Paul Bongiorno
Turnbull’s charge of the fright brigade

With some pride Malcolm Turnbull led a large Australian contingent commemorating the 1917 charge of the Fourth Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba. It was a turning point of World War I. The courage and decisive derring-do of the Australian horsemen ensured a swift victory in a surprise dusk offensive. Unfortunately, the battle is no metaphor for the performance of Turnbull or his government.

The prime minister’s departure for the solemnities and official visit to Israel was delayed by two days after the High Court struck out from parliament two cabinet ministers. Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s demise caused the most immediate heartburn. Apart from the necessity of a byelection as soon as possible, there was the matter of who would be acting prime minister.

It should have been a simple decision. There was no deputy prime minister so the next in line, Liberal deputy leader Julie Bishop, should step in. Except the Nationals insisted their interim parliamentary leader, Nigel Scullion, should get the nod. And now that Barnaby is merely “Citizen Joyce”, as he calls himself, the former deputy PM was not reticent on Monday in telling the nation he was backing Scullion because he’s one of “our team”. Joyce even thinks it was a cabinet decision to overlook Scullion.

If it was, it in itself is a break with past protocol, as the rankings in the ministry are the prerogative of the prime minister. The arm wrestle is another indication that Turnbull is utterly spooked by the tenuous hold he has within his Coalition government, now exacerbated by the disappearance of his majority on the floor of the house. This he tries to hide with unconvincing bravado. At his Friday afternoon news conference in the prime ministerial courtyard, he affected the demeanour of someone who had just won the lottery. His message: “It’s business as usual.” That’s meant to assure the nation that the government will keep governing smoothly.

The fixed smile can’t mask the reality. Business as usual means more of the same dithering and internecine strife that makes a big issue of a simple decision such as who will mind the shop while the prime minister is away. The Nationals, of course, were smarting from the bollocking they were getting from Liberals angry that their sloppy inattention to detail had destabilised the government in the first place.

Their revenge came in the person of a very senior Liberal – senate president Stephen Parry – fessing up to the extreme likelihood that he, too, may be ineligible to be in parliament. Parry’s judgement was vindicated when the British Home Office agreed with him. Nationals senator John “Wacka” Williams was quick to point out the salutary lesson for the smartypants in the Liberal Party and possibly even the ALP. “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” he said.

When someone as senior as Parry – who signed off on the referral of six senators to the High Court – fails in his own regard, it throws a pall of illegitimacy over the whole parliament. The seven judges of the High Court could not have been plainer in making the point that everyone who nominates for parliament has to be diligent in complying with the constitution. They are required to sign a form saying they are not rendered ineligible by section 44(i).

Paragraph 60 of the judgement says candidates need to show at least the same diligence in vouching for themselves as others who challenge them after the discovery of an impediment. Referrals to the court for adjudication on eligibility arise after doubts have been raised. But the judges say the facts that led to the doubts “must always have been knowable”.

Federal politicians on the campaign trail in Queensland say they are finding little sympathy from voters. Wacka Williams dismisses the idea of a referendum to change the constitution, even though his good mate Citizen Joyce is calling for an avalanche of referenda on contentious issues. Williams says politicians are already on the nose, and such a referendum proposal would be seen as politicians trying to make life easier on themselves. Turnbull has asked a parliamentary committee to look at the issue and examine, among other things, how such a referendum would be worded.

Surely requiring that anyone who wants to serve in the Australian parliament renounce the citizenship of another country is entirely reasonable. The Americans put a very high premium on citizenship and the national interest. In 1985, media magnate Rupert Murdoch had to renounce his Australian citizenship so he could buy a television network. The birther movement against Barack Obama was built on the constitutional requirement that a United States president be American-born.

Turnbull’s willingness to consider a referendum for politicians’ comfort is in stark contrast to the fright he took at push-back from conservatives against a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to the parliament. To the dismay and outrage of Aboriginal leaders, he dismissed the advice from the Referendum Council in its Uluru statement as neither desirable nor capable of winning acceptance in a referendum. Labor’s Patrick Dodson retorted, “How would he know?” It is true Indigenous leadership had not worked out the details of their proposal. Indeed, they left these to the goodwill of the parliament in consultation with them to do that.

The government’s rejection came under cover of the furore caused by the High Court’s eligibility rulings. The irony is that Barnaby Joyce was the main protagonist in the internal opposition, characterising the “voice” as a third chamber of the parliament. It never was. An embittered Aboriginal leader, Noel Pearson, accused the PM of “an egregious dog whistle”.

Dodson, a long-time, respected participant in the reconciliation movement, says public sentiment could have been tested in a survey similar to the same-sex marriage mail-out. But in this, as in marriage equality and climate change, Turnbull is seen to capitulate to the right rather than to charge into battle for principles that were his trademark.

Not that this capitulation has done anything to stabilise the show behind him. If anything, it has emboldened his internal critics. The A-team, as Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews are dubbed, along with other conservatives such as Andrew Hastie, are preparing to cause as much chaos as they can to derail the private members’ bill legalising same-sex marriage. Alternative bills or 60 to 100 amendments are being talked about. There is simply no way the legislation would get through parliament in the final two sitting weeks this year if that were to happen. And that’s the whole idea.

Having foisted the now failed plebiscite and then the survey on Turnbull, the reactionaries are apparently now prepared to defy majority public opinion on the issue. Newspoll continues to find support running near 60 per cent from those who have returned their surveys. The high participation rate, upwards of 70 per cent, shows Australians are exercised by the issue and most want it resolved. They certainly don’t want it done at the expense of winding back Australia’s anti-discrimination laws in the name of religious freedom. The religious right, for example, is arguing it should be okay to deny a wedding cake to a black man or woman so long as they are gay. If Turnbull allows this $122 million exercise to end up a cynical farce, whatever credibility he has left will collapse along with that of his government.

Already, voters are far from impressed. The day the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was warmly welcoming Turnbull to Jerusalem, the Newspoll was giving the PM the cold shoulder for the 22nd successive time. The 54-46 result Labor’s way was replicated next day in the Essential poll. The six- to eight-point gap is seemingly entrenched. Any hope of ending this political death spiral is surely doomed if the government’s “business as usual” continues.

There has been speculation, principally in the Murdoch media, that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is positioning to make a lunge for the top job. Bolstering this view is her high profile and sure-footed performance as acting prime minister. Despite her media people assuring the gallery that she wouldn’t be doing much publicly, the minister had other ideas. She obliged morning radio and TV shows with live interviews, even though it meant getting up at 4am in Perth to do it.

But Bishop says she is happy being foreign minister. She is fulfilling that ambition and has no designs on Turnbull’s job. She would say that, wouldn’t she? But close friends claim she means it. There is talk she is even contemplating life after politics.

There is an alternative quietly working away, letting it be known they are ready to serve if and when needed: Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and Health Minister Greg Hunt as his possible deputy.

For a government that looks as though it is stumbling around in the dark, the next few weeks will be fraught to say the least. There’s even the prospect of another byelection in the seat of Lyne, as another Nationals MP, David Gillespie, fronts the High Court in mid-December.

Malcolm Turnbull was surely joking when he told reporters in Israel, “I have never had more fun in my life.” He was the only one laughing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2017 as "The charge of the fright brigade".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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