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The legislative record of the 45th parliament is hidden behind a sideshow of scandal and division – and even then it’s not very impressive. By Mike Seccombe.

Turnbull’s parliamentary circus

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Sydney this week.
Credit: AAP Image / Dean Lewins

Hope springs eternal in the conservative commentator’s breast.

For a few months, beginning near the end of parliament in December and running up to the start of this parliamentary year, the nation was treated to a series of optimistic predictions that things were looking up for the Turnbull government.

In The Australian, Chris Kenny was one of the first out of the box, declaring in mid November, just after same-sex marriage was overwhelmingly endorsed by the Australian people, that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was rightfully “basking in unqualified success”.

Turnbull’s name was “etched in rainbow forever”, Kenny opined. More importantly, the success of the same-sex postal vote had underlined Turnbull’s authority in the government, welded an alliance between him and the more pragmatic elements on the party right, and shown Tony Abbott et al to be on the wrong side of history.

A succession of similar pieces from the usual conservative media boosters appeared over parliament’s two-month Christmas break, suggesting a change of fortune for the government and citing factors such as the forced resignation of Labor senator Sam Dastyari, the fact the citizenship imbroglio had sucked in a number of Labor members, and the health of the economy.

Not all were as cautious as Kenny, who at least had the sense to conclude that, although Turnbull was “on the front foot for the first time in many months”, the question remained: “How long can he stay there?”

We got the answer to that on the very day parliament resumed, February 5: No time at all.

Jim Molan, former major-general and hard-right ally of Tony Abbott, was not even sworn in to the Senate before it was revealed that he had shared on social media anti-Muslim propaganda from the fascist, racist and violent Britain First movement. Molan was not the slightest bit contrite.

Even before that little blaze stopped smouldering, others broke out. Former attorney-general George Brandis, in a final speech before heading off to his new post as Australian high commissioner in London, berated those on the Liberal Party’s right who did not respect judicial process and the rule of law. The minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, took it personally and hit back. Then Brandis’s replacement as attorney-general, Christian Porter, found himself at odds with every major news organisation in the country over new foreign interference and espionage laws that journalists said would criminalise public interest journalism. On top of this, the government was getting whacked from various quarters about its efforts to amend electoral laws in such a way as to silence civil society lobbying.

This was not even close to the worst of it. The worst began on day two of parliament, when Sydney’s Daily Telegraph published on page one the picture of Barnaby Joyce’s very pregnant lover and former media adviser, Vikki Campion.

The story has been a rolling catastrophe for the government ever since. Here we had the deputy prime minister, a Catholic conservative who so recently campaigned against same-sex marriage as an affront to the sanctity of heterosexual unions, exposed as a hypocrite. There is doubt about the duration of the affair and the degree to which it overlapped with his marriage. There is even doubt, sown by Joyce himself, about whether he is the father of Campion’s baby. That’s the moral part.

Then there is the public accountability part, about the circumstances in which Campion moved between National Party ministerial offices, the use of various parliamentary entitlements, and the fact that Joyce and his lover lived rent-free in accommodation provided by a millionaire party backer.

And there is the straight-out ugly politics part, surrounding the leaking of damaging details of Joyce’s private life, the divisions within the government between those who hoped it would blow over – most notably his deputy, Bridget McKenzie, who gave a “rolled gold” promise he would survive – and those who wanted to blast him out, most notably Turnbull himself. And this was before Turnbull’s decision to institute a ban on sex between ministers and staffers.

At the news conference where he announced his changes to the ministerial code, Turnbull upbraided his deputy prime minister for having committed “a shocking error of judgement” that “set off a world of woe” for his family. He invited Joyce to consider his position. Joyce’s response was to dig in, to accuse Turnbull of interfering in the affairs of the Nationals, and to damn his intervention as “inept”.

Joyce eventually quit and was replaced by Michael McCormack, a non-entity best known for the extremely homophobic views in his past. Divisions within the Nationals and within the Coalition continue to play out in leaks to various media.

No scandal can dominate the news indefinitely, though. And after three weeks, on the last day of February, the Joyce affair was supplanted by another of the government’s more accident-prone ministers.

Jobs Minister Michaelia Cash, for reasons we will come to later, has trouble holding on to staff. In a Senate estimates committee, as she was answering questions about recent appointments from Labor’s Doug Cameron, she suddenly snapped.

“If you want to start discussing staff matters, be very, very careful,” she warned.

“Because I am happy to sit here and name every young woman in Mr Shorten’s office over which rumours in this place abound. If you want to go down that path today I. Will. Do. It.

“… Do you want to start naming them for Mr Shorten to come out and deny any of the rumours that have been circulating in this building for many, many years?”

It was an outrageous and baseless slur, and Cash eventually was forced to withdraw, although she refuses to apologise. At her subsequent appearance before the committee, she entered the room behind the cover of a mobile whiteboard.

As he did for Molan, Turnbull came forward to defend the indefensible. Cash was bullied into it, he said, which was untrue.

Strong prime ministers past – Fraser, Howard, Keating and particularly Bob Hawke – did not shy away from publicly slapping down any of the troops who crossed the line. But not Turnbull.

Instead it was his predecessor, Tony Abbott, who put the blame where it belonged. He said Cash – who, it should be noted, was one of the right-wingers who betrayed Abbott by voting for Turnbull – had suffered a “brain snap” and engaged in a “cheap smear”.

The bottom line is that the Turnbull government politically lost every single day of the opening sitting weeks of 2018. Then, on Monday, it lost another Newspoll.

Once again, the government trailed the Labor opposition, 53–47. Worse, Turnbull’s personal standing also tanked. His dissatisfaction rating was 57 per cent, versus 56 for Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. And Turnbull’s lead as preferred prime minister shrank from 45–31 at the start of the parliamentary year to 37–35.

Famously, when Turnbull challenged Abbott for the prime ministership, he cited 30 consecutive Newspoll losses as a reason. As of Monday, the Turnbull government’s score is 28. Just two more losses, as Abbott noted on Sydney radio after this week’s result, and it will fall to Turnbull “to tell us all why the test doesn’t apply in his case”.

In anticipation of that seemingly inevitable day, Turnbull has been trying for some months to redefine the measure of failure. These days, he wishes people would not focus on the metric of polls, and would look instead at the “substantive” reasons he cited on the day of the coup. Those related to poor governance, dysfunctional cabinet processes, captain’s calls, and the failure to translate liberal values into policies that excite the electorate and inspire economic confidence. Each point is worth considering.

 

The 45th parliament was messy from the start.

This week, tracking across the 342 pieces of legislation introduced since the 2016 election, and setting it against the sideshows that have instead dominated this government’s record, The Saturday Paper will try to understand why. Even by Canberra standards, this parliament has been a circus. Consider the following its playbill.

Partly, the reason for this parliament’s dysfunction, at least at the beginning, was that instead of following the convention of bringing down a budget on the second Tuesday in May, and then devoting at least a couple of solid weeks to its contents, Turnbull brought it down a week early and then raced off to the July 2 election.

So when the parliament first sat on August 30, the legislative agenda was unusually crowded. As well as the usual budget-related matters, a whole lot of other legislation was introduced, which had stacked up over months. There was a raft of anti-union legislation, including the establishment of the Registered Organisations Commission and the re-establishment of the Building and Construction Commission. There were amendments to the Broadcasting Act to abolish the 75 per cent audience reach rule and the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule. There were also a couple of punitive measures making it easier to cancel visas, and a bunch of social security changes making it harder for young people to get benefits. Among many other things.

And of course, in September, there was the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016, providing for a compulsory in-person vote in a national plebiscite that would ask Australians: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”

In all, there was something of a logjam in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, the Senate had little to do. On the fourth sitting day, when the government had no bills ready for debate, Coalition senators were forced to fill time with speeches about one another and their favourite TV shows. At the same time, government members and MPs were having difficulty adjusting to their wafer-thin majority. Before the end of the first week, the government had lost three votes in the House and only barely managed to get enough people back in time to vote down a royal commission into the banks.

These were not big things, perhaps; but they were indicative of very clunky machinery of government.

Governing in the 45th parliament was never going to be easy. Labor was playing a clever tactical game, and the government was working with a fractured and fractious Senate crossbench. But the real problem then, as now, was internal.

One early example was the heat Turnbull got in the very first party room meeting from right-wingers demanding the watering-down of the Racial Discrimination Act, with South Australian reactionary Cory Bernardi leading the charge. It was not an economic issue, it was not going to excite the voters, but it mattered to a section of the party base.

Another example was the reaction of conservatives to one of the few genuine equity measures on the legislative agenda, a plan to wind back some of the more egregious superannuation benefits accruing for high-income earners. Even before the election, Nationals MP George Christensen had threatened to cross the floor to oppose them. In mid October the changes were watered down. Christensen claimed a win.

More problematically, he got a taste for grandstanding. A government with a one-seat majority, he realised, can be held hostage by one member. He would do it again.

By this time the government’s Newspoll ratings had already slipped into negative territory. The tried and true poll booster, ever since the days of John Howard, was to drum up fears on terrorism and national security.

And so, on September 15, some particularly draconian legislation was introduced, one piece allowing control orders to apply to children as young as 14 and another allowing jailed “high-risk terrorist offenders” to be held even after the conclusion of their prison sentences. Civil libertarians were outraged, but Labor went along. The polls continued to slide.

The government’s problems were multiplying. By October, the plan for a compulsory plebiscite on same-sex marriage was dead, blocked in the Senate. George Brandis said Labor had “driven a stake through the heart of marriage equality”. Turnbull accused Labor of “wringing every ounce of political gain out of this debate”. In truth, the blame lay with the Coalition’s social conservatives, who refused to countenance a conscience vote.

Also in October, Brandis was in big trouble. It was a complicated story, but the essence of it is that Brandis sought to change how advice could be sought from the federal solicitor-general, Justin Gleeson, who resigned in protest. Brandis held his job, but was seriously besmirched ethically. He had been shown to be overreaching.

A lot of controversial bills directed at young Australians were introduced that month. There was legislation aimed at clawing back more in student loans, as well as the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Youth Jobs Path: Prepare, Trial, Hire) Bill 2016, which purported to help young unemployed by getting them work experience. Critics rightly saw it as a scheme to provide cheap labour to small businesses.

Then there was the backpacker tax shambles. The government proposed several measures to screw a bit more money out of working holidaymakers, the biggest of which was a proposal to tax their earnings at 32 per cent from the first dollar earned. There ensued months of conflict as the legislation bounced between chambers and across the crossbench, with various proposals for various rates. All the while, the Nationals’ farming constituency was getting more agitated that it would lose its workforce. Finally, on the last sitting day of the year, the government struck a deal with the Greens. They would vote for a 15 per cent tax and the government would put an extra $100 million into landcare.

While all this was going on, legislation giving a tax cut to middle- and high-income earners was passed. This equated to good economic management, at least by Turnbull’s definition, but nobody seemed to notice or appreciate it. Labor remained firmly in front 52–48, as it had been for three months.

As the political year moved towards its close, the legislative logjam was clearing.

The Australian Building and Construction Commission legislation, one of the triggers for the double-dissolution election, passed in November, along with other anti-union measures. The media reform bill went through on the same day as the backpacker tax.

But the government’s failures and fights and controversies kept on obscuring its successes. There was a big fight with the Nationals over the import ban on the Adler shotgun. Two backbenchers voted against the government, and others, including three ministers, Nigel Scullion, Fiona Nash and Matt Canavan, abstained.

Peter Dutton managed to stir ethnic and religious tensions, singling out the Lebanese Muslim community for fostering terrorism, and, inter alia, criticising former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser for having let them into Australia. Turnbull, wary as ever of upsetting the party’s right-wing, defended him.

There were problems on the crossbench, too. Bob Day, representing the Family First Party but voting more or less as a member of the Coalition, was shown to be ineligible to sit because his taxpayer-funded Adelaide electorate office was in a building in which he had a financial interest.

On November 7 both Day and One Nation Senator Rod Culleton – who had a bankruptcy judgement against him at the time of his election – were referred to the High Court. The court decided against them. It emerged Turnbull had been aware of Day’s electoral office situation for nearly three months, and kept quiet about it.

Parliament rose on December 1, but Turnbull’s troubles remained. The following week, under pressure from climate-change sceptics and the fossil-fuel backers in the Coalition, he rejected the establishment of an emissions intensity scheme as a means of cutting Australia’s ballooning greenhouse gas emissions. He did it despite advice to the government from the Australian Energy Market Commission that it would not only cut emissions but cut $15 billion from electricity costs over a decade.

And so the government limped towards the holiday season, hoping for a better year in 2017.

It wasn’t to be.

 

On February 7, just before the religious service to mark the start of the parliamentary year, Cory Bernardi told Turnbull he was quitting the Liberal Party. He followed up with a withering speech about how the government was insufficiently right-wing, and was pictured in the news wearing a red hat, emblazoned with the slogan “Make Australia Great Again”. Well, it worked for Donald Trump.

Right-wingers in the Liberal Party right had seen it coming and were prepared to milk it for maximum embarrassment. We were reminded that Tony Abbott had warned the previous December: “The first duty of the leader is to keep the party together.” Others in the pro-Abbott, anti-Turnbull camp chimed in. Senator Eric Abetz did the rounds of the media, droning the old cliché: “Disunity is death.”

In the first question time of the year, Labor’s deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek, quoted Abbott’s line, and cheekily asked: “How’s it going?” It was out of order, but it was effective. All the blogs chortled over it.

This rather overshadowed Turnbull’s own populist announcement of cuts to the entitlements of former politicians, including the gold travel pass. Nor was he helped by the fact Senator Ian Macdonald had found his way to Sky News to bitterly complain about the entitlement cuts.

Things were not going easily on the legislative front, either. A government megabill that tied increased spending on child care to cuts in family tax benefits, and a raft of previously rejected punitive welfare cuts from the 2014 budget, met strong resistance in the Senate.

Treasurer Scott Morrison tried to play hardball, threatening that if the Senate didn’t support the $3 billion of spending cuts in the clumsily named Omnibus Savings and Child Care Reform Bill, the National Disability Insurance Scheme might not be properly funded.

A couple of days later, following negative media about this attempt to hold the disabled hostage, including an eloquent condemnation of the government’s political games by Paralympic wheelchair racing champion Kurt Fearnley, Morrison backed down. Social Services Minister Christian Porter tried to claim that the NDIS was never under threat. This was bunk.

The treasurer’s tone-deafness was further displayed on February 9, when he brandished a big lump of coal – given to him by the Minerals Council – in question time. Perhaps he hoped it would redeem him with right-wing colleagues who held him a traitor for abandoning Abbott in the leadership spill.

The perception of a frustrated and ideologically riven government was further emphasised on February 23, when Abbott unveiled his “conservative manifesto”, calling for cuts to immigration, the slashing of the renewable energy target, the abolition of the Human Rights Commission, and the gutting of the capacity of the Senate to be a roadblock to the government’s agenda. He warned the Coalition was on a “drift to defeat” unless it won back the conservative base.

The Turnbull government ended the first session of 2017 at record poll lows, behind Labor 55–45.

 

The bad news kept coming. George Christensen quit as Nationals whip so he could speak more freely. He may be a grandstander, but he read the mood in the bush, where people saw the government as backing the big end of town against the battlers. Christensen and other Nats agitated for a royal commission into the banks. The Fair Work Commission decided to cut penalty rates, gifting Labor the opportunity to contrast the government’s support for wage cuts for the poor with tax cuts for the wealthy and for big corporations.

March 2 is Harmony Day. It was also the day on which the government, to placate right-wingers in the party and the media, introduced legislation to water down the Racial Discrimination Act. The rationale for it was memorably encapsulated by George Brandis, in answer to a question from Indigenous Labor Senator Nova Peris a few weeks later: “People have the right to be bigots, you know.”

As it happened, the Senate was insufficiently concerned with the rights of bigots. The big changes the hard right hoped for were later defeated, after eating up months of government focus.

The government made other, desperate tactical decisions. It sought to portray Labor Leader Bill Shorten as a friend of billionaires, who betrayed the workers. They hammered it for months and it didn’t work. More recently, the line has been that he is the most anti-business Labor leader in decades.

The government also decided to make energy policy a battleground, notwithstanding the fact that it had – and still has – no coherent energy policy of its own. In March, Turnbull announced the ACCC would inquire into power prices. The government line was that renewables were pushing them up. Alas when findings came out months later, they were that the main drivers of high prices were network costs and wholesale pricing. The government touted the Energy Security Board’s prediction of savings on household power bills of up to $115 a year, compared with current forecasts for bills between 2020 and 2030. It then had to admit there was no substantial modelling to back up the claim.

Even the government’s wins were somewhat pyrrhic. When the government got its welfare cuts through the Senate with the support of One Nation, much of the reportage focused on one senator with personal experience of welfare dependency, Jacqui Lambie, and her stories of being unable to afford shoes for her kids.

Being dependent on government, she said, was “shameful and embarrassing, but we do it not because we want to but because circumstances put us there. And for you to take more money off those people … you have no idea how bloody tough it is.”

The impression of a government balancing its finances on the poor was exacerbated by the myriad stories of the dysfunction of the newly automated Centrelink debt recovery system. The robodebt shambles was an embarrassment for months. Ministers spent their time defending a broken and punitive system, in the face of all available evidence to the contrary.

On March 30, the government provided financial relief for some. It got tax cuts for business with a turnover up to $50 million past the Senate.

And so to the May budget, which was well received for about a day – except by the big banks, which were hit with a new levy, expected to raise $6.2 billion over four years. Political and media attention then focused on the budget’s centrepiece, the proposed corporate tax cuts for big companies. The cost of the promise was not $50 billion, as previously claimed, but $65 billion.

Fairfax parliamentary blogger Stephanie Peatling wondered whether there was “some unwritten rule” that the Turnbull government could never go more than “about 36 hours before something happens to derail it”.

It’s a good question. Almost every major initiative met controversy. The schools funding package, labelled Gonski 2.0, met huge internal resistance, particularly from conservative Catholics, prominent among them another Abbott loyalist, Kevin Andrews. After several messy weeks, it had to be amended with a special deal for the Catholic sector.

The review of energy policy by chief scientist Alan Finkel hit the brick wall of climate denialism. A June 13 emergency meeting of the Coalition parties ran almost three hours and sentiment was overwhelmingly against Finkel’s reform recommendations. It was “chaos” and “a slaughter”, according to leaked accounts.

The latter half of 2017 can be summed up easily, for two issues dominated: same-sex marriage and the ever-expanding problem of parliamentarians’ dual citizenship.

Six months were spent in this quagmire. No policy issue broke through, although a couple of scandals did. Both bore the fingerprints of Michaelia Cash.

In September, the ABCC, the body the government fought a double dissolution to re-establish, suffered an embarrassing setback. Its head, Nigel Hadgkiss, resigned his $426,000 job for breaching the very workplace laws he was supposed to enforce. The responsible minister, Cash, had known about the allegations against him for almost a year.

In October the government’s other newly legislated union-busting body, the Registered Organisations Commission, staged raids on the Australian Workers’ Union, allegedly seeking documents relating to a donation made to GetUp! more than a decade ago. It was a clear political stunt, rendered more obviously so when Cash’s office tipped off the media, who arrived before the police.

Cash repeatedly denied to a Senate estimates committee that her office was involved. A media adviser promptly resigned and her office has since had a high turnover of staff. A lot more questions remain to be answered, and Cash will not avoid them by making slurs against female staffers or hiding behind whiteboards.

 

That, in brief, is the Turnbull circus. The 45th parliament of Australia has been a year-and-a-half of distraction.

When Turnbull surpasses the Abbott record of 30 straight Newspoll losses, as he surely will, it won’t matter if he pleads for people to judge him on “substantive” issues of governance. Not so long as every single parliamentary session devolves into incompetence, scandal and white-anting, and every legislative achievement is overshadowed by scandal or made insubstantial by its pettiness. For this government, hopelessness springs eternal.

Turnbull promised the restoration of orderly cabinet process, and it has, by most accounts, got better than it was under Abbott. But a lot of freelancing still goes on, not least by Turnbull himself. Perhaps the best example was his 2016 thought bubble about fixing the distribution of the GST, which got Western Australia very excited. Then absolutely nothing happened. In any case, cabinet is apt to be run over by the party room at regular intervals.

Turnbull promised to end captain’s calls. But he has made a number and some of them – like the decision to call a royal commission into juvenile detention in the Northern Territory – were not bad. His unilateral amendment to the ministerial code was less successful.

As for turning Liberal values into exciting policies? Ask the average voter to nominate a government policy and the polls show they will say “tax cuts for big business”. It’s the only one that comes up, and not with approval. Presumably, this is not what Turnbull had in mind.

It is exciting government, though. In the way circuses are.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 9, 2018 as "Counting the rings in Turnbull’s circus". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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