Paul Bongiorno
Nationals turn on Turnbull

The theatre of the absurd that was the British TV comedy Monty Python’s Flying Circus has a contemporary rival in the Australian parliament, or more precisely the federal Coalition government. But next week few will be laughing as the increasingly restive Nationals begin to implement a strategy of publicly distancing themselves from the Turnbull Liberals. At stake is the survival not only of the prime minister but of the entire show.

The Python skit that started with a breathless report of “trouble at mill” comes to mind. There’s more than enough trouble at the mill attempting to grind out the final sitting days of 2017. Malcolm Turnbull’s attempt to run and hide from the Coalition party rooms this week by cancelling the house of representatives seems to have emboldened his critics.

They have done everything they could think of to take any shine off Turnbull with the marriage equality bill passing the senate. Having failed there to extend discrimination against the queer community in the name of “freedom”, they are now promising to show the government’s deep divisions in the lower house debate. They have brushed aside that the bill is not a government bill and a free vote applied – something that was a Coalition election promise. So differences of opinion should not be an issue unless, for ulterior motives, someone wants to make them one.

Someone sure did. The Australian on Wednesday carried the headline “Liberal fury as freedom laws denied”. The report said Turnbull was facing hostility as “an overwhelming majority” of Liberal senators voted for amendments that were all comprehensively rejected by the rest of the senate aided and abetted by six Liberal moderates.

Tasmanian right-wing Liberal powerbroker Eric Abetz made the extraordinary claim at the end of the senate debate that his colleague Dean Smith’s private member’s bill was not what the Australian people voted for. He said it extended beyond same-sex couples to people of every kind of gender fluidity. Seriously. Smith quietly pointed out the bill doesn’t specify gender, it just allows people of eligible age who are not already married to marry.

Out of the blue, Victorian backbench National Andrew Broad stridently attacked Turnbull in a way that his outspoken colleague from Queensland George Christensen so far hasn’t. Broad told the ABC he thought there has been a complete lack of leadership from Turnbull over the handling of same-sex marriage. This is a charge hard to fathom given it was the Nationals who demanded and got a plebiscite, albeit by phone, as a condition of going into Coalition after the dumping of Tony Abbott.

Broad, like the other opponents of marriage equality, is sore that the prime minister would not kowtow to their demands to make Australia’s anti-discrimination laws even weaker as a consolation prize for their defeat at the hands of the people. Their refusal to accept the fact that the Dean Smith bill is itself a compromise worked out across the parliament, with religious freedom assured and even extended further than many in Labor and the Greens thought necessary. Apparently the extensive senate inquiry process that informed the bill was reason to reject it. Michael Sukkar, one of three Liberal frontbenchers who spoke out against the bill, said it was evidence enough to show it was flawed.

There’s no doubt fuelling much of this agitation is the 8 per cent collapse in the Liberal National Party vote at last Saturday’s Queensland election. While Turnbull insists it was a state election on state issues, this is doing nothing to placate MPs reeling from the result. One, Scott Buchholz, forced to sit as a Liberal in Canberra despite his longstanding National Party roots, including as a senior staffer for Barnaby Joyce, is despairing. Colleagues say he’s increasingly down in the dumps and they wouldn’t be surprised if he quit to sit on the crossbench.

In fact, this coming week will be a test of predictions, from key anti-Turnbull commentator in the Murdoch media Andrew Bolt, that a Coalition MP will do just that when parliament returns. All suspects, like Buchholz, have denied it to numerous journalists.

Veteran Queensland Liberal senator Ian Macdonald now believes the switch to Turnbull was a political disaster. He told Sky News the LNP was bleeding voters to other right-wing parties. They are, but ironically it was worse in the 1998 state election when there was no amalgamated party. Then, Pauline Hanson picked up 20 per cent of the vote and 11 seats. She’s now struggling to win one or two.

But now apparently is not the time for cool analysis. The Courier-Mail says eight Queensland federal Nationals will divorce themselves from the LNP campaign at the next election. The eight are counting on Barnaby Joyce to win this weekend’s byelection in New England and to relaunch them in the bush under the old green and gold colours. It is eerily like the response from the Nationals 19 years ago.

Those with long memories recall it was the Queensland Nationals in 1987 who launched the “Joh for Canberra” campaign. They had lost any hope that John Howard could end the reign of the Hawke Labor government and began a quixotic bid to install their colourful premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen at the helm of a federal raid. It ended in tears, but not before the Liberals and Nationals went to the election with separate tax policies that undermined the credibility of any future Coalition government. Bob Hawke opportunistically capitalised on the chaos, winning a midwinter election.

Of all the scenarios being tossed around now, calling an early election is not one of them. Senior minister Christopher Pyne is drawing great consolation from the fact the next election is not due for 18 months. But he did warn the Nationals that “disunity is death”, only to draw a stinging rebuke from a former Nationals leader, John Anderson, who said Pyne should look in the mirror when making such comments. Turnbull himself has been calling backbenchers, urging them to pull their heads in for the sake of government unity.

Still relentless pressure was building for a banking inquiry. On Monday morning the Nationals party room was set to adopt it as formal policy. It was to be the first major example of their new strategy to separate themselves from the sinking Liberals. The scene was being set for a crushing defeat of the government on the floor of parliament over the issue.

What should be remembered is the role the Nationals played in the demise of Turnbull’s leadership in 2009. Then distrustful Nationals played a significant part in precipitating the Liberal Party dumping Turnbull. That was in opposition, this is in government, and the stakes are much higher. Just as then, they have allies among conservative Liberals and there is no outstanding alternative on offer. The unpopular dark horse, Abbott, was able to run through the pack and take the top job by one vote.

The prime minister’s and treasurer’s misreading of the public mood, and inability to counter Labor’s championing of victimised customers rather than the unconscionable banks, left both men looking weak and out of touch. Ironically the banks reached the conclusion that the game was up before Turnbull and Scott Morrison did. Their letter to the Australian Stock Exchange on Thursday calling for an inquiry to end the uncertainty precipitated a humiliating climb-down. This circus certainly isn’t flying.

And just before Labor takes too much joy from the show, one of its more flamboyant senators jumped into the ring. The Fairfax papers carried the stunning story of Sam Dastyari giving a billionaire Chinese donor, Huang Xiangmo, under suspicion by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, “counter-surveillance advice”. Just why Dastyari would tell Huang they should leave their phones inside and go outside to speak is baffling. But how the newspapers got the story is just as curious.

Is this a leak from the spy agency itself or, as some in Labor privately suggest, from the agency’s minister George Brandis? God knows the government needs whatever distraction it can get, and accusing Bill Shorten and one of his senators of jeopardising national security is a big one. Dastyari has shown his appalling judgement in getting another Chinese businessman with links to the Communist Party to pay personal bills for him hasn’t improved. Turnbull says it’s not a lapse of judgement, it is a lapse of loyalty. He is calling on Shorten to expel Dastyari from the Labor Party.

The opposition leader hasn’t done that, but crunch for Dastyari came when the ABC and Channel Nine played audio of him at a June news conference with Huang in Sydney. There, despite public denials he had done it, Dastyari defended China’s South China Sea policy, contradicting his own party’s view. Shorten had no choice but to sack him from all senior Labor positions in the senate.

Just what the large Chinese community in the Bennelong byelection make of this remains to be seen. Undermining the Liberals’ attack is the fact it, like Labor, has received thousands of dollars in donations from Huang and other Chinese government-linked business people.

The government’s troubles will, in the meantime, grind on.

This piece was updated on December 2, 2017, to correctly reflect the date of the "Joh for Canberra" campaign.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2017 as "Rift and separate".

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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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