs outside of the usual three-year election cycle, usually when a representative decides to leave parliament early or dies.
The deputy leader position, traditionally held by a member of the junior coalition partner, the National Party, has remained vacant since the High Court ruling.
The result comes at a difficult time for Turnbull, who earlier this week was forced into an embarrassing reversal of his long-standing position against a Royal Commission into the country's scandal-hit banking and financial sector amid mounting political pressure.
The last day of campaigning for the by-election was marred by a call from New South Wales Nationals state leader and deputy premier John Barilaro for Turnbull to step down as a "Christmas gift" to the nation.
The comments were quickly rebuffed by Liberal Party lawmakers and Joyce, who said they were "very unhelpful" and "insulting."
It was the latest of a long line of internal turmoil to hit the coalition throughout the year, which has contributed to its poor performance in polls throughout the year.
(Reporting by Alana Schetzer; editing by Diane Craft)