Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Queensland MPs threaten revolt

The Turnbull government’s overdraft with the Australian electorate is well and truly spent. And the prime minister’s desperate attempts to keep his creditors at bay have only served to worsen his precarious position. His decision to cancel next week’s sitting of the house of representatives is akin to shutting the doors to stop a run on the bank. It cannot work and it won’t.

This weekend’s Queensland state election gives context to the threat of a revolt led by an influential heavyweight Nationals senator from that state, Barry O’Sullivan. His threat to garner support for a commission of inquiry into the banks is one thing, but its real message is more menacing: he and the Coalition Nationals, like conservative backbench Liberals, have given up any hope of winning the next federal election, whenever it is held.

His state colleagues are increasingly pessimistic about wresting government from the Palaszczuk minority Labor government. But what is exercising the Nationals in particular is keeping brand damage to a minimum. While many of the issues playing out in the Sunshine State are separate from federal ones, the disarray of the Turnbull government in Canberra is definitely not helping.

While the prime minister may have some residual appeal in Brisbane, he is definitely not resonating on the Gold Coast or in the rest of regional Queensland. O’Sullivan believes it is because Turnbull is out of touch with the concerns of battlers and that nothing epitomises that more than his refusal to hold a royal commission into the banks. You could throw in the federal government’s support for trimming weekend penalty rates for good measure, a view strongly held by the Nationals’ resident rebel MP, George Christensen.

O’Sullivan hit the national airwaves on Monday to declare war on Turnbull. He said, “We have been loyal members to the Coalition but now we have to look after the National Party so we are there in the future.” He went on to undermine the credibility of the government’s strategy to bash the unions as a way of damaging Shorten’s Labor. “If it’s good enough for conservative governments to have royal commissions into trade unions, pink batts and detention centres,” O’Sullivan said, “then it is good enough to have one for the banks, as they are more corrupt than the unions and on a scale much bigger.” Imagine how well this went over with the prime minister and his employment minister, Michaelia Cash.

On Wednesday the government was hit with a Daily Telegraph report based on a huge leak out of cabinet. The story, not denied in its substance by either the prime minister or the treasurer, said cabinet discussed capitulating to the drive for a banking royal commission. Scott Morrison told ABC Radio that no one would find it puzzling that cabinet from time to time would discuss these sorts of issues. He was quoted vehemently disagreeing with such a drastic about-face.

Interestingly, putative leadership aspirant Peter Dutton – on a knife edge in his Brisbane electorate – was said to be open to the idea. Such a leak can only be designed to reinforce perceptions of a cabinet at war with itself and of Turnbull and Morrison being out of sync with public opinion. Dutton, on the other hand, is made to look more accommodating, a perception that gained strength from his concessions on the same-sex marriage vote.

Not to be missed in all of this is O’Sullivan’s claim that Turnbull had set the precedent for him to follow in pursuing a banks inquiry, and that is facilitating a private member’s bill. It’s the very route taken by moderate Liberals in their push for marriage equality. O’Sullivan is convinced that if a postal survey were held into a bank royal commission, it would be supported every bit as strongly as the marriage survey. There aren’t too many people in parliament who doubt that. A Greens banking inquiry bill sailed through the senate earlier in the year. The push hit a dead end in the house of reps with the government using its one-seat majority to stymie it.

That majority has since evaporated, with the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce and the Liberals’ John Alexander facing byelections. O’Sullivan was confident two of his party colleagues, George Christensen and Llew O’Brien, both Queenslanders, would be prepared to cross the floor to provide the numbers for an inquiry. Not a royal commission mind you, but the next best thing, an inquiry that reports to the parliament rather than to the governor-general.

Many saw Monday’s bombshell announcement canning next week’s sitting of the lower house as a panicked response from Turnbull and his chief parliamentary tactician, Christopher Pyne. It came barely two hours after O’Sullivan’s provocative interview on Radio National. But that does not bear scrutiny. Panicked it certainly was, but as Pyne himself admitted, the numbers will remain just as problematic until the end of the year. In fact, the self-auditing of members’ and senators’ citizenship eligibility could further cut a swath through both houses.

Midweek the Nick Xenophon Team senator Skye Kakoschke-Moore immediately quit the senate when she belatedly found out she was a dual citizen. There are sure to be others, but Labor believes its tight vetting protocols will offer it better insurance than the seemingly cavalier approach of the Liberals. Pyne and Turnbull gave cleaning up the citizenship imbroglio as a main reason for shutting down the house. But that doesn’t stack up either. Members remain members until either the High Court declares otherwise or until they unequivocally discover their ineligibility and quit.

The real reason for the parliamentary cut and run is that Turnbull cannot be sure his government will hold together on the floor of the house. As we have seen with the O’Sullivan manoeuvre, it is now every man and woman for themselves. Coalition discipline is fracturing. The cancelling of a scheduled sitting week is no trite matter. First and foremost, it is the pre-eminent forum for a government to be seen governing and to be held to account. But, as Pyne knows from his own behaviour as Tony Abbott’s tactician in the Gillard years, the opposition has greater opportunity to make the government look worse and chaotic. Even so, Abbott chimed in saying “you have to face the music”.

Turnbull’s attempt to change the subject with talk of tax cuts failed to help. The treasurer admitted the detailed work has not yet been done and had great difficulty explaining how you could give away billions of dollars’ worth of revenue to big business and ordinary punters while at the same time returning the budget to surplus. A magic pudding comes to mind.

Turnbull needs more than a sprinkle of fairy dust to save the show. He is hoping the tighter timetable for parliament to get marriage equality done will focus his MPs’ minds and distract them from other agendas. It may not give him the cover he craves. There appears to be an orchestrated campaign on his right flank supported and amplified by some influential urgers in sections of the Murdoch media.

Two stories burst into prominence during the week, both designed to destabilise the government. One was that a Julie Bishop–Scott Morrison leadership alternative was being put together. This has been gossiped about for a while, although the foreign minister gives the rumour very short shrift. She would do that, wouldn’t she, but it is hard to see those who are ideologically opposed to Turnbull supporting Bishop.

Indeed, Andrew Bolt, on his TV show and in his column, says a Coalition MP will quit the government when the house of reps gets around to sitting, plunging it into minority. The anonymous MP’s quotes do express the views of a significant number of Nationals and Liberals: “It’s about the values and direction [of the government] and if we will do anything to appeal to the conservative base.” How appealing to the conservative base will unite the government is anybody’s guess. Especially after the electorate just overwhelmingly voted yes to marriage equality in spite of that base.

But, disturbingly for the Liberals, the “broad church” concept has reached its use-by date, aided and abetted by Cory Bernardi’s breakaway Australian Conservatives alternative. John Howard was able to keep the show together despite doing everything he could to nobble the moderates. But the task has proved beyond Turnbull, if for no other reason than conservatives by definition aren’t into accommodation. They are also not into being on Team Turnbull for the sake of preserving the government. The view is “the philosophical difference is basically irreconcilable”.

Bill Shorten and the Labor Party are a model of stability by comparison, something the Labor leader hopes will be noticed by the voters in Howard’s old seat of Bennelong. Former tennis champ John Alexander certainly faces a tough match to save the seat, and probably the prime minister.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 25, 2017 as "Beautiful one day, Turnbull the next". Subscribe here.

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

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