Paul Bongiorno
Byelections beware

Truth, they say, is the first casualty of war. And make no mistake, the government is in the battle of its life. Malcolm Turnbull is doing whatever it takes to regain a political ascendancy he has not had over the Opposition since last year’s election. And it seems the fastest way to do that is an unrelenting character assassination of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

But if you are going to launch an all-out assault on your opponent’s credibility, it is wise to be credible yourself. Giving the scramble for dominance a hard edge are five imminent byelections, four of which were triggered by the dual citizenship fiasco, this time most of them from Labor’s side.

Even though the speaker has not fired the starter’s gun by announcing a date for the looming “super Saturday”, both Turnbull and Shorten were out of the blocks this week, campaigning hard for their candidates. The delay in naming the day – and let’s face it, the Liberal speaker will make sure he does what the Liberal prime minister judges is in the government’s best interests – is baffling. It certainly didn’t take that long for Barnaby Joyce or John Alexander. Speculation is the polls will be in early July, eight weeks away, as if Turnbull has learnt nothing from the interminably long 2016 campaign that he almost lost.

Midweek, the prime minister visited north-western Tasmania to campaign for the return of Brett Whiteley as the member for Braddon, a seat he lost to Labor’s Justine Keay in 2016. There on the shores of Dove Lake in the Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park he announced $30 million for a cable car. He brushed aside the local media’s claims that he wouldn’t be doing this unless it was to win votes, and launched into Labor’s struck-out member and Shorten for “defying the High Court” for months, keeping MPs in parliament drawing salaries when they “knew they were ineligible” and doing it “because they thought they could get away with it”.

The construction Turnbull, his attorney-general Christian Porter and some of their cheer squad in the media put on Labor’s handling of the process is nothing other than a convenient and disingenuous rewrite of history. It is not only the Labor Party saying so. A string of academic legal experts, including Anne Twomey and George Williams, reject the claim that the High Court last October had laid out its interpretation of what “reasonable steps” to renounce citizenship meant. It did not. The Nationals’ Matt Canavan was cleared because the court accepted technical advice on Italian law that he had never been an Italian citizen. Barnaby Joyce and the others were struck out because they took no steps, and the court threw out “ignorance of the Constitution” as an excuse.

When Shorten gave his “rolled gold” guarantee last year, he was relying on 24 years of interpretation by both the Liberal and Labor parties on what the High Court had ruled in the 1992 Sykes v Cleary case. This was the high-powered legal advice guiding the four Labor members who took steps to renounce their dual citizenship but who were elected before the process was complete. The court has now ruled that unless renunciation is complete by the nomination deadline a candidate is ineligible to run.

The scoffing at Susan Lamb for failing to obtain her estranged parents’ marriage certificate is now shown to be mean and ill informed. She will recontest the Queensland seat of Longman after the British Home Office processed her application in six days, without demanding the certificate, as one of its bureaucrats had wrongly done.

The fact is Labor senator Katy Gallagher referred herself to the High Court as a test case for “reasonable steps”. Turnbull’s attack on Shorten for gaming the system is very rich given he argued that Barnaby Joyce was eligible until the court declared otherwise. Joyce remained deputy prime minister and sat in the parliament for 74 days even though he was under a cloud.

There is no real substance to the demands that the members now facing the voters again, including the Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie in South Australia, should apologise for the inconvenience and expense the byelections will cost. In all their cases, their good faith is established by their genuine efforts to comply with section 44, according to serious legal advice, which was clearly not the case with the politicians who were bundled out of the parliament last year.

It is not only the delayed timing of the byelections that is puzzling but also the tactics of the Liberals in not running in all five seats. The West Australian division won’t stump up candidates in Fremantle or Perth. The excuse given by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is that they want to put all their resources into a state byelection. The state seat of Darling Range had Labor win with a margin of 5.8 per cent at the election. The federal seat of Perth had a margin of 3.3 per cent and Senator Dean Smith, who ran the Liberal campaign at the 2016 election, believes they would have a real chance this time. Despite the government’s belief that voters won’t buy “Unbelieva-Bill” Shorten, it is not game enough to put it to the test in a state that hitherto has been its stronghold.

Except, the most fiercely burning federal issue across the Nullarbor is the distribution of the goods and services tax. The Sandgropers are very angry at the deal they are getting. By not running in either seat, the prime minister is shielded from the sort of pressure he gets whenever he visits Perth. At the same time, he has less chance of upsetting voters in South Australia and Tasmania, where the Liberals believe they could win back the seats of Mayo and Braddon. Indeed, the GST issue featured at his Cradle Mountain news conference. The locals wanted to know why the government was sitting on a Productivity Commission inquiry into the GST rules. They were given the unconvincing explanation that the 400-page report was “a real doorstopper” and the treasurer was considering it very carefully. Labor, on the other hand, is promising that neither Tasmania nor South Australia, both major beneficiaries of the current system, will miss out.

The new hurdle for Australian dual citizens to run for parliament figured in the Liberal preselection for Mayo. According to The Advertiser, two rivals were found to have not properly renounced British and Canadian citizenships and had to withdraw from the race. This cleared the way for Georgina Downer, the daughter of former long-serving foreign minister and member for the seat Alexander Downer. Although her mother is British-born, Ms Downer had that box ticked when she ran for preselection in 2016 for the Melbourne seat of Goldstein.

It will be no easy run. In the Victorian preselection, she said she had lived in Melbourne for 20 years and had no interest in returning to Adelaide. Downer’s candidacy in Mayo received a glowing endorsement from her colleague at the Institute of Public Affairs, John Roskam, who praised her commitment to the institute’s libertarian agenda. She is on the record saying weekend penalty rates should be abolished and that “we should think about getting rid of the minimum wage”.

Labor will run a candidate, not in the hope of winning, but, says a party source, to “maximise our Senate vote next time”. A more likely explanation is to help Rebekha Sharkie win back the seat. Labor research has already unearthed Downer’s forthright opinion on the GST carve-up. It is much more sympathetic to WA than it is to her reclaimed home state. In one interview, she thought an option to solve the “unfairness to WA” would be the states “retaining the GST revenue they raise”. According to Labor, this would cost South Australia $1.9 billion a year.

But at least Georgina Downer’s preselection did help distract from the storm caused by the loss of preselection of Liberal assistant minister Jane Prentice, who was beaten by a 33-year-old man, Julian Simmonds. It showed, among other things, that there is no real appetite to do anything meaningful in addressing the enormous dearth of women among the party’s parliamentary ranks.

Prentice was stalked by conservative forces, angry at her role in the dumping of Tony Abbott in favour of Malcolm Turnbull. Despite her loyalty, the prime minister didn’t lift a finger to save her. Her good mate, veteran backbencher Warren Entsch, said he was profoundly disappointed and called it “a bloody disgrace”.

The false story was put abroad that there was no intervention because she had agreed to eventually hand over the job to Simmonds in a version of the Hawke–Keating Kirribilli agreement. The whispering campaign against her – some of which was aired on Sky News’s Bolt Report and pegged her as someone who’s prickly and hard to get on with – has so infuriated her she is threatening to quit the parliament and cause yet another unwelcome byelection.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 19, 2018 as "Byelections beware".

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