The last time a government had a week worse than the Turnbull Government was when Julia Gillard’s handpicked speaker Peter Slipper resigned after vulgar text messages were revealed. The government had a good couple of weeks with the unveiling of their new energy policy the National Energy Guarantee which gave it a major point of differentiation from Labor about how to solve the nation’s energy crisis.
First there was the fallout from the Australian Federal Police raids on the offices of the Australian Workers’ Union over a decade old donation to GetUp on behalf the Registered Organization Commission. The raids looked politically motivated given that the investigation was conducted at the behest of the Employment Minister Michaelia Cash. Given that media cameras were present at the raids it was widely speculated that the media was tipped off by Michaelia Cash or her office.
Cash denied her or her office tipping off the media five times to Senate Estimates and it was not until a media article appeared confirming a tip off from her office that Cash then told Senate Estimates that a staffer in her office did tip off the media and had resigned. Despite misleading Parliament Michaelia Cash has refused to resign and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has backed her for now.
The government thought they had been able to embarrass Bill Shorten by dragging up again his union past but it has spectacularly backfired on them. It has again called into question the judgement of Malcolm Turnbull and the competence of a key Cabinet Minister in Michaelia Cash given that she either can’t run her office or is still not being truthful to the parliament or her leader.
Now today despite the belief to the contrary of Malcolm Turnbull, Attorney-General George Brandis and the arguments of Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue the High Court today found Nationals Leader Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Deputy Nationals Leader Fiona Nash were found to be ineligible to sit in the federal parliament due to dual citizenship by descent under Section 44 of the Constitution.
The High Court has continued to interpret Section 44 very strictly and applied it now to citizenship by descent. Its decision also knocked out Scott Ludlam, Larissa Walters from the Greens and Malcolm Roberts from One Nation
The government was so confident in their belief that the High Court would rule in their favour that they did not have Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash stand aside from Cabinet. Ironically the government minister who did stand aside Matt Canavan was not found to be dual citizen. This was clearly poor political judgement as the government should never have aimed to pr-emept the decision of the High Court.
The reason why it was important for both ministers to stand aside pending the High Court’s decision is because Section 64 of the Consitution states that a person cannot be a government minister for longer than three months while not a member of parliament. This puts the decisions made by Joyce and Nash for the past year under question which could put the nation in even further political limbo.
There will now be a by-election in the seat of New England which Barnaby Joyce will contest and despite making noises he would run Tony Windsor has stated he will not contest. For the time being the government has lost its majority in the House of Representatives with it needing to rely on one of the five crossbenches for confidence and supply. The government will not fall but could lose votes on the floor of the house.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull held a press conference shortly after where he announced a rearranging of portfolios in light of the High Court’s decision. However he did not stay for questions from the media and we do not know who will be Acting Prime Minister as Turnbull is due to leave for Israel and we can only assume it would be Julie Bishop.
He also did not address whether he would help facilitate Fiona Nash’s return to parliament and ask next on the ticket Liberal Hollie Hughes to stand aside. All the indications so far has indicated she will not which means there will either be a showdown between the NSW Liberal and National Parties or between the factions in the NSW Liberal Party, a battle Malcolm Turnbull cannot afford at this stage.
Given the double blunder for Turnbull this week questions about his future as Prime Minister will rightfully be asked. Given that many commentators are predicting a showdown in the Coalition partyroom over religious protections in a possible same sex marriage bill if the plebiscite is yes this will lead to further tensions.
Graham Richardson on Sky predicted that Turnbull will now not last more than a few months, this was a view already shared by Tony Abbott’s Chief of Staff Peta Credlin. Who would they turn to? Most likely Julie Bishop as Liberal MPs would rather eat nails than make Tony Abbott Prime Minister again. Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton would probably think themselves too young to be given the Prime Ministership as a hospital pass and most likely lose an election to Labor.
Labor despite both its moral and policy flaws is now in the ascendancy. The government’s policy agenda has now been dwarfed by this week of chaos. The next few months are only likely to get worse.