In the beginning – which was only July – it seemed as if the Greens were uniquely suffering from the now infamous negligence to vet candidates’ citizenship. On July 14, they lost one deputy leader. Less than a week later, they’d lost the other. For Greens supporters, there was anger, sadness and disbelief. More broadly, there were assumptions about the party’s amateurism, cunningly – or at least opportunistically – amplified by Bill Shorten. “Are they ready to be serious political operators?” the Labor leader asked. “Are they up for the job?”
Already experiencing internal revolt and scandal, there were eulogies for the party itself. Andrew Bolt’s was a happy one: “The Greens are dying at last. But not fast enough.”
“Tragedy,” Mel Brooks once said, “is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Senior Liberals were laughing. “It shows incredible sloppiness on their part,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told Channel Nine. “When you nominate for parliament, there is actually a question – you have got to address that section 44 question, and you’ve got to tick the box and confirm you are not a citizen of another country. It is extraordinary negligence.”
Recalling Scott Ludlam’s pleasure in sending off bankrupted Family First senator Bob Day, the Attorney-General George Brandis said: “I don’t think we should shed too many tears over the consequences of Mr Ludlam’s own negligence.”
The criticism was hilariously premature. If only they’d heeded the prophetic wisdom of Barnaby Joyce, who shortly after Ludlam’s resignation said: “You’ve got to be really careful if you start throwing stones when something was an honest oversight, because you bet your life the stone will come back and hit you.”
Now, after six senators and two members of the house of representatives have been disqualified, the response of the two Greens appears increasingly distinguished. In his moment of ignominy, Ludlam resigned immediately and issued the following statement: “This is my error, something I should have checked when I first nominated for preselection in 2006… I could have dug my heels in. But it creates a messy and protracted dispute. That section of the constitution is crystal clear and it has been tested before by others. It is not something that I particularly want to put myself, my staff or my party through. This is probably a cleaner way to just make a break.”
There was no hedging, no parsing. No legal challenge. He did not reserve the right to squirm back into the senate via a casual vacancy. He took his blows. The same is true of Larissa Waters, nervously compelled to inspect her own lineage after her colleague’s shock, and who resigned with sorrow but without complaint. “Obviously this is something that I should have sought advice on when I first nominated for the senate in 2007, and I take full responsibility for this grave mistake and oversight. I am deeply sorry for the impact that it will have.”
Arguably, this should be the standard response and require little commendation. You might also expect that the revelation of your own constitutional ineligibility would humble a person. But you’d be wrong. Our bar for grace is set very low. This is the country whose previous leader appeared late for his own relinquishment speech, having indulged in a raucous wake the night before, then offered solemnities about party unity, which he quickly and enthusiastically breached.
It has taken until this week, and the resignation of Senator Jacqui Lambie, to match the dignity of the Greens’ resignations. She told the senate: “We should not change the constitution because some of us have gone down because of section 44. It just doesn’t work like that. We suck it up, put our hands back up, and if we want to have another run, get back out there. That’s the constitution and I respect that. That’s the way it is.”
Polling suggests conflicting responses from the public: that the constitution is absurdly restrictive, and that politicians have been insufferable in their explanations for defying it. Polling also confirms our eroding faith in democracy. This isn’t a fancy abstraction. It’s a warning. Lambie offered her own. “It’s such a shambles up here, you have no idea,” she said this week. “I’m sitting here watching these people trying to cover each other up at the moment. It’s very distasteful up here at the moment. It is shocking. To see what I’m seeing on the inside, it’s quite scary. I’m not too worried about actually walking out right now because it’s not pretty.”
Our parliament has assumed the quality of a high-school ball – it aspires to class, but lurches drunkenly from one folly to the next. There are tears and treachery. Spiked punch and a hapless head boy. The class banner is shredded. Governance in this country should not be this cheap or dramatic.
After Scott Ludlam’s resignation, Greens staff to whom I spoke – unassociated with the senator – suspected that the barrister who had tipped off the senate about Ludlam was a mischief-making Liberal.
They were wrong. The barrister was John Cameron, who had voted for Ludlam in the most recent election, but who for many years fruitlessly prevailed upon judges, attorneys-general and parliamentary office-bearers to investigate MPs’ eligibility. In a piece in The Australian last week, it was revealed that in 2010 Cameron wrote to the British Home Office inquiring about Julia Gillard’s and Tony Abbott’s citizenship status – both were born in Britain. Three years later, he applied to the High Court for an order that would force both party leaders to produce their renunciation forms. His application was dismissed as “frivolous, vexatious and an abuse of process”.
Both Abbott and Gillard would declare that they had renounced their British citizenship. In July, Abbott went as far as producing a letter from the British Home Office. Cameron is not satisfied. “I’m not interested in declarations, I’m interested in evidence,” he told The Australian. Regarding Abbott’s letter, Cameron argues that the most credible piece of evidence is a dated and stamped RN1 form – what the British bureaucracy issues after a citizen’s formal renunciation. He’ll be satisfied once Abbott produces that.
Years of silence and dismissiveness did not deter Cameron. He was described in the piece as private, dogged and possessed of an abiding respect for the rule of law. A New Zealander – and dual citizen – he arrived in Australia in the 1980s, when he worked on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. By way of explaining his mission, he quoted the 17th-century historian Thomas Fuller: “Be ye ever so high, the law is always above thee.”
The follies of the citizenship crisis are many. There was the embarrassingly premature use of the Greens’ resignations as a partisan cudgel. There was Turnbull’s smug, erroneous and faintly improper assertion on the floor of the parliament that: “The leader of the National Party, the deputy prime minister of Australia is qualified to sit in this house and the High Court will so hold.” There was the inadequately justified decision to suspend Matt Canavan from cabinet, pending the High Court’s decision, but refusal to apply the same to Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash. Then there was the fact that, following John Alexander’s resignation, the government was in minority, with 73 seats.
There is also the question of former senate president Stephen Parry. Having resigned, and displeased that his reputation was clouded by suggestions he had improperly kept his suspicions of dual citizenship to himself, he let it be known that he had, in fact, confided in members of cabinet – only to be told to keep the matter to himself for the time being. So fractured is the Coalition that no one bothered to inform the prime minister.
This tawdry intrigue is unresolved. Parry remains aggrieved. A fortnight ago, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield admitted Parry had confessed his concerns weeks before his resignation, but denies advising him to remain quiet. In the senate this week, Senator Penny Wong quizzed the minister: “Can the minister explain to the senate why he chose not to disclose questions about former senator Parry’s eligibility, given that the government had referred the then deputy leader of the Nationals, Senator Nash, to the High Court in the same circumstances? Why is there one rule for Senator Parry and one rule for Senator Nash?”
Fifield’s defence so far has been vague. It appears Parry squirmed between a rock and a hard place. Labor senator Jenny McAllister described his situation in the senate this week: “[Parry] was a good man who made a bad decision. But the point I would make is that he was a good man who made a bad decision on the basis of terrible advice from his colleagues, who really ought to have known better. He was actually put in quite an invidious position. He found out he had an issue – it must have been quite worrying for him – and he went to his colleagues for advice on how to handle it. From what’s been reported so far, the only conclusion that I can draw is that he was told that it was better for him to remain silent and wait for the outcome of the High Court cases. What’s now clear is that he should have come forward right away.”
Elsewhere, Greens leader Richard Di Natale says there’s been a cover-up.
The idea for an audit has been around for some weeks now. Cory Bernardi, among others, is a supporter. Turnbull, however, expresses patricianly irritation at the suggestion. “What is an audit?” he asks. “Does that mean somebody is going to undertake extensive genealogical research on every member of parliament and senator? Undertake extensive research into foreign laws?”
The idea that an audit might be diabolically hard is an absurd fiction – it would simply do what every parliamentarian was obliged to have done before they were elected. This bullying hyperbole is classic Turnbull. Regarding questions on auditing, the prime minister sounds either patronising – as when he dismisses the idea as naive – or personally offended – as when he construes it as grossly invasive.
What Turnbull didn’t say, but the electorate heard, was that an audit jeopardises his government and was to be desperately resisted. Until this week, Turnbull preferred the status quo – that is, a continuation of national water torture. “The parliament has the power to refer any member or senator to the High Court on this question of eligibility, and the High Court alone has the ability to determine it,” the prime minister said earlier this month.
That was then. Increasingly pressured by an opposition that, so far, hasn’t lost any parliamentarians to the crisis – though some remain in doubt – the government negotiated a disclosure system. Politicians will now be required to publicly reveal their ancestry and citizenship status by December 1. The system will resemble the pecuniary interests register, and can find parliamentarians in “serious contempt” for inadequate or misleading disclosures. It is belated but sensible. But much damage has already been wrought to the public’s faith. This week, George Brandis, the leader of the government in the senate, moved a motion requiring such, enumerating: “The purpose of the motion is to require honourable senators to provide to the Registrar of Senators’ Interests, not later than 5pm on Friday, 1 December 2017, a statement containing a declaration by the senator that at the time the senator nominated for election to the senate in this parliament he or she was an Australian citizen; a declaration that the senator is not a citizen of any country other than Australia; a declaration stating the place and date of the senator’s birth, the citizenship that the senator held at the time of birth, and, if he or she did not obtain Australian citizenship at birth, the date he or she was naturalised as an Australian citizen; so far as the senator is aware, the place and date of birth of the senator’s parents and grandparents; whether the senator has ever been a citizen of another country and, if so, which country or countries; and what steps the senator has taken to assure himself or herself that they have not inherited citizenship of another country from a parent or grandparent.”
He then reflected: “This has been a difficult time for the senate as an institution and indeed for the house of representatives, and it is important that all senators and indeed members act with integrity. In my belief, certainly those government senators and members who have been affected by these issues have done so.”
The citizenship crisis has compelled two byelections before Christmas. Barnaby Joyce will recontest – almost certainly successfully – the seat of New England. John Alexander will do the same in Bennelong, with a healthy margin but threatened by Labor’s selection of Kristina Keneally as his rival. It made for delighted copy – a tennis great versus a former premier. Despite the margin, Labor had famously taken the seat from John Howard in 2007, and was signalling confidence. “We’re going for government,” they said.
But for the majority of Australians, neither Labor’s adrenalin rush nor the celebrity contest is of much interest. The byelection is a function of something miserable, not a source of entertainment. It bears repeating that contained in rising global populism is not contempt for the idea of government, but for its performance and composition.
To scan the political blogs of this country’s newspapers is to find the day’s coverage frequently concluding with knowing lines. “Well,” they say, “it’s been another of those days.” Such lines betray a callow enthralment with chaos. But the vast majority of the country don’t find this circus stimulating; they find it dismal. An antidote to populism is honest and stable governance. We remain hopeful.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2017 as "A plague on both our houses".
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