At­tack on Shorten back­fires. Paul Bon­giorno

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A La­bor staffer who was part of the wild ride that was the Gil­lard mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment says there’s more than a whiff of deja vu about what’s hap­pen­ing to the Turn­bull op­er­a­tion right now. He says the process goes like this: the prime min­is­ter gets scared of their own shadow; they be­gin sec­ond-guess­ing them­selves; timid­ity be­comes the or­der of the day, as they fear any false move could cause the whole thing to col­lapse.

You know a gov­ern­ment is racked by self-doubt when it spends more time back-ped­alling af­ter it has thrown the first punch. Ju­nior wood­chuck min­is­ter An­gus Tay­lor was sent out ear­lier in the week to de­mand that Bill Shorten come clean and prove he has re­nounced his dual Bri­tish cit­i­zen­ship. By mid­week the gov­ern­ment’s most se­nior strate­gist, Christo­pher Pyne, was re­fus­ing to join the fight. The prime min­is­ter never did.

Pyne judges that the Aus­tralian public “thinks it’s high time we got on with our day jobs of cre­at­ing jobs and in­vest­ment in our econ­omy and re­duc­ing taxes help­ing their cost of liv­ing”. His as­sess­ment is in com­plete ac­cord with Shorten’s, cu­ri­ously. The day be­fore, the La­bor leader scoffed at the prime min­is­ter for get­ting his cronies to at­tack him. He chal­lenged Mal­colm Turn­bull to come up with the proof against him. “If you haven’t got the ev­i­dence,” he said, “stop wast­ing the time of the na­tion and get back to your day job, stand­ing up for jobs.”

Pyne’s tac­ti­cal re­treat on Shorten and the 11 other La­bor MPs fin­gered as pos­si­ble dual ci­ti­zens is sim­ple to ex­plain. He is a po­lit­i­cal hard­head who un­der­stands it is the gov­ern­ment that has ev­ery­thing to lose. It’s a po­lit­i­cal ver­sion of mu­tu­ally as­sured de­struc­tion. As one La­bor in­sider says: “He doesn’t want to un­leash the nu­clear op­tion.” If La­bor re­tal­i­ated by re­fer­ring gov­ern­ment MPs to the Court of Dis­puted Re­turns, this par­lous sit­u­a­tion would be­come a full-blown cri­sis, if it’s not al­ready.

There are at least three Lib­er­als in the lower house who could face the same de­mands to pro­duce ev­i­dence they have re­nounced dual cit­i­zen­ship. If they haven’t, the gov­ern­ment would fall. This would pre­cip­i­tate by­elec­tions and in the cur­rent cli­mate there is no guar­an­tee they would win back their seats. Even if they did, a big swing against them would fur­ther erode the gov­ern­ment’s author­ity and stand­ing.

Two weeks ago, At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Ge­orge Bran­dis warned the se­nate that mem­bers of par­lia­ment can­not be re­ferred to the High Court in a fish­ing ex­er­cise.

He said once a politi­cian is de­clared duly elected they re­main so. Any­one who wants to chal­lenge this “must demon­strate why it is they claim that the sen­a­tor or mem­ber of the house of rep­re­sen­ta­tives is dis­qual­i­fied”.

Des­per­ate pol­i­tics was be­hind the de­mands that Shorten prove his el­i­gi­bil­ity. He knew his sit­u­a­tion thanks to his Bri­tish fa­ther and rec­ti­fied it be­fore run­ning for par­lia­ment. Those now re­ferred to the court iden­ti­fied them­selves be­ing in breach or pos­si­bly in breach of sec­tion 44(i) of the Con­sti­tu­tion. Make no mis­take, how­ever: ju­nior min­is­ter Tay­lor was not free­lanc­ing. This was de­lib­er­ate. The gov­ern­ment’s spin doc­tors were also urg­ing the press gallery to jump into the ring. An­gles were sug­gested and glee­fully taken up, par­tic­u­larly by the Coali­tion’s pre­ferred pro­pa­ganda out­lets. The good idea at the time was to am­plify vot­ers’ doubts about the trust­wor­thi­ness of the La­bor leader. Scott Mor­ri­son gave us a taste of the fo­cus group re­search pro­pel­ling the tac­tics. Last week in par­lia­ment, he de­scribed Shorten as a “slith­er­ing snake”.

For the en­tire two weeks of the par­lia­men­tary ses­sion Shorten was var­i­ously de­scribed as an op­por­tunist who sold out work­ers when a union leader and a con­spir­a­tor who worked with for­eign pow­ers to bring down the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment. One of the gov­ern­ment’s strate­gists was un­apolo­getic. He says it showed Shorten is un­will­ing to come clean with the public. He ac­cuses the La­bor leader of hypocrisy for de­mand­ing the Na­tion­als’ Matt Cana­van re­lease his doc­u­ments.

The gov­ern­ment’s sub­mis­sion to the High Court con­ceded that both Cana­van and his leader, Barn­aby Joyce, were dual ci­ti­zens. At is­sue is how they came to be and when they knew it.

The par­lia­men­tary at­tack on Shorten’s char­ac­ter, ac­com­pa­nied as it was by me­dia re­ports of his re­luc­tance to pro­duce doc­u­men­tary proof, failed mis­er­ably. In Mon­day’s Newspoll, Shorten’s un­pop­u­lar­ity less­ened while Turn­bull’s grew. Both landed 20 points in the neg­a­tive col­umn. On the two-party pre­ferred, the num­ber that re­ally counts, La­bor in­creased its lead to a whop­ping eight points over the gov­ern­ment.

What this shows is that it re­ally is all about the prime min­is­ter and his min­is­ters. Just as it was in the Gil­lard years. Sure, Tony Ab­bott was a ruth­lessly ef­fec­tive op­po­si­tion leader but in the end peo­ple voted against La­bor and got the “un­electable” Ab­bott. It’s of­ten said that op­po­si­tions don’t win elec­tions; gov­ern­ments lose them. There is more than a sker­rick of truth in this. At­tack­ing Shorten is no sub­sti­tute for the gov­ern­ment get­ting its act to­gether.

Gov­ern­ments al­ways pay the price. Af­ter all, vot­ers ex­pect them to pro­vide a con­fi­dent sta­bil­ity. This ex­pec­ta­tion is ex­tremely hard to meet when the num­bers are so tight. Keep­ing ev­ery­body to­gether while repaying the debts that got you elected as leader is prov­ing ev­ery bit as hard for Turn­bull as it was for Ju­lia Gil­lard. When any­one on the back­bench can bring you down, and some give ev­ery in­di­ca­tion they would rather the gov­ern­ment fall than ac­com­mo­date you, it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble. Turn­bull cer­tainly isn’t man­i­fest­ing the sort of po­lit­i­cal smarts he needs.

Gil­lard’s cred­i­bil­ity was un­der­mined in a sim­i­lar dy­namic. The num­bers on her left forced her to break the “no car­bon tax” prom­ise, but at the same time those on her right were con­trol­ling the very is­sue that has en­snared Turn­bull: same-sex mar­riage. Here was a pro­gres­sive who, like an in­creas­ing num­ber of Aus­tralians, had a part­ner rather than a hus­band and was a self-pro­fessed athe­ist, yet she voted against mar­riage equal­ity. No one be­lieved this was her real po­si­tion: it was some­thing foisted on her by the sup­port she re­lied on from the so­cially con­ser­va­tive shop­pies’ union. At least she al­lowed a free vote of the par­lia­ment, some­thing ev­ery­one knows is Turn­bull’s pref­er­ence.

Turn­bull’s con­flict over the is­sue played out on com­mer­cial ra­dio. The pre­sen­ters on 2Day FM were sur­prised to hear that the prime min­is­ter and his wife will vote “yes” if the vol­un­tary postal sur­vey sur­vives the High Court chal­lenges. But his re­luc­tance to con­demn the “Stop the fags” posters in Mel­bourne with their bla­tant and scur­rilous lies was dis­ap­point­ing.

Turn­bull, ever with an eye to the free speech zealots over his right shoul­der, urged both sides of the is­sue to have a re­spect­ful de­bate. Pre­sen­ter Em Rus­ciano came back: “Your re­spect­ful de­bate, with all due re­spect, is in the toi­let.” He seemed to have ex­pected it: “You know, peo­ple will of­ten say in any demo­cratic de­bate, they will of­ten say things that are hurt­ful and un­fair and some­times cruel, but that’s part of the de­bate … The only way to stop peo­ple say­ing things that you find hurt­ful is to shut down free speech.” Re­ally?

The “Stop the fags” posters were hurt­ful and hate­ful but also wrong in their pur­ported facts. It is not true that 92 per cent of chil­dren raised by same-sex par­ents are abused, for in­stance. Surely free speech also means some­one with the moral author­ity of the prime min­is­ter vig­or­ously re­ject­ing lies when they are put to him, as they were in the in­ter­view. Surely he has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­ject vicious mis­truths and set the tone by not giv­ing li­cence to a cam­paign that can only erode the co­he­sion he is so proud to say is Aus­tralian so­ci­ety.

Turn­bull made a strong point when he said that threats to tra­di­tional mar­riage are not gay peo­ple get­ting mar­ried. “The threats are de­ser­tion, cru­elty, ne­glect, aban­don­ment, in­dif­fer­ence.” In­deed, and that puts him at odds with Tony Ab­bott, the evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian lobby and the Catholic bish­ops. They are all run­ning the con­fected ar­gu­ment that free­dom of re­li­gion is at stake. It’s bad enough that in our de­vel­oped, civilised so­ci­ety re­li­gious or­gan­i­sa­tions are ex­empt from laws that pre­vent dis­crim­i­na­tion while ev­ery­one else isn’t, but that they should use this du­bi­ously granted priv­i­lege to try to im­pose their be­liefs is ap­palling.

Turn­bull had bet­ter hope that those cam­paign­ing hard for mar­riage equal­ity de­liver a con­vinc­ing re­sult. Any­thing less will en­dan­ger the gov­ern­ment’s sur­vival. Its one vote ma­jor­ity, if it still has one, will dis­ap­pear on the floor of the house. Timid­ity will have run out of

• time.


PAUL BON­GIORNO is a colum­nist for The Satur­day Pa­per and a reg­u­lar com­men­ta­tor on the ABC’s RN Break­fast.

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