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The of­fer from the freshly minted New Zealand prime min­is­ter, Jacinda Ardern, was gen­uine and in the name of not ig­nor­ing “the hu­man face of what Aus­tralia is deal­ing with now”. The im­me­di­ate fo­cus was the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis un­fold­ing in our name on Manus Is­land. Be­hind the re­fusal, as with ev­ery­thing in the Turnbull gov­ern­ment, was the pol­i­tics of sur­vival and the des­per­ate search for any ad­van­tage it can scrounge against La­bor.

Ardern was re­new­ing an of­fer, first made in 2013 to the Gil­lard La­bor gov­ern­ment, to take 150 refugees a year. It was ve­toed by an in­com­ing Tony Ab­bott be­fore the process had be­gun. Had he not turned his back on it, nearly 600 would have been out of de­ten­tion by now. Ab­bott’s rea­son­ing, re­peated this week by Immigration Min­is­ter Peter Dut­ton, was that it would be a con­ve­nient back door for these refugees to reach their real goal of com­ing to Aus­tralia. As such, he ar­gued, it would be a green light for peo­ple smug­glers to get back into busi­ness.

Never mind that this ar­gu­ment is con­tra­dicted by his own de­part­ment’s of­fi­cial fig­ures, which show what is re­ally stuff­ing the smug­glers’ busi­ness model is boat turn­backs on the high seas by Bor­der Force. There have been 31 in the two years of Op­er­a­tion Sov­er­eign Bor­ders. The boats keep com­ing be­cause de­s­pair­ing peo­ple are risk­ing even the harsh­ness of in­def­i­nite de­ten­tion on Manus and Nauru in the slim chance they might just make it through. The de­ter­rence through cruel pol­icy is work­ing only to trash our na­tion’s hu­man rights rep­u­ta­tion.

Mal­colm Turnbull is alive to this re­al­ity. Af­ter all, he ea­gerly ne­go­ti­ated a deal with then pres­i­dent Barack Obama for the United States to take 1250 refugees from Manus and Nauru in re­turn for us tak­ing refugees from South Amer­ica. He even hag­gled with Don­ald Trump to hon­our it. La­bor is right in see­ing lit­tle dif­fer­ence be­tween it and the New Zealand of­fer. What should not be missed, how­ever, is Dut­ton warn­ing last Satur­day, ahead of the meet­ing be­tween Turnbull and Ardern, that her of­fer was un­wel­come.

At the news con­fer­ence af­ter the meet­ing, Turnbull re­sorted to Dut­ton’s four-year-old ar­gu­ments against La­bor and the NZ of­fer but point­edly left open the op­tion of tak­ing it up later. He said the pri­or­ity “right now is the US ar­range­ment”. Per­haps he fears Trump could re­nege if we tango with some­one else. More likely, he doesn’t want to cross Dut­ton. The cre­ation of the new Home Af­fairs min­istry, against the ob­jec­tions of erst­while al­lies in cab­i­net such as Julie Bishop and Ge­orge Bran­dis, is as good an in­di­ca­tion as any of Dut­ton’s clout and Turnbull’s craven need to ap­pease him.

The hardline immigration min­is­ter is con­vinced vot­ers are more im­pressed by his tough­ness and is un­will­ing to show even a hint of com­pas­sion. That’s for “weak”, bleed­ing-heart La­bor. He may be right: the prime min­is­ter’s and op­po­si­tion leader’s of­fices are be­ing swamped by phone calls of com­plaint over the treat­ment of the de­tainees. The cam­paign, sup­ported by The Satur­day Paper and oth­ers, is fall­ing on deaf ears. Many call­ers are de­mand­ing the 600 men stranded on Manus be brought to Aus­tralia. La­bor is ig­nor­ing that, but urg­ing the gov­ern­ment to take up the New Zealand of­fer.

Dut­ton’s place in all of this has to be seen in the con­text of the piv­otal role he is play­ing in watch­ing Turnbull’s back. It is an in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult task. The gov­ern­ment’s stand­ing in the elec­torate – abysmally low if the per­sis­tent opinion polls are right – is sap­ping the prime min­is­ter’s au­thor­ity. But so, too, is his ha­bit­ual lack of touch when it comes to man­age­ment of is­sues.

The mess cre­ated by the el­i­gi­bil­ity of mem­bers and se­na­tors to be in par­lia­ment in light of sec­tion 44(i) has sucked all the oxy­gen out of ev­ery­thing else the gov­ern­ment might want to talk about. Here, how­ever, a lit­tle bit of irony may be war­ranted. The High Court’s black let­ter law in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the con­sti­tu­tion was a ma­jor dis­trac­tion from Em­ploy­ment Min­is­ter Michaelia Cash’s abuse of state power in launch­ing a high-pro­file po­lit­i­cal witch-hunt on La­bor’s Bill Shorten. Just what she knew and didn’t tell Turnbull is still to be plumbed.

On Mon­day, Turnbull be­lat­edly fol­lowed

Shorten’s changed stance on MPs hav­ing to dis­close their cit­i­zen­ship sta­tus. For weeks, Shorten had ar­gued against re­quir­ing politi­cians to pro­duce proof they had taken the nec­es­sary steps to be con­sti­tu­tion­ally com­pli­ant. He saw it as a re­ver­sal of the pre­sump­tion of in­no­cence. But he was first to sniff vot­ers’ in­creas­ing im­pa­tience with the is­sue. Turnbull slammed La­bor’s “univer­sal dec­la­ra­tion” as a half-baked witch-hunt last week­end. Trea­surer Scott Mor­ri­son re­jected any sort of au­dit as a ge­nealog­i­cal sur­vey.

But the demise of Lib­eral se­nate pres­i­dent Stephen Parry last week had his con­ser­va­tive al­lies in the party turn el­i­gi­bil­ity into a lead­er­ship is­sue. Ab­bott de­scribed the im­broglio as a cir­cus that needed a prime min­is­ter to take the hard de­ci­sions and end it all. His mates –

Eric Abetz and Kevin An­drews – called for an au­dit and warned that Aus­tralians were fed up with the dither­ing and weak­ness at the helm of the na­tion.

Cab­i­net ac­cepted Turnbull’s pro­posal on Mon­day for mem­bers to make a dec­la­ra­tion to par­lia­ment in the same way as they do to the regis­ter of pe­cu­niary in­ter­ests. He wants both houses to pass a res­o­lu­tion on el­i­gi­bil­ity and all would be given 21 days to com­ply. The timetable would push the is­sue into next year. And it is weak. Politi­cians of­ten pay lip ser­vice, re­veal­ing their as­sets and in­vest­ments with im­punity. In­de­pen­dent Bob Kat­ter, for ex­am­ple, re­fuses to de­clare his wife’s in­ter­ests as an in­tru­sion on her pri­vacy. He hasn’t been fined or jailed, as laid down for non-com­pli­ance. The only real penalty for fail­ing to regis­ter is em­bar­rass­ment if the me­dia or your po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents find out.

The Greens were com­pletely unim­pressed. Richard Di Natale said it wouldn’t end the con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis for par­lia­ment and, more to the point, for a gov­ern­ment with huge doubts over the el­i­gi­bil­ity of mem­bers. That is a stretch. Mem­bers re­main eli­gi­ble un­til the High Court rules oth­er­wise. Al­though, in the case of Parry, he was so egre­giously in breach he re­signed af­ter his gam­ble to stay sh­tum, en­cour­aged by at least one cab­i­net min­is­ter, Mitch Fi­field, but it all blew up when the court did not change the rules as Turnbull said it would.

Worse for Turnbull, Mur­phy’s law came into play again. He told a news con­fer­ence the Lib­eral fed­eral di­rec­tor had as­sured him no more of the party’s MPs were in strife. Within two hours, Syd­ney MP John Alexan­der ad­mit­ted his fa­ther was Bri­tish-born. He is now fu­ri­ously looking for doc­u­men­ta­tion from Lon­don to show his fa­ther re­nounced his Bri­tish cit­i­zen­ship be­tween 1949 – when the Aus­tralian cit­i­zen­ship came into force – and 1951, when Alexan­der was born. Good luck with that, but it does buy time.

Turnbull bravely told Fran Kelly on Ra­dio

Na­tional that if any­one is in breach they should step for­ward and by­elec­tions will be held. He must think he has a 15-seat ma­jor­ity. Two or three more Lib­er­als – Josh Fry­den­berg, Alex Hawke or Ju­lia Banks – would at the very least plunge the gov­ern­ment into deep mi­nor­ity. Even though they rep­re­sent safe or rel­a­tively safe seats, avoid­ing calls for an early gen­eral elec­tion would be hard, es­pe­cially if a cou­ple of La­bor peo­ple were also thrown into the mix.

Mid­week, Turnbull and Shorten met for two-anda-half hours in which the prime min­is­ter gave a lot of ground. Shorten ar­gued against giv­ing MPs 21 days to get their pa­per­work in or­der, and didn’t agree to a spe­cial sit­ting of par­lia­ment at a cost of $700,000 at the end of De­cem­ber for any re­fer­rals to the High Court. Shorten’s ar­gu­ment is a strong one. This pas­tic­cio – an­other fine Ital­ian word for mess – has been in the head­lines for three months. What have peo­ple such as John Alexan­der been do­ing? Be­sides, the Sykes v Cleary el­i­gi­bil­ity case was 25 years ago and has trig­gered dire warn­ings on nom­i­na­tion pa­pers pro­duced by the Aus­tralian Elec­toral Com­mis­sion. All the MPs who were struck out signed up to be­ing com­pli­ant with sec­tion 44.

On Wed­nes­day, there’s sure to be an even big­ger dis­trac­tion for the gov­ern­ment. The out­come of the mar­riage equal­ity sur­vey will be an­nounced. The “Yes” camp is supremely con­fi­dent: it has or­gan­ised big ral­lies to co­in­cide with the 10am re­sult. Turnbull is de­ter­mined to de­liver on his prom­ise that if the sur­vey is af­fir­ma­tive, same-sex mar­riage will be quickly leg­is­lated through the par­lia­ment. It should be a chance for him to get on the front foot. Af­ter all, he pro­moted the cause for change. But such is the pes­simism on the gov­ern­ment back­bench some say he can’t be counted on to make

• even this a win­ner.


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

RN Break­fast.

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