Australia's former deputy PM expected to win election, reclaim seat

FILE PHOTO - Australian Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Barnaby Joyce looks at Australian beef as he visits at a supermarket to promote Australian products in Tokyo, Japan, November 16, 2015. REUTERS/Issei Kato (Reuters)

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australian former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce is expected to win re-election for the seat he was earlier forced to vacate, and return to his position in parliament on Saturday, just over a month after he was kicked out over a dual citizenship crisis that cost the government its majority.

Joyce faces a record 16 rivals for the seat of New England, in rural New South Wales, and should he win, it will give the conservative coalition government some much-needed relief in restoring its slim majority.

Joyce has repeatedly said he was "confident, not cocky" about winning the seat of New England again, five years after he first entered federal parliament.

"I said right at the start that you can't take anything for granted, [but] the feedback I'm getting as I travel around the electorate is that people just want us to get on with the job of governing," he told SBS.

Joyce was one of a group of lawmakers known as 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 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 Saturday's by-election. Joyce was found to be a dual citizen of New Zealand, a status he has since rescinded.

The deputy leader position has remained vacant since the High Court ruling.

Joyce's chances to regain his seat were particularly helped after an independent candidate considered to be his biggest competition decided not to run. The nationalist One Nation Party, led by Pauline Hanson, also decided against fielding a candidate in favour of campaigning for the recent Queensland state election, in which they are expected to win zero seats, despite polling predicting them winning up to 12 seats.

The last day of campaigning for the by-election was marred by a call for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to step down as a "Christmas gift" to the nation.

New South Wales Nationals state leader and deputy premier John Barilaro caused a stir with his comments, telling radio station 2GB that a new leader is needed to "put the country and its people first.

"Turnbull is the problem, the prime minister is the problem," he said. "He should step down, allow for a clean-out of what the leadership looks like federally."

The surprise comments were quickly rebuffed by Joyce, who said they were "very unhelpful" and "insulting."

"I don't think you should be criticising leadership. You're criticising the captain of your team, your own team, why would you do that?" Joyce told SBS.

(Reporting by Alana Schetzer; Editing by Leslie Adler)