The citizenship saga could spell the beginning of the end of the Turnbull government, writes Ben Eltham.
The Turnbull government has never been the most adroit of political operations. Regularly losing both ministers and senior staffers, Turnbull’s administration has spent most of its short life in a state of constant crisis management.
Turnbull never seems quite able to steady the ship. Every week seems to bring another unfolding crisis. Not for the first time, the Prime Minister finds himself wishing for an early start to the long summer break.
Perhaps this is just politics in 2017, but the lack of any long-term vision or strategy has never seemed more acute. The dominant trait of the Turnbull government has been expediency. As Ross Fitzgerald observed in The Australian this week, “it is impossible to explain the underlying philosophical direction of the Turnbull government, because there isn’t one”. As the government lurches from one near-catastrophe to another, all hope at anything larger than the next turn of the 24-hour cycle has been abandoned.
This general aimlessness is one major reason why the government seems so unable to deal with the rolling crises that have confronted it. It also explains why Turnbull and his cabinet have struggled so mightily to take advantage of the government’s one bright spot, the improving economy.
Across multiple portfolios, government policy is a shambles. From the chaos of energy policy to the inertia on housing, from the stubborn unpopularity of Simon Birmingham’s education reforms to the own goal of rejecting the Uluru statement, the government has been flat-footed at best, self-immolating at worst. And that’s before we mention Turnbull’s very own policy disaster: the slow-moving train wreck of the National Broadband Network.
Looming over everything, as it has done for months, is the rolling crisis of MP eligibility under section 44 of the Constitution.
The section 44 crisis over dual citizenship was kicked off by the sudden resignation of Scott Ludlam, and it has spread like an infection across the Parliament ever since. At this point, seven senators and the Deputy Prime Minister have been forced to resign over the issue. The imbroglio has claimed both the leader and deputy leader of the Nationals, the two deputy leaders of the Greens, and the President of the Senate. Nine per cent of the upper house has resigned.
The crisis is all the more difficult to predict because of the extremely technical nature of the dispute, which hinges on the citizenship rules of other nations that might have granted dual nationality to Australian politicians. As Barnaby Joyce found out the hard way, rock-solid Australian lineage (Joyce was born in Tamworth hospital) is not enough to protect you from the section 44 curse.
One would have thought that the recent High Court judgment would have covered all the bases. But new information keeps coming to light, and more and more parliamentarians continue to be implicated.
Matters weren’t helped by the rank stupidity vividly on display from Stephen Parry, until recently the President of the Senate.
Parry resigned last week after revealing that he had dual citizenship. It has emerged that Parry knew he was in trouble months ago, but elected to keep quiet, hoping against hope that the High Court decision would save him. He even told senior ministers such as Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, who counselled him to stay silent. Such spectacularly poor judgment was of course no help when the High Court decision was eventually handed down, disqualifying five of the seven parliamentarians in dispute. Parry had to go. And so he did.
But the hits keep on coming. In recent days we have seen Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg drawn into the controversy. Frydenberg’s mother, a Holocaust survivor, was stateless on her emigration from war-torn Hungary. Under the terms of Hungarian law, she may have been granted citizenship, thus automatically giving Frydenberg Hungarian citizenship by birth.
The historic ironies are evident. At the same time that Frydenberg is complaining about his mother being drawn into the citizenship debate, there are more than 600 refugees being held in limbo on Manus Island as a direct result of his government’s policies. The fate of the Hungarian Jews was indeed terrible, but the terror of the Holocaust helped build an international consensus towards international law to protect refugees – international law that Australia has ratified, but which Frydenberg’s cabinet continues to flout.
While we’re talking hypocrisy, many have also pointed to a government that insists that its Senators and MPs do not have to produce evidence of their own eligibility, at the same time that it assiduously pursues welfare recipients with the robo-debt automatic compliance protocol. Welfare recipients found to have received payments in error have to pay back every last cent. Parliamentarians found to be constitutionally ineligible have not had to pay back anything.
For all of these reasons, it is hard to feel sorry for Frydenberg and his colleagues, even as the citizenship nightmare continues. Quite clearly, the best response to the problem would be to put a referendum to voters to clear up the section 44 mess, once and for all. An amendment that extends blanket eligibility to all Australian citizens would seem to be the simplest and cleanest solution, if constitutional law can ever be described as simple or clean.
But a referendum is a messy and time-consuming procedure, and would be best attempted by a government with ample reserves of political capital. The Turnbull government, unpopular and adrift, has precious little of that.
So it wasn’t surprising when Turnbull buckled under the pressure and announced a full disclosure process to vet the entire Parliament. After weeks of calls for a full audit of all parliamentarians, it was probably Turnbull’s best option. MPs will be forced to state their birth place and that of their parents within 21 days of the passage of two special resolutions that the government will put to the House and Senate.
The results of the audit could be very damaging indeed. In addition to Frydenberg, there are serious doubts remaining over Liberals like Julia Banks and Ann Sudmalis, as well as a score of others. It would seem likely that at least some Labor members will be caught in the section 44 net.
Indeed, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the disclosures that will result from this process will lead to the fall of the government.
While Barnaby Joyce is expected to romp home in the New England by-election, further resignations in the lower house could seriously imperil the Coalition’s majority. Sure, on the face of things, this seems unlikely. Then again, so did the departure of seven of the Senate’s 76 members.
Even if we don’t call it an “audit”, a full examination of every federal MP will surely produce more victims and more destabilisation. It will only take one or two more government members to fall over before the numbers in the House of Representatives slide into minority. And that, of course, leaves the government open to a no-confidence motion.
Moreover, there is good reason to suspect that the main reason Turnbull has refused a citizenship audit is that there are more Coalition MPs who remain vulnerable. As the High Court ruling makes plain, the circumstances under which an MP could be disqualified are very wide indeed. News Limited press gallery veteran Samantha Maiden told Sky News last week that Coalition sources had told her that an audit could lead to the government falling.
The new disclosure process will also flush plenty of new information into the public domain. That gives more leverage to journalists who have already been poring over the heritage of the Parliament with a fine-tooth comb. As Sean Kelly argued today in The Monthly, “given the farce that we have seen unfold so far… it seems extremely unlikely that every government MP will get out of this with their job.”
And that leaves us with the distinct possibility of another federal election … an election that Labor would be favoured to win.
ED’S NOTE: At the time of press, media reports indicate Coalition MP John Alexander may also be caught up in the Section 44 debacle.