Make or break by-elections
DECEMBER 16 looms as a potential make-or-break by-election for the embattled Turnbull Government. Labor’s candidate, former NSW premier Kristina Keneally, is a real chance of winning the seat of Bennelong, despite a huge margin of almost 20 per cent.
Although she led Labor to a loss in 2011 at the state election, the ALP was then on the nose, and Ms Keneally is a confident communicator and experienced political operator.
Liberal John Alexander is forced to recontest Bennelong after inherited UK citizenship saw him forced from federal parliament. But Mr Alexander, highly regarded as a former tennis player, other than working on housing affordability has not exactly turned pro in politics with major policy achievements.
Bennelong can’t be taken for granted and it stands as a litmus test for the Turnbull administration and the PM’s leadership. Certainly, the electorate has been willing to turf incumbents and parties, with no less than sitting prime minister John Howard losing the seat in 2007 to Maxine McKew.
Further north in the New South Wales seat of New England, Barnaby Joyce’s December 2 by-election might be a fait accompli.
But added to what is now two forced by-elections in coming weeks due to the dual-citizenship circus which has wracked Canberra, at least another nine MPs have clouds over their heads, including Labor members who only formally renounced their foreign links after they nominated for last year’s election.
And the ramifications do not stop there. Mr Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten belatedly struck common ground on Monday for a self-reporting disclosure of all 150 MPs and 76 senators to provide parliament with the birthplaces of parents and grandparents.
That information, which must be publicly provided by December 1, together with details on efforts to renounce any foreign citizenship rights, could uncover others at risk of breaching Section 44 of the Constitution. Any additional MPs or senators whose citizenship status remains under question risk then being referred to the High Court for adjudication. That process will also throw a few grenades into the parliamentary chambers, as arguments erupt over partisan motivation.
Already struggling under a slim majority in the House of Representatives, with the Coalition reduced from 76 seats to 73 (against Labor’s 69), a string of adverse byelection results, further resignations or losses in the High Court may yet force a general election.
With 23 negative Newspolls behind him, Mr Turnbull only has several months to turn things around before he is forced to argue why he shouldn’t be punted from the leadership, as he did to Tony Abbott after 30 consecutive poll deficits.
If the Coalition continues to track as it does — with support for Mr Turnbull as preferred PM slumping to 36 per cent — and the tide keeps going out, Mr Turnbull’s own words will come back to haunt him.
“The one thing that is clear about our current situation is the trajectory. We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row. It is clear that the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership,” Mr Turnbull said in 2015 as he rolled Mr Abbott.
During coming weeks, Australians will judge how the PM performs with his back to the wall during multiple by-election campaigns, as he fights to save his own leadership.