Mal­colm Turn­bull in a fix.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents The Week - Paul Bon­giorno

With some pride Mal­colm Turn­bull led a large

Aus­tralian con­tin­gent com­mem­o­rat­ing the 1917 charge of the Fourth Light Horse Brigade at Beer­sheba. It was a turn­ing point of World War I. The courage and de­ci­sive der­ring-do of the Aus­tralian horse­men en­sured a swift vic­tory in a sur­prise dusk of­fen­sive. Un­for­tu­nately, the bat­tle is no me­taphor for the per­for­mance of Turn­bull or his gov­ern­ment.

The prime min­is­ter’s de­par­ture for the solem­ni­ties and of­fi­cial visit to Is­rael was de­layed by two days af­ter the High Court struck out from par­lia­ment two cab­i­net min­is­ters. Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Barn­aby Joyce’s demise caused the most im­me­di­ate heart­burn. Apart from the ne­ces­sity of a by­elec­tion as soon as pos­si­ble, there was the mat­ter of who would be act­ing prime min­is­ter.

It should have been a sim­ple de­ci­sion. There was no deputy prime min­is­ter so the next in line, Lib­eral deputy leader Julie Bishop, should step in. Ex­cept the Na­tion­als in­sisted their in­terim par­lia­men­tary leader, Nigel Scul­lion, should get the nod. And now that Barn­aby is merely “Ci­ti­zen Joyce”, as he calls him­self, the for­mer deputy PM was not ret­i­cent on Mon­day in telling the na­tion he was back­ing Scul­lion be­cause he’s one of “our team”. Joyce even thinks it was a cab­i­net de­ci­sion to over­look Scul­lion.

If it was, it in it­self is a break with past pro­to­col, as the rank­ings in the min­istry are the pre­rog­a­tive of the prime min­is­ter. The arm wres­tle is an­other in­di­ca­tion that Turn­bull is ut­terly spooked by the ten­u­ous hold he has within his Coali­tion gov­ern­ment, now ex­ac­er­bated by the dis­ap­pear­ance of his ma­jor­ity on the floor of the house. This he tries to hide with un­con­vinc­ing bravado. At his Fri­day af­ter­noon news con­fer­ence in the prime min­is­te­rial court­yard, he af­fected the de­meanour of some­one who had just won the lot­tery. His mes­sage: “It’s busi­ness as usual.” That’s meant to as­sure the na­tion that the gov­ern­ment will keep gov­ern­ing smoothly.

The fixed smile can’t mask the re­al­ity. Busi­ness as usual means more of the same dither­ing and internecine strife that makes a big is­sue of a sim­ple de­ci­sion such as who will mind the shop while the prime min­is­ter is away. The Na­tion­als, of course, were smart­ing from the bol­lock­ing they were get­ting from Lib­er­als an­gry that their sloppy inat­ten­tion to de­tail had desta­bilised the gov­ern­ment in the first place.

Their re­venge came in the per­son of a very se­nior Lib­eral – se­nate pres­i­dent Stephen Parry – fes­s­ing up to the ex­treme like­li­hood that he, too, may be in­el­i­gi­ble to be in par­lia­ment. Parry’s judge­ment was vin­di­cated when the Bri­tish Home Of­fice agreed with him. Na­tion­als se­na­tor John “Wacka” Wil­liams was quick to point out the salu­tary les­son for the smar­ty­pants in the Lib­eral Party and pos­si­bly even the ALP. “Peo­ple in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” he said.

When some­one as se­nior as Parry – who signed off on the re­fer­ral of six sen­a­tors to the High Court – fails in his own re­gard, it throws a pall of il­le­git­i­macy over the whole par­lia­ment. The seven judges of the High Court could not have been plainer in mak­ing the point that ev­ery­one who nom­i­nates for par­lia­ment has to be dili­gent in com­ply­ing with the con­sti­tu­tion. They are re­quired to sign a form say­ing they are not ren­dered in­el­i­gi­ble by sec­tion 44(i).

Para­graph 60 of the judge­ment says can­di­dates need to show at least the same dili­gence in vouch­ing for them­selves as oth­ers who chal­lenge them af­ter the dis­cov­ery of an im­ped­i­ment. Re­fer­rals to the court for ad­ju­di­ca­tion on el­i­gi­bil­ity arise af­ter doubts have been raised. But the judges say the facts that led to the doubts “must al­ways have been know­able”.

Fed­eral politi­cians on the cam­paign trail in Queensland say they are find­ing lit­tle sym­pa­thy from vot­ers. Wacka Wil­liams dis­misses the idea of a ref­er­en­dum to change the con­sti­tu­tion, even though his good mate Ci­ti­zen Joyce is call­ing for an avalanche of ref­er­enda on con­tentious is­sues. Wil­liams says politi­cians are al­ready on the nose, and such a ref­er­en­dum pro­posal would be seen as politi­cians try­ing to make life eas­ier on them­selves. Turn­bull has asked a par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee to look at the is­sue and ex­am­ine, among other things, how such a ref­er­en­dum would be worded.

Surely re­quir­ing that any­one who wants to serve in the Aus­tralian par­lia­ment re­nounce the cit­i­zen­ship of an­other coun­try is en­tirely rea­son­able. The Amer­i­cans put a very high pre­mium on cit­i­zen­ship and the na­tional in­ter­est. In 1985, me­dia mag­nate Ru­pert Mur­doch had to re­nounce his Aus­tralian cit­i­zen­ship so he could buy a tele­vi­sion net­work. The birther move­ment against Barack Obama was built on the con­sti­tu­tional re­quire­ment that a United States pres­i­dent be Amer­i­can-born.

Turn­bull’s will­ing­ness to con­sider a ref­er­en­dum for politi­cians’ com­fort is in stark con­trast to the fright he took at push-back from con­ser­va­tives against a con­sti­tu­tion­ally en­shrined Indige­nous voice to the par­lia­ment. To the dis­may and out­rage of Abo­rig­i­nal lead­ers, he dis­missed the ad­vice from the Ref­er­en­dum Coun­cil in its Uluru state­ment as nei­ther de­sir­able nor ca­pa­ble of win­ning ac­cep­tance in a ref­er­en­dum. La­bor’s Pa­trick Dod­son re­torted, “How would he know?” It is true Indige­nous lead­er­ship had not worked out the de­tails of their pro­posal. In­deed, they left these to the good­will of the par­lia­ment in con­sul­ta­tion with them to do that.

The gov­ern­ment’s re­jec­tion came un­der cover of the furore caused by the High Court’s el­i­gi­bil­ity rul­ings. The irony is that Barn­aby Joyce was the main pro­tag­o­nist in the in­ter­nal op­po­si­tion, char­ac­ter­is­ing the “voice” as a third cham­ber of the par­lia­ment. It never was. An em­bit­tered Abo­rig­i­nal leader, Noel Pear­son, ac­cused the PM of “an egre­gious dog whis­tle”.

Dod­son, a long-time, re­spected par­tic­i­pant in the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion move­ment, says public sen­ti­ment could have been tested in a sur­vey sim­i­lar to the same-sex mar­riage mail-out. But in this, as in mar­riage equal­ity and cli­mate change, Turn­bull is seen to ca­pit­u­late to the right rather than to charge into bat­tle for prin­ci­ples that were his trade­mark.

Not that this ca­pit­u­la­tion has done any­thing to sta­bilise the show be­hind him. If any­thing, it has em­bold­ened his in­ter­nal crit­ics. The A-team, as Tony Ab­bott, Eric Abetz and Kevin An­drews are dubbed, along with other con­ser­va­tives such as An­drew Hastie, are prepar­ing to cause as much chaos as they can to de­rail the pri­vate mem­bers’ bill le­gal­is­ing same-sex mar­riage. Al­ter­na­tive bills or 60 to 100 amend­ments are be­ing talked about. There is sim­ply no way the leg­is­la­tion would get through par­lia­ment in the fi­nal two sit­ting weeks this year if that were to hap­pen. And that’s the whole idea.

Hav­ing foisted the now failed plebiscite and then the sur­vey on Turn­bull, the re­ac­tionar­ies are ap­par­ently now pre­pared to defy ma­jor­ity public opin­ion on the is­sue. Newspoll con­tin­ues to find sup­port run­ning near 60 per cent from those who have re­turned their sur­veys. The high par­tic­i­pa­tion rate, up­wards of 70 per cent, shows Aus­tralians are ex­er­cised by the is­sue and most want it re­solved. They cer­tainly don’t want it done at the ex­pense of wind­ing back Aus­tralia’s an­tidis­crim­i­na­tion laws in the name of re­li­gious free­dom. The re­li­gious right, for ex­am­ple, is ar­gu­ing it should be okay to deny a wed­ding cake to a black man or woman so long as they are gay. If Turn­bull al­lows this $122 mil­lion ex­er­cise to end up a cyn­i­cal farce, what­ever cred­i­bil­ity he has left will col­lapse along with that of his gov­ern­ment.

Al­ready, vot­ers are far from im­pressed. The day the Is­raeli prime min­is­ter, Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, was warmly wel­com­ing Turn­bull to Jerusalem, the Newspoll was giv­ing the PM the cold shoul­der for the 22nd suc­ces­sive time. The 54-46 re­sult La­bor’s way was repli­cated next day in the Es­sen­tial poll. The six- to eight-point gap is seem­ingly en­trenched. Any hope of end­ing this po­lit­i­cal death spi­ral is surely doomed if the gov­ern­ment’s “busi­ness as usual” con­tin­ues.

There has been spec­u­la­tion, prin­ci­pally in the Mur­doch me­dia, that For­eign Min­is­ter Julie Bishop is po­si­tion­ing to make a lunge for the top job. Bol­ster­ing this view is her high pro­file and sure-footed per­for­mance as act­ing prime min­is­ter. De­spite her me­dia peo­ple as­sur­ing the gallery that she wouldn’t be do­ing much publicly, the min­is­ter had other ideas. She obliged morn­ing ra­dio and TV shows with live in­ter­views, even though it meant get­ting up at 4am in Perth to do it.

But Bishop says she is happy be­ing for­eign min­is­ter. She is ful­fill­ing that am­bi­tion and has no de­signs on Turn­bull’s job. She would say that, wouldn’t she? But close friends claim she means it. There is talk she is even con­tem­plat­ing life af­ter pol­i­tics.

There is an al­ter­na­tive qui­etly work­ing away, let­ting it be known they are ready to serve if and when needed: Im­mi­gra­tion Min­is­ter Peter Dut­ton and Health Min­is­ter Greg Hunt as his pos­si­ble deputy.

For a gov­ern­ment that looks as though it is stum­bling around in the dark, the next few weeks will be fraught to say the least. There’s even the prospect of an­other by­elec­tion in the seat of Lyne, as an­other Na­tion­als MP, David Gille­spie, fronts the High Court in mid-De­cem­ber.

Mal­colm Turn­bull was surely jok­ing when he told re­porters in Is­rael, “I have never had more fun in my

• life.” He was the only one laugh­ing.


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

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