Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Is Bill Shorten running out of luck?

In the truncated last session of the house of representatives for the year, Malcolm Turnbull adopted the mien of a political headkicker. He bellowed an attack on Bill Shorten so loudly at his Tuesday courtyard news conference he startled journalists. The outburst was a sure sign he is under enormous pressure to turn the tables on the opposition leader. It is a task that eluded him in 2017 and will become utterly urgent next year.

Turnbull is rankled by the fact he can’t best Shorten – partly because he doesn’t see the Labor leader as a worthy opponent, despite the fact Shorten ran him to near defeat at the last election. And despite his regularly topping Shorten as preferred prime minister in the polls, the two men are almost equally unpopular and not rated positively. While voters find Turnbull arrogant and disappointing, Liberal research finds they see Shorten as shifty. This is a term the prime minister and his colleagues are now using with monotonous regularity.

Attacks on Shorten’s character have been a feature of the government’s approach all year. But they have done nothing to improve its stocks. In fact, the average of the published opinion polls at the end of the week has blown out to a 6.5-point lead to Labor – enough to sweep it to power with a gain of 13 seats. In January, Labor’s poll average was a four-point lead. Much to Turnbull’s embarrassment, the countdown to 30 bad Newspolls – his benchmark for pulling down Tony Abbott – reached 24 last Monday.

But there’s nothing like a win in a real poll to lift spirits. On Wednesday, Barnaby Joyce, his beetroot-red face beaming, was escorted into the house by Turnbull, smiling even more broadly than the Cheshire cat. The prime minister hotfooted it to New England last Saturday to bask in the reflected glory of Joyce’s record byelection win. He saw it as a thumping endorsement of the Coalition government. Labor campaigners say the voters treated the election as a referendum on section 44 of the constitution, which struck out of the parliament an obvious dinkum Aussie such as Joyce.

New England, of course, was a heartland Nationals seat before it was wrested from the party by a disgruntled Tony Windsor running as an independent. It is the sort of seat the Nationals would hold even if there was a wipeout of the government at a general election. This point was made eloquently by Newspoll and Fairfax Ipsos polls published on Monday, and Essential on Tuesday. All were in the field in the run-up to the byelection and all saw the government’s stocks stuck in the doldrums nationally.

A bigger test will come next weekend in the Sydney seat of Bennelong. There, former tennis champion John Alexander was another victim of section 44. Shorten massaged expectations, telling his caucus “we are currently behind in Bennelong despite having a great candidate and a great story to tell”. Labor is throwing everything behind its candidate – former New South Wales premier Kristina Keneally – but the Liberals are claiming its research finds Alexander is drawing comfortably ahead.

Maybe Bill Shorten’s luck is running out. Complicating the party’s campaign in Bennelong is Labor senator Sam Dastyari’s highly controversial dealings with Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo. Still unexplained is why the senator would indicate to the businessman that he may be under the surveillance of our security agencies. Further media reports suggest Dasher’s willingness to curry favour with Chinese contacts is not restricted to him contradicting Labor policy on the South China Sea. This, apparently, was his none too subtle way of saving a $400,000 donation that an unhappy Huang was withholding. On top of this, of course, was the original controversy over him asking Huang and another Chinese businessman to pay a staff travel bill and personal legal costs for him.

Turnbull slammed Dastyari as an “agent of foreign influence and you can’t have an agent of foreign influence sitting in the senate”. He said Shorten was compromised by not kicking the senator out of the Labor Party. It was this point that he yelled at his news conference. He wrongly claimed Shorten was backing Dastyari “all the way”. Shorten hasn’t; he’s sacked Dastyari from all his leadership positions and relegated him to the backbench. Not even Turnbull can expel him from the senate unless he can make charges of espionage stick. But he accuses the Labor leader of “abandoning Australia’s interest” and says Shorten is not fit to be prime minister.

All week, Turnbull brushed aside diplomatic niceties in the name of politics. On Sky News he demurred at suggestions an inquiry was needed into security implications in the leaking of the Dastyari story. He himself fingered Huang for having “very, very close links to the Chinese government”. Attorney-General George Brandis, when unveiling with Turnbull proposed new laws to curb foreign influence, said it was “a problem of the highest order” and warned “it is getting worse”.

Australian Security Intelligence Organisation chief Duncan Lewis warned earlier this year of concerns he had over the targeting of Chinese–Australians who are critical of Beijing, and influence on university campuses and in Chinese language media. In his sights were the governing Chinese Communist Party. None of this is being missed by Beijing. Midweek, the Chinese embassy issued an angry statement accusing Australian politicians of undermining “mutual trust”.

That statement could resonate among the 44,341 people in Bennelong who identify as Chinese–Australians. It cited media reports reflecting “a typical anti-China hysteria and paranoia”. It said the accusations were “unjustifiable ... against the Chinese government, but also unscrupulously vilified the Chinese students as well as the Chinese community in Australia with racial prejudice”.

The Chinese embassy says the Dastyari brouhaha reflects a Cold War mentality and ideological bias. It may well, but our government should be aware this is not the 1950s. China is rapidly becoming Australia’s meal ticket. Economist Chris Richardson never tires of pointing out that our economy would be well and truly stuffed without the trade and investment coming our way from the Asian giant.

The respected foreign affairs expert Alan Dupont, writing in The Australian, warns that playing short-sighted political point-scoring with Dastyari’s fall from grace “illuminates the risk to our democracy of allowing China to exert undue influence over our institutions, societies and policies”. He says Australia doesn’t have a strategy for managing this risk “and, until we do, its absence only invites more Chinese interference”.

Dupont is calling for Turnbull to develop an “engage and hedge” strategy, which needs to be fleshed out with Shorten’s support. Harmonising such a strategy with the package of foreign interference laws Turnbull is hoping to get through the parliament early next year will certainly be a challenge, especially as next year will be hyper-charged by the expectation of an election in the second half. At first sight, Labor and the Greens aren’t all that impressed with what appears to be overreach in banning foreign donations for activist groups such as GetUp! and other environmental groups or charities.

Independent MP Cathy McGowan thinks it’s time for a national integrity commission. She asked Turnbull on Tuesday what it would take for this parliament to set one up and to do it this term. The prime minister said you don’t need one to tell you what Dastyari did was wrong. He believes there are enough Commonwealth agencies dealing with crime and misconduct. This is not the view of at least one former senior Liberal involved in fundraising for the party. It is one area of politics completely fraught with temptation.

Political donors, whether they be Australian or foreign, mostly want something in return. It’s no accident that the Independent Commission Against Corruption in NSW lifted the rock on political donations and found the state’s ban on donations from developers was being flouted by eight state Liberals. Victorian Liberal powerbroker Michael Kroger believes it’s time for the public funding of election campaigns, with caps on spending and a total ban on donations.

Good luck with that. Speaking of Shorten’s luck running out, the citizenship saga finally caught up with Labor this week. Just as Turnbull and Joyce had to eat humble pie for their scoffing at the Greens over two of their senators falling foul of section 44, now two Labor figures have been referred to the High Court.

It was Turnbull’s turn to scoff. He threw Shorten’s boast back at him that there was no cloud over any Labor people. “None whatsoever. Let’s be straight here.” All the more embarrassing was the fact Shorten ally David Feeney, who had previously run Victorian Labor’s vetting process, couldn’t find his British renunciation papers and neither could the Brits. Unlike the Liberals’ John Alexander, Feeney is waiting for the High Court to kick him out or hoping the British Home Office can eventually save him.

Former ACT chief minister Katy Gallagher referred herself over the fact the British Home Office did not confirm the renunciation of her dual citizenship by the time of her nomination as a senate candidate. Labor has high-powered legal advice that she had taken “all reasonable steps” but Gallagher says the government’s refusal to accept this advice convinced her to test her position in the court. She will now become a test case for three Labor politicians and a Nick Xenophon Team member in the reps.

It all distracted from the marriage equality debate  but couldn’t diminish the historic social reform that was finally legislated. A messy year for the government ended on a high note for the parliament.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 9, 2017 as "Turnbull’s great caterwaul". Subscribe here.

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

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