Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
The mad Katter’s tea party

He may be the “Mad Katter” to friends and foe alike but the idiosyncratic independent MP from Queensland was razor sharp in his diagnosis of this week’s descent into absurdity. Assessing Malcolm Turnbull’s handling of the citizenship crisis threatening his hold on power, Bob Katter said: “This is not a decision-maker who has a lot of political acumen.”

Katter’s immediate beef was with Turnbull’s treatment of himself as a potential kingmaker on the crossbench. Promised regular meetings, there has only been one. “It was scheduled for one hour and lasted 20 minutes,” according to Katter, who says the prime minister got quickly bored, frequently checked his watch, and called the meeting to an abrupt halt. “I mean, to do that to a person whose vote you might need to survive?”

With reports of Turnbull frantically checking assurances of confidence and supply with some of the five MPs who sit on the crossbench in the house of representatives, Katter had a curt response. He said that in light of the deputy prime minister’s citizenship questions, all bets were off and he wouldn’t be guaranteeing supply and confidence to the Turnbull government.

Barnaby Joyce is claiming he was an unwitting New Zealand citizen, although he knew his father was born there. In recent months he has stressed how his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were all born in Tamworth, as was he. He fell short of claiming a virgin birth but conveniently ignored his patrimony in several interviews. He strangely claimed he checked with New Zealand and they told him he wasn’t registered as a citizen. In light of subsequent confirmation from the New Zealand prime minister, Bill English, that Joyce was indeed a Kiwi, this earlier claim seems highly dubious as far as the Opposition is concerned.

Katter is every bit as hardline as Labor and the Greens, insisting that the only decent course of action would be for Barnaby Joyce to stand aside from cabinet and go to the backbench pending the adjudication of the High Court. Katter says there are two sets of rules at work here: one for Matt Canavan, a less senior minister in the Nationals, and one for the number two in the Coalition government, Joyce. Canavan stood aside from his cabinet position and remains in the senate but does not vote while his status as an unwitting Italian citizen is similarly scrutinised. He maintains his decision to behave in this way was his own as he judged it best for the government. This was a view Turnbull clearly accepted a couple of weeks ago. Canavan confirms he had a conversation along these lines with the prime minister.

At the time of Canavan’s demise, the Joyce office was briefing that section 64 of the constitution could also be a problem if he remained in cabinet. That section puts a time limit of three months on an unelected person being able to be a minister of the crown. This version did the rounds of the government backbench but Canavan says it was never raised with him.

Katter says Turnbull can have no credibility with the Australian people for such a “hypocritical double standard” and says he doesn’t deserve to have any either. Fuelling Katter’s indignation is his literal understanding of section 44(i) of the constitution. He says it’s unequivocal: you can’t owe allegiance to a foreign power and be a member of the Australian parliament. This, of course, is a quintessentially conservative, “black letter” approach to the law. Turnbull is counting on the court to be more expansive or “activist” in its interpretation.

Malcolm Turnbull, the lawyer of Spycatcher fame, where he took on the might of the British government over official secrets, has insisted all week the High Court will exonerate Joyce. He rightly points out that previous judgements have already shown section 44(i) is not without limits. He cites dissenting views from one of the court’s most activist judges, Sir William Deane, to support his confidence. In the past, at least, the majority of judges on the bench did not accept this view.

Brushing aside any niceties about the separation of powers, which enshrine the independence of the judiciary, Turnbull told parliament Joyce was “qualified to sit in the house and the High Court will so hold”. But his assertion that the Kiefel High Court will make new case law to let his government off the hook is very unwise. The High Court has often confounded high-powered legal advice to governments. A number of constitutional experts don’t share Turnbull’s view that the argument of “ignorance of the law” is a very strong one. Professor George Williams, for one, says, “the normal rule is that ignorance of the law is no excuse”. We shall see.

The Joyce imbroglio – and the Nationals senator and deputy leader Fiona Nash’s subsequent revelation of possible British citizenship – has had the government flailing around all week, as it desperately tried to shift the blame on to Labor for a mess very much of its own making. Usually the idea is, when you are in a deep hole, you don’t keep digging. Somebody forgot to tell that to Turnbull, his foreign minister, Julie Bishop, or his attorney-general, George Brandis. Instead they looked for a dead cat to drag across the room. The one they found was a senior staffer in Penny Wong’s office.

Marcus Ganley worked for former New Zealand Labour prime minister Helen Clark and was an old colleague of current Labour MP Chris Hipkins, who was a fellow staffer. After the Greens senator Scott Ludlam discovered he was still a New Zealand citizen and quit the senate on very senior legal advice, Ganley called Hipkins. He says he discussed citizenship issues with his old mate but did not ask him to follow up with a question in parliament. Hipkins’ curiosity was prompted, though, and he put a question on notice to New Zealand Internal Affairs  Minister Peter Dunne in general terms and not mentioning Barnaby Joyce.

Penny Wong told the senate she was unaware of the conversation and inexplicably said her staffer had been “unwise”. Unwise for what? For giving the government the thinnest of pretexts to allege an international conspiracy? Really? Turnbull apparently thinks so. He told his party room: “Bill Shorten wants to steal government by entering into a conspiracy with a foreign power.”

In language resonant of Cold War conspiracies, with agents of Soviet Russia seeking to bring down duly elected Western governments, Bishop said: “Bill Shorten has sought to use a foreign political party to raise serious allegations in a foreign parliament designed to undermine confidence in the Australian government.” She then went on to say it put at risk “relations with New Zealand government”.

Peter Dunne took to Twitter to debunk this unbelievable confection. He said, “This is so much utter nonsense – while Hipkins’ questions were inappropriate, they were not the instigator, Australian media inquiries were.”

Undeterred, the government doubled down on Wednesday morning, still characterising New Zealand, our ANZUS ally, as a hostile foreign power.George Brandis attempted to censure Wong for, among other things, “causing her chief of staff to engage in inappropriate conduct with a foreign political entity for the purpose of causing damage to Australia”. In a further embarrassment for the government, the senate rejected this for the tosh that it was. Think about it – the government was accusing Shorten, Wong and Labor of treason for daring to talk to someone in New Zealand about citizenship requirements. Besides, as Wong said, she had nothing to do with the fact Barnaby Joyce’s father was a New Zealander. Nor was it her fault Joyce was sloppy in his dealings with section 44 requirements.

The absurdity of it all can only be explained by the visceral panic Turnbull is in – the fear he is about to lose his majority and the claims to legitimacy it brings. Labor’s Tony Burke was excoriating in exploiting this fear. Noting that the parliament had unanimously referred Joyce to the High Court, he said: “This is a government that has had to, for the first time in the history of this country, go to the High Court and ask whether or not it has in fact had a majority.” While the government’s legitimacy is in doubt, he insisted, Joyce should at the very least stand down from cabinet, as Canavan did, and, like his upper house colleague, refrain from voting. 

That, of course, would immediately rob the government of its doubtful majority, and bring the crossbench into play. Katter has already started agitating behind the scenes. He has been approaching Liberal and National backbenchers to join him in forcing Turnbull into minority. He has lost faith in the government’s agenda and performance and believes the time has come for “a better Australia”.

The time for a less chaotic government is certainly overdue.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 19, 2017 as "The mad Katter’s tea party". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.

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