Malcolm Turnbull’s Dies Horriblis: Another Day, Another Disaster

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A week is a long time in politics, but yesterday felt like an eternity. Ben Eltham takes a look at the spectacular implosion of the Liberal-Nationals.

Never known for its political acumen, the Turnbull government has had many bad days in office. It has sustained many self-inflicted wounds. But even for this mob, yesterday was something special.

Let’s run through a quick list of what happened.

The Deputy Prime Minister admitted to Parliament that he was a New Zealand citizen, thus almost certainly rendering him ineligible to be a member of Parliament – and therefore Deputy Prime Minister. The High Court will decide on Barnaby Joyce’s fate in coming weeks, potentially putting the government’s House of Representatives majority in jeopardy.

If that was bad, the government’s response was worse. Much worse.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tied himself in knots trying to explain how Barnaby Joyce could remain in cabinet as a dual citizen, when Queensland LNP Senator Matt Canavan has already resigned from the cabinet over exactly the same issue. “The Deputy Prime Minister does not claim to be a constitutional expert,” Turnbull told the House in Question Time, drawing gales of laughter from the Labor benches.

A screencap from ABC footage of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announcing a greater focus on terrorism, July 2017.
A screencap from ABC footage of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announcing a greater focus on terrorism, July 2017.

The Speaker of the House took on notice a Labor motion to refer former Liberal small business minister Bruce Bilson to the Privileges Committee for corruption. According to Labor’s Tony Burke, not only was Bilson taking money from the Franchising Council of Australia while still an MP, he was even sending out media releases as an executive of the Franchising Council while still an MP.

The government then lost another vote in the House, this time suffering the embarrassment of Labor inserting a clause into an environment bill blaming it for damaging the Great Barrier Reef.

Oh, and the Foreign Minister started a diplomatic row with New Zealand over Barnaby Joyce’s citizenship.

So, no, Tuesday was not a great day for the government.

Even the government’s friends are despairing. The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan, normally a staunch defender of the Coalition, labeled the Coalition response “a disaster.” Other commentators were equally scathing. Laura Tingle described it as a “full-blown crisis”, Josh Butler as “total farce”, Katharine Murphy as “panic and recklessness”.

Bad days end, and sometimes good days follow. But you wouldn’t bet on that with this mob.

The Turnbull administration has never been that good at day-to-day politics, as the bumbling 2016 election campaign amply demonstrated. But this week has been something else: a mixture of rank disorganisation, miscalculation and confusion that adds up to something close to simple incompetence.

Quite apart form the madness of involving a close ally in the day-to-day combat of Australian politics – Julie Bishop went as far as saying she would have difficulty working with an incoming New Zealand Labour government – the sheer silliness of accusing the opposition of conspiring with a foreign power marked a new low for the government.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at the COP21 climate talks in Paris. (IMAGE: Thom Mitchell, New Matilda)
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at the COP21 climate talks in Paris. (IMAGE: Thom Mitchell, New Matilda)

The Bilson affair is also potentially very serious. While there is no federal corruption body in the mould of New South Wales’ Independent Commission Against Corruption, the Parliament itself has wide powers to investigate and punish those held in “contempt”. Similar powers were used to pursue and fine corrupt Labor health minister Gordon Nuttall in 2011.

So far, the government has evaded any wider political damage from Bilson’s second job, but that will get harder if the Privileges Committee takes on his case. Bilson may also find himself referred to the Australian Federal Police over the matter. Questions will certainly be asked about what the government knew of Bilson’s relationship with the Franchising Council, and when.

All this wouldn’t matter so much if the government had a policy agenda that it could get on with. The Gillard government was rarely popular and essentially never ahead in the polls, but it implemented lots of reforms.

The problem for the Coalition is that it doesn’t have much of a policy agenda, and the policy it is advancing is unpopular. Corporate tax cuts for business are a good example. While they have been partly legislated, they are deeply unpopular.

Similarly, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield is progressing steadily with his media reforms, but they are of marginal interest to householders. National security is safe ground, but the Coalition has banged the security drum so often that few voters are listening any longer. Education Minister Simon Birmingham has done well in his portfolio with schools policy, but his next plan is to cut funding to universities – again, not exactly a vote winning policy.

In the meantime, the Coalition must negotiate a difficult national ballot on marriage equality, about which sections of the Liberal Party are in open warfare.

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The Gillard government loved to boast about how many bills it was passing. But as the chaos and disunity mounted, it became harder and harder to argue with a straight face that the government was getting on with business. By the time Simon Crean blew himself up in the bizarre abortive challenge of March 2013, even disengaged voters could see that Gillard had lost control of her party.

Turnbull is not quite in late-Gillard territory just yet, but he’s on his way there. The government’s desperation on Tuesday was palpable. It was prepared to drag our closest neighbour into a diplomatic spat over a political controversy entirely of its own making.

Will any of this matter in the longer term? Ordinary voters don’t follow the shenanigans in Question Time. Most don’t care about the finer details of section 44 of the constitution. Sadly, many have such low expectations of parliamentarians that the Bilson affair will be seen as par for the course.

But disorganisation and corruption in a government have a way of seeping into popular comprehension. So do ridiculous claims about Labor’s collusion with the New Zealand opposition.

Chaos, corruption and ridicule. Right now, that’s pretty much where Malcolm Turnbull’s government is at.

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Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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