The Turnbull government's margin of survival just got narrower

Comment

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Illustration: John Shakespeare

The Turnbull government has had plenty of faux crises in the year since it was re-elected with a majority of one, but now it has a real one on its hands.

Not that the people could care less. The Parliament this week has been a nonstop parade of pissantery. The electorate had already lost interest in Malcolm Turnbull, was uninspired by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, and grudgingly curious about what Pauline Hanson and the fringe parties could offer. This week all three did a first-rate job of demonstrating how second-rate they are.

A third Turnbull government minister has been caught up in the dual citizenship crisis that has rocked parliament, with Nationals senator Fiona Nash advising she is a British citizen by descent.

Turnbull confirmed his weakness by showing that he was prepared to stand down one cabinet minister over the dual citizenship matter but lacked the courage to apply the same principle to another, bigger one. Matt Canavan dumped, Barnaby Joyce defended. And to cover the failure, he sent his Foreign Affairs Minister out to confect outrage at Labor over "Kiwis under the bed", as Penny Wong put it. If Julie Bishop is, as I suggested last week, sometimes overlooked, this week she was a little overcooked.

Pauline Hanson's burqa stunt shows she might be good for a laugh, but she's no serious alternative. Photo: AAP

Pauline Hanson's burqa stunt shows she might be good for a laugh, but she's no serious alternative. Photo: AAP

Shorten reaffirmed that he was more interested in a fight than a fix, escalating the citizenship fight to full-on fisticuffs rather than seeking a bipartisan solution to a pan-parliamentary governance problem.

And Hanson's burqa spectacle demonstrated that she might be good for a laugh, but she's no alternative.

The Australian voter is entitled to look at this sadly self-absorbed line-up and ask this simple question: which of Australia's problems are these people fixing? The answer, of course, is none.

Each party pursued power according to its own partisan logic. The combined effect of so much partisan logic is a national nonsense.

While today's leaders acted their mini-dramas on top of Capital Hill, a nostalgic audience reminisced at the feet of yesterday's leaders at its foot. Bob Hawke and John Howard shared the stage at Old Parliament House, now home to the Museum of Australian Democracy. "It's very easy to be nostalgic," Howard told the Democracy100 dinner. It's harder to govern today, he said: "Both parties are disintegrating - there's a detachable flank on the left of Labor", known as the Greens, "and a detachable flank on the right of the Liberal party", One Nation, Cory Bernardi's Australian Conservatives, David Leyonhjelm's Liberal Democrats and so on.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's government has faced many faux crises since it was re-elected, but now it has a real one. Photo: Andrew Meares

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's government has faced many faux crises since it was re-elected, but now it has a real one. Photo: Andrew Meares

He made the point that, in his tenure, the Senate was inherently more manageable. The biggest group on the Senate crossbench was the Australian Democrats, a centrist party that was ideologically located between Labor and Liberal, whereas today it's the Greens. The Greens, of course, sit to the left of all the others in the Senate.

Yet nostalgia for better leadership, and wistful hopes that it could yet be found, was, inevitably, the theme of the evening. The two former leaders, each prime minister for multiple terms, held out hope. "There's no reason at all," said Hawke, "why today or tomorrow if the leaders were so minded that they can't sit down with the authority of the people who sit behind them and say, 'Can we get common ground on certain issues?'"

And, clashing with the orthodoxy, Howard told the dinner that it was still possible to make major reforms in Australia: "You can get the Australian people to accept major reform on two conditions. It has to be in the national interest, and it has to be fair."

The moderator, the ABC's Annabel Crabb, asked him whether it'd be possible today to achieve what the Howard government managed yesterday, the introduction of a new GST, for instance? Howard's answer was an emphatic yes. "Interesting," he wryly observed, "that public esteem [for the political parties] has fallen in a time when there's not been major reform."

Yet it was a mounting dismay at the state of today's politics that mobilised the Museum of Australian Democracy to convene Democracy100 in its first session to begin a search for ideas for improving the system. Tellingly, Hawke and Howard were in firm agreement on one major failing of the political system today. Both major parties, they concurred, had fallen into the deathly grip of a professional political class, people who'd known no life but politics. Hawke was especially passionate: "I detest seeing a young bloke or lady go into a trade union office, or a politician's office, and spending a good deal of their time organising numbers in the branches."

His advice "to every young person who comes and asks me about it is to make a life first", Mr Hawke said. Knowing only partisan politics, legislators are more likely to serve partisan interests, not national.

Howard is right - it's easy to be nostalgic. He and Hawke were fierce tribal warriors when the occasion demanded. Yet they did manage to cooperate on some key reforms for the rejuvenation of the economy. And looking at today's Parliament it's hard to resist the conclusion of yesteryear's leaders. Today we see the professionalisation of politics, yet without much professional behaviour.

Professional political parties that fail to vet their candidates according to the constitution, for example. The High Court will decide whether the government will keep its majority of one, or lose it.

If the court decides that it must lose it because Barnaby Joyce was not eligible to be elected in the first place as a dual national, the government had a Plan B. Under Plan B, it would have been able to survive as a minority government thanks to the crossbenchers who had agreed to guarantee support on the existential questions of confidence and supply. This would allow the government to remain in power while it holds a snap byelection for Joyce's seat of New England.

Would he win it back? "No matter what the High Court says," the deputy prime minister has told colleagues, "the voters say 'you look pretty f......g Australian to me'". No argument. He'd be re-elected easily, he says.

But now even the back-up plan is in a bit of bother. The government started the week with the support of three crossbenchers, a pretty good insurance. But it's ended the week with just one. And that last one is not guaranteed to stick. Crossbenchers Bob Katter and Rebekha Sharkie have abandoned the government, unimpressed with Turnbull's handling of the citizenship problem, leaving Cathy McGowan as the remaining source of solace.

She has asked Joyce face-to-face to stand down from the ministry pending the High Court decision. And with the news on Thursday that the National Party's Senator Fiona Nash is also to be referred to the High Court over her dual nationality, McGowan wants her to stand down from the ministry as well.

Nash, deputy leader of the Nationals, is minister for regional development, local government and territories, and regional communications.

"The maths is simple," independent MP Andrew Wilkie told Fairfax Media. "If Barnaby Joyce goes, Cathy McGowan would be the only one guaranteeing supply and confidence."

McGowan told me her position was "open". "I want Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash to stand down from the ministry. Over the next two weeks" - a lull between parliamentary sitting weeks - "I will continue discussions with the Prime Minister. Who knows where we'll end up?"

The difficulties for the government multiply; its margin for survival narrows. The parties circle each other with a growing bloodlust. A disenchanted people find it hard to care.

Peter Hartcher is political editor.