Opinion

Echoes of Gillard in citizenship fight

A Labor staffer who was part of the wild ride that was the Gillard minority government says there’s more than a whiff of deja vu about what’s happening to the Turnbull operation right now. He says the process goes like this: the prime minister gets scared of their own shadow; they begin second-guessing themselves; timidity becomes the order of the day, as they fear any false move could cause the whole thing to collapse.

You know a government is racked by self-doubt when it spends more time back-pedalling after it has thrown the first punch. Junior woodchuck minister Angus Taylor was sent out earlier in the week to demand that Bill Shorten come clean and prove he has renounced his dual British citizenship. By midweek the government’s most senior strategist, Christopher Pyne, was refusing to join the fight. The prime minister never did.

Pyne judges that the Australian public “thinks it’s high time we got on with our day jobs of creating jobs and investment in our economy and reducing taxes helping their cost of living”. His assessment is in complete accord with Shorten’s, curiously. The day before, the Labor leader scoffed at the prime minister for getting his cronies to attack him. He challenged Malcolm Turnbull to come up with the proof against him. “If you haven’t got the evidence,” he said, “stop wasting the time of the nation and get back to your day job, standing up for jobs.”

Pyne’s tactical retreat on Shorten and the 11 other Labor MPs fingered as possible dual citizens is simple to explain. He is a political hardhead who understands it is the government that has everything to lose. It’s a political version of mutually assured destruction. As one Labor insider says: “He doesn’t want to unleash the nuclear option.” If Labor retaliated by referring government MPs to the Court of Disputed Returns, this parlous situation would become a full-blown crisis, if it’s not already.

There are at least three Liberals in the lower house who could face the same demands to produce evidence they have renounced dual citizenship. If they haven’t, the government would fall. This would precipitate byelections and in the current climate there is no guarantee they would win back their seats. Even if they did, a big swing against them would further erode the government’s authority and standing.

Two weeks ago, Attorney-General George Brandis warned the senate that members of parliament cannot be referred to the High Court in a fishing exercise. He said once a politician is declared duly elected they remain so. Anyone who wants to challenge this “must demonstrate why it is they claim that the senator or member of the house of representatives is disqualified”.

Desperate politics was behind the demands that Shorten prove his eligibility. He knew his situation thanks to his British father and rectified it before running for parliament. Those now referred to the court identified themselves being in breach or possibly in breach of section 44(i) of the Constitution. Make no mistake, however: junior minister Taylor was not freelancing. This was deliberate. The government’s spin doctors were also urging the press gallery to jump into the ring. Angles were suggested and gleefully taken up, particularly by the Coalition’s preferred propaganda outlets. The good idea at the time was to amplify voters’ doubts about the trustworthiness of the Labor leader. Scott Morrison gave us a taste of the focus group research propelling the tactics. Last week in parliament, he described Shorten as a “slithering snake”.

For the entire two weeks of the parliamentary session Shorten was variously described as an opportunist who sold out workers when a union leader and a conspirator who worked with foreign powers to bring down the Australian government. One of the government’s strategists was unapologetic. He says it showed Shorten is unwilling to come clean with the public. He accuses the Labor leader of hypocrisy for demanding the Nationals’ Matt Canavan release his documents.

The government’s submission to the High Court conceded that both Canavan and his leader, Barnaby Joyce, were dual citizens. At issue is how they came to be and when they knew it.

The parliamentary attack on Shorten’s character, accompanied as it was by media reports of his reluctance to produce documentary proof, failed miserably. In Monday’s Newspoll, Shorten’s unpopularity lessened while Turnbull’s grew. Both landed 20 points in the negative column. On the two-party preferred, the number that really counts, Labor increased its lead to a whopping eight points over the government.

What this shows is that it really is all about the prime minister and his ministers. Just as it was in the Gillard years. Sure, Tony Abbott was a ruthlessly effective opposition leader but in the end people voted against Labor and got the “unelectable” Abbott. It’s often said that oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them. There is more than a skerrick of truth in this. Attacking Shorten is no substitute for the government getting its act together.

Governments always pay the price. After all, voters expect them to provide a confident stability. This expectation is extremely hard to meet when the numbers are so tight. Keeping everybody together while repaying the debts that got you elected as leader is proving every bit as hard for Turnbull as it was for Julia Gillard. When anyone on the backbench can bring you down, and some give every indication they would rather the government fall than accommodate you, it’s almost impossible. Turnbull certainly isn’t manifesting the sort of political smarts he needs.

Gillard’s credibility was undermined in a similar dynamic. The numbers on her left forced her to break the “no carbon tax” promise, but at the same time those on her right were controlling the very issue that has ensnared Turnbull: same-sex marriage. Here was a progressive who, like an increasing number of Australians, had a partner rather than a husband and was a self-professed atheist, yet she voted against marriage equality. No one believed this was her real position: it was something foisted on her by the support she relied on from the socially conservative shoppies’ union. At least she allowed a free vote of the parliament, something everyone knows is Turnbull’s preference.

Turnbull’s conflict over the issue played out on commercial radio. The presenters on 2Day FM were surprised to hear that the prime minister and his wife will vote “yes” if the voluntary postal survey survives the High Court challenges. But his reluctance to condemn the “Stop the fags” posters in Melbourne with their blatant and scurrilous lies was disappointing.

Turnbull, ever with an eye to the free speech zealots over his right shoulder, urged both sides of the issue to have a respectful debate. Presenter Em Rusciano came back: “Your respectful debate, with all due respect, is in the toilet.” He seemed to have expected it: “You know, people will often say in any democratic debate, they will often say things that are hurtful and unfair and sometimes cruel, but that’s part of the debate … The only way to stop people saying things that you find hurtful is to shut down free speech.” Really?

The “Stop the fags” posters were hurtful and hateful but also wrong in their purported facts. It is not true that 92 per cent of children raised by same-sex parents are abused, for instance. Surely free speech also means someone with the moral authority of the prime minister vigorously rejecting lies when they are put to him, as they were in the interview. Surely he has a responsibility to reject vicious mistruths and set the tone by not giving licence to a campaign that can only erode the cohesion he is so proud to say is Australian society.

Turnbull made a strong point when he said that threats to traditional marriage are not gay people getting married. “The threats are desertion, cruelty, neglect, abandonment, indifference.” Indeed, and that puts him at odds with Tony Abbott, the evangelical Christian lobby and the Catholic bishops. They are all running the confected argument that freedom of religion is at stake. It’s bad enough that in our developed, civilised society religious organisations are exempt from laws that prevent discrimination while everyone else isn’t, but that they should use this dubiously granted privilege to try to impose their beliefs is appalling.

Turnbull had better hope that those campaigning hard for marriage equality deliver a convincing result. Anything less will endanger the government’s survival. Its one vote majority, if it still has one, will disappear on the floor of the house. Timidity will have run out of time.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 26, 2017 as "Dualies and Julia". Subscribe here.

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