Paul Bongiorno
Manus Island, dual citizenship and the postal result

The offer from the freshly minted New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, was genuine and in the name of not ignoring “the human face of what Australia is dealing with now”. The immediate focus was the humanitarian crisis unfolding in our name on Manus Island. Behind the refusal, as with everything in the Turnbull government, was the politics of survival and the desperate search for any advantage it can scrounge against Labor.

Ardern was renewing an offer, first made in 2013 to the Gillard Labor government, to take 150 refugees a year. It was vetoed by an incoming Tony Abbott before the process had begun. Had he not turned his back on it, nearly 600 would have been out of detention by now. Abbott’s reasoning, repeated this week by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, was that it would be a convenient back door for these refugees to reach their real goal of coming to Australia. As such, he argued, it would be a green light for people smugglers to get back into business.

Never mind that this argument is contradicted by his own department’s official figures, which show what is really stuffing the smugglers’ business model is boat turnbacks on the high seas by Border Force. There have been 31 in the two years of Operation Sovereign Borders. The boats keep coming because despairing people are risking even the harshness of indefinite detention on Manus and Nauru in the slim chance they might just make it through. The deterrence through cruel policy is working only to trash our nation’s human rights reputation.

Malcolm Turnbull is alive to this reality. After all, he eagerly negotiated a deal with then president Barack Obama for the United States to take 1250 refugees from Manus and Nauru in return for us taking refugees from South America. He even haggled with Donald Trump to honour it. Labor is right in seeing little difference between it and the New Zealand offer. What should not be missed, however, is Dutton warning last Saturday, ahead of the meeting between Turnbull and Ardern, that her offer was unwelcome.

At the news conference after the meeting, Turnbull resorted to Dutton’s four-year-old arguments against Labor and the NZ offer but pointedly left open the option of taking it up later. He said the priority “right now is the US arrangement”. Perhaps he fears Trump could renege if we tango with someone else. More likely, he doesn’t want to cross Dutton. The creation of the new Home Affairs ministry, against the objections of erstwhile allies in cabinet such as Julie Bishop and George Brandis, is as good an indication as any of Dutton’s clout and Turnbull’s craven need to appease him.

The hardline immigration minister is convinced voters are more impressed by his toughness and is unwilling to show even a hint of compassion. That’s for “weak”, bleeding-heart Labor. He may be right: the prime minister’s and opposition leader’s offices are being swamped by phone calls of complaint over the treatment of the detainees. The campaign, supported by The Saturday Paper and others, is falling on deaf ears. Many callers are demanding the 600 men stranded on Manus be brought to Australia. Labor is ignoring that, but urging the government to take up the New Zealand offer.

Dutton’s place in all of this has to be seen in the context of the pivotal role he is playing in watching Turnbull’s back. It is an increasingly difficult task. The government’s standing in the electorate – abysmally low if the persistent opinion polls are right – is sapping the prime minister’s authority. But so, too, is his habitual lack of touch when it comes to management of issues.

The mess created by the eligibility of members and senators to be in parliament in light of section 44(i) has sucked all the oxygen out of everything else the government might want to talk about. Here, however, a little bit of irony may be warranted. The High Court’s black letter law interpretation of the constitution was a major distraction from Employment Minister Michaelia Cash’s abuse of state power in launching a high-profile political witch-hunt on Labor’s Bill Shorten. Just what she knew and didn’t tell Turnbull is still to be plumbed.

On Monday, Turnbull belatedly followed Shorten’s changed stance on MPs having to disclose their citizenship status. For weeks, Shorten had argued against requiring politicians to produce proof they had taken the necessary steps to be constitutionally compliant. He saw it as a reversal of the presumption of innocence. But he was first to sniff voters’ increasing impatience with the issue. Turnbull slammed Labor’s “universal declaration” as a half-baked witch-hunt last weekend. Treasurer Scott Morrison rejected any sort of audit as a genealogical survey.

But the demise of Liberal senate president Stephen Parry last week had his conservative allies in the party turn eligibility into a leadership issue. Abbott described the imbroglio as a circus that needed a prime minister to take the hard decisions and end it all. His mates – Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews – called for an audit and warned that Australians were fed up with the dithering and weakness at the helm of the nation.

Cabinet accepted Turnbull’s proposal on Monday for members to make a declaration to parliament in the same way as they do to the register of pecuniary interests. He wants both houses to pass a resolution on eligibility and all would be given 21 days to comply. The timetable would push the issue into next year. And it is weak. Politicians often pay lip service, revealing their assets and investments with impunity. Independent Bob Katter, for example, refuses to declare his wife’s interests as an intrusion on her privacy. He hasn’t been fined or jailed, as laid down for non-compliance. The only real penalty for failing to register is embarrassment if the media or your political opponents find out.

The Greens were completely unimpressed. Richard Di Natale said it wouldn’t end the constitutional crisis for parliament and, more to the point, for a government with huge doubts over the eligibility of members. That is a stretch. Members remain eligible until the High Court rules otherwise. Although, in the case of Parry, he was so egregiously in breach he resigned after his gamble to stay shtum, encouraged by at least one cabinet minister, Mitch Fifield, but it all blew up when the court did not change the rules as Turnbull said it would.

Worse for Turnbull, Murphy’s law came into play again. He told a news conference the Liberal federal director had assured him no more of the party’s MPs were in strife. Within two hours, Sydney MP John Alexander admitted his father was British-born. He is now furiously looking for documentation from London to show his father renounced his British citizenship between 1949 – when the Australian citizenship came into force – and 1951, when Alexander was born. Good luck with that, but it does buy time.

Turnbull bravely told Fran Kelly on Radio National that if anyone is in breach they should step forward and byelections will be held. He must think he has a 15-seat majority. Two or three more Liberals – Josh Frydenberg, Alex Hawke or Julia Banks – would at the very least plunge the government into deep minority. Even though they represent safe or relatively safe seats, avoiding calls for an early general election would be hard, especially if a couple of Labor people were also thrown into the mix.

Midweek, Turnbull and Shorten met for two-and-a-half hours in which the prime minister gave a lot of ground. Shorten argued against giving MPs 21 days to get their paperwork in order, and didn’t agree to a special sitting of parliament at a cost of $700,000 at the end of December for any referrals to the High Court. Shorten’s argument is a strong one. This pasticcio – another fine Italian word for mess – has been in the headlines for three months. What have people such as John Alexander been doing? Besides, the Sykes v Cleary eligibility case was 25 years ago and has triggered dire warnings on nomination papers produced by the Australian Electoral Commission. All the MPs who were struck out signed up to being compliant with section 44.

On Wednesday, there’s sure to be an even bigger distraction for the government. The outcome of the marriage equality survey will be announced. The “Yes” camp is supremely confident: it has organised big rallies to coincide with the 10am result. Turnbull is determined to deliver on his promise that if the survey is affirmative, same-sex marriage will be quickly legislated through the parliament. It should be a chance for him to get on the front foot. After all, he promoted the cause for change. But such is the pessimism on the government backbench some say he can’t be counted on to make even this a winner.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2017 as "Nothing ventured, Dutton gained".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

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

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on August 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.