Inspiring mockery – a sure sign of a Government in trouble – August 2017

Filed under: Politics, Australian Politics,

Nothing is more dangerous for a government than to inspire mockery – rather than support or criticism.

The Turnbull government has reached that point with its series of rolling disasters over the eligibility of – now – three ministers (and counting?) to sit in parliament and exercise ministerial power.

The Government contributed hugely to its own farcical problems with its foolish hyper-ventilating, suggesting Labor was guilty of “treacherous behaviour” because a staffer sought information about citizenship requirements (generally – not in relation to any individual, such as Barnaby Joyce) from a New Zealand Labor MP who then asked questions (again in general terms) about New Zealand citizenship. 

The Government’s response to its self-made problems was almost universally ridiculed. In The Australian Financial Review Laura Tingle wrote, “Talk about losing it. The Barnaby vortex opened and consumed Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in a whirlpool of hysteria and conspiracy theories that would do Donald Trump proud.

“Bill Shorten, she said, had sought to use a foreign political party to raise serious allegations in a foreign parliament designed to undermine confidence in the Australian government

“He had ‘serious questions to answer’, she stormed in her ‘I am a very, very cross foreign minister’ voice.  ‘This is highly unethical, at least’, she charged.’ But, more importantly, puts at risk the relationship between the Australian government and the New Zealand government.’

“But why should she have all the fun? Tingle wrote. “The Prime Minister told his party room that ‘Bill Shorten wants to steal government by entering into a conspiracy with a foreign power’.

“The overkill only added to the sense that the government really doesn't have a clue about political strategy, and how, under pressure, it falls to pieces, rather than finds a path through one of those grin and bear it phases of politics which its own rhetoric suggests is underway.”

In a similar vein Michelle Grattan in The Conversation, wrote the Government’s “shock and awe response, with the absurd notion of a ‘treacherous’ Bill Shorten and a Labor conspiracy across the Tasman with New Zealand Labour, was deluded from the start.

“Second the tactic, played in stereo, opened the government to ridicule. In particular, her exaggerated performance raised questions about the judgement of the usually astute Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, just days after a laudatory article had asked why she wasn’t mentioned more often as a possible future leader.”

On the eve of an election where it might have sought to turn events across the Tasman to its political advantage, even New Zealand’s National Party Government thought the claims were too silly for it to be involved. NZ minister for internal affairs, Peter Dunne, said it wasn’t the Labour questions that set the ball rolling on the outing of Joyce’s NZ citizenship. Dunne tweeted: “This is so much utter nonsense - while Hipkins' questions were inappropriate, they were not the instigator. Australian media inquiries were.”

The Australian’s normally sympathetic commentators weren’t willing to support its hyperbole and The Australian itself on Wednesday, the day following the ‘conspiracy’ claims, signalled its embarrassment by burying the story at the bottom of page 1.

In a comment headlined ‘Joyce saga ensures 2017 is writeoff for PM’ Niki Savva wrote, “It is not Joyce’s fault that New Zealand has a ridiculous law that not even New Zealanders understand, or that the Australian Constitution is not as clear as it could be, or that the Labor Party plays dirty politics, but we are where we are, buried deep in another chaotic period, just as the government was trying to steadily turn up the heat on Bill Shorten over taxes and the donation of $100,000 to start up GetUp! while he ran the Australian Workers Union.”

She wrote, “Given the monotonous regularity with which unhappy events (largely self-created) beset the government, you can pretty much count on something else going wrong or throwing it off course.”

Also in The Australian, under a headline ‘Mad days in Canberra amid Joyce saga’ Paul Kelly opined “Turnbull’s government is not terminated. But this question depends on the High Court and defies prediction. If the court finds Joyce’s eligibility as an MP invalid then it will cost the government its majority and force a by-election that Joyce should win — but this struggle will be consuming.

“Whether or not Joyce is found ineligible, the government’s standing will be diminished and its vulnerability paraded. It proves yet again that Labor is structurally superior on politics — it outsmarts, outmuscles and out-thinks the government on almost every issue. Luck runs Labor’s way but that is no accident. The government must hope another twist will trap a Labor MP in the citizenship provisions.”

The Government’s multitude of problems over the eligibility of Nationals Leader Barnaby Joyce and Deputy Fiona Nash to remain in cabinet while the matter is determined by the High Court include whether the Solicitor General’s advice about Mr Joyce’s eligibility turns out to be as strong as Mr Turnbull claims (if it is ever made public) and the difficulty the Government faces in explaining the inconsistency in requiring Matt Canavan to stand down as a minister while Mr Joyce and Senator Nash remain in Cabinet.

In addition, constitutional law expert professor Anne Twomey has warned “it would be prudent for those ministers who are currently under a cloud concerning their lawful occupation of office to cease to make decisions which are contentious or might give rise to legal challenges with significant consequences.”

Before the dual-nationality disaster resurfaced (Matt Canavan had earlier been forced to resign as a minister over the bizarre story of his mother signing him up as an Italian citizen at the age of 25), the Government was already seen to be spiralling into foolishness by its poor handling of the marriage equality postal survey, which saw Malcolm Turnbull comprehensively outmanoeuvred by marriage equality opponents and adopt an even more discreditable version of his predecessor Tony Abbott’s transparent device to delay same-sex marriage.

Whatever the outcome of the Bureau of Statistics postal poll, Malcolm Turnbull loses: If the poll favours marriage equality a number of Government MPs (on both sides of the debate) have said they will ignore the result and vote in parliament according to their already-outlined positions. If the poll is against equality there is no parliamentary vote and those Coalition MPs who have backed a parliamentary vote are likely to continue to look for a way to bring on a vote before the next election. Either way- Malcolm Turnbull ensures that Tony Abbott gets his wish, and perpetuates Coalition division and disunity.

The Government was only rescued from complete ignominy by the unlikely agency of Attorney-General George Brandis whose excoriation of Pauline Hanson’s “stunt” in wearing a burka to question time to make the lame political point of her opposition to it drew genuine and enthusiastic support from Labor, the Greens and several cross-bench senators, and rather more muted applause from some on his own side.

The lack of enthusiasm may be attributable to Coalition concerns to court One Nation’s senate vote and served to highlight the deal (already unravelling before the burka incident) that the Government had been negotiating during the week for changes to the ABC charter and an inquiry into the ABC and SBS to allow One Nation to ventilate its concerns about scrutiny of its activities, in return for One Nation’s support of the Government’s proposed changes to medias ownership laws.

The events are magnifying Coalition tensions, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s office on the defensive after BuzzFeed’s parliamentary journalist told ABC Radio National Breakfast on Friday that the Prime Minister’s staff had been briefing journalists that it was the Nationals – not Liberals – who were in trouble over dual nationality. The PM’s office response: no one from the PM’s office had spoken to the BuzzFeed journalist about the matter!

The Government bore witness to its own desperation to change the political debate from focus on same-sex marriage and its dual-nationality embarrassment with Mr Turnbull’s laughable attack on Bill Shorten as Labor’s “most dangerous left wing leader” in generations, allegations of Labor’s conspiracy and treachery over the Barnaby Joyce matter, beating up on Yarra Council in Melbourne over Australia Day and its constant attempts to introduce “national security” into every discussion, including when Veterans Affairs minister Allan Tudge was being questioned about how the Government was responding to  veterans’ suicides.

Further Reading