Friday, November 2, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Katter saves Crewther
MPs’ eligibility under s44 of the Constitution is the never-ending story

Image of Bob Katter


Victorian Liberal MP Chris Crewther will be sending a very merry Christmas card to Queenslander Bob Katter this year: he owes his seat in parliament to the maverick crossbencher, who has today ruled out support for a referral of the backbencher to the High Court under the pecuniary interest limb of section 44 of the Constitution. No one should be surprised, given Katter already refused to support a referral of Peter Dutton, whose eligibility to sit in parliament is even more clouded. If Katter plays his cards right, the six months until the federal election could be the most productive of his entire parliamentary career. The Morrison government, stripped of its majority, will stand or fall on his say-so. The sole reliably conservative member of the six-member crossbench is as powerful as he’ll ever be. What does he want? It’s hard to tell, given Katter’s relentless Joh-speak, but today’s press release on the Crewther situation holds a few clues.

The day started with revelation [$] in the Herald Sun that the government faced a “nightmare” by-election in its second most marginal seat in Victoria, the south-east Melbourne electorate of Dunckley. This came after ASIC records updated this week show that Crewther is one of 14 shareholders of Gretals Australia, a biotechnology company that has a grant from the Commonwealth through the Australian Research Council with the University of Melbourne.

The relevant subsection of section 44 of the Constitution says that any person who has “any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth” is ineligible to sit in the parliament. The research grant raises a question about Crewther’s constitutional eligibility, but it also goes to ethics. In a statement this morning, shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus pointed out that in October last year, Crewther told the House of Representatives: “I met with the CEO of Gretals, Alistair Cumming, to discuss how they will benefit from the $50,000 grant they recently received under the government’s Global Connections Fund, part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, as well as other federal funding they’ve recently received.” In September this year, Crewther disclosed he had subsequently invested $25,000 in Gretals.

University of Sydney constitutional law expert Anne Twomey told [$] The Australian that the case against Crewther was “unlikely to succeed”. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, for his part, told journalists today that “These stories they come and they go and I frankly think the Australian people are completely over it.” He said that he had no concerns on the matter.

He will brazen it out. One wonders if conservatives, who are on average more likely to have the kind of investments that fall foul of this provision, might start to feel the Constitution is biased against them. It wasn’t a problem until Family First senator Bob Day was struck out by the High Court last year, the first and only time a sitting MP has been struck out. UNSW’s dean of law, George Williams, told me that no one since Day had been disqualified under the relevant subsection of section 44, although “Peter Dutton could well be if he is referred to the High Court”.

“In the future,” says Williams, “this may have a disproportionate impact upon any party that takes large numbers of candidates from a business background, especially small business. It is why the NSW National Party has been lamenting this and its impact upon them securing quality candidates.”

Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, expert in the politics of distraction that he is, retaliated by pointing the finger at Kerryn Phelps, independent member-elect for Wentworth, and Brian Owler, Labor’s candidate for Bennelong, who may have issues [$] under the same provision as they are both doctors and receive funds from Medicare. Joyce is right, that Phelps should release her legal advice, and he is right that the public will have zero patience for anyone – from this election onwards – who is found to have stood while ineligible.

At that point, it turns into a circus again, which lends credence to Bob Katter’s argument that the public has had enough of the matter. “Another High Court referral? Must be a Friday”, his press release was headlined. The federal government should be focusing on the real issues, Katter says, and in his statement today, he outlines what he considers the real issues to be: “This is a country where 83% of its minerals are foreign owned, 97% of its gas is foreign owned. This is a country that has no manufacturing base at all and an agricultural industry which is in one of the worst droughts of the nation’s history. And what are we talking about? That so-and-so might have a business that so-and-so might use.” The release continued: “Why don’t you talk about the value of the dollar? No, you won’t because you don’t understand it. Why don’t you talk about reconstruction loans for the farmers? No, you won’t because you don’t understand it. Why don’t you talk about irrigation in North Queensland? No, you won’t because you don’t want to offend your Greenie, slobbering trolls in Sydney.”

The crux of it all, for Katter, is why the federal government hadn’t built a dam or weir in northern Australia. We should expect an announcement.

since this morning

The Australian reports [$] that oil companies will pay an extra $6 billion in Petroleum Resource Rent Tax over the next decade under proposals announced by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg today in response to the Callaghan Review.

For The Conversation, Michelle Grattan writes that Malcolm Turnbull is now the sniper at the window.

Fairfax Media reports that TV host Ross Cameron has been sacked by Sky News for comments he made about Chinese visitors to Disneyland on his Outsiders program this week.

The ABC’s The World Today reports that Google workers in Sydney have joined a global walkout over sexual harassment at the company.

in case you missed it

The Guardian reports that the federal government’s cuts to support payments for asylum seekers have placed almost 80% of them at risk of homelessness and destitution, a report commissioned by the Refugee Council of Australia has shown.

Walkley Award winner Caroline Wilson used her keynote address at the Andrew Olle Media Lecture in Sydney to shame sexism in sports media.

The RMIT ABC Fact Check finds Pauline Hanson is “wrong” to claim the asylum seekers on Nauru have not proven themselves to be genuine refugees. The overwhelming majority, 83 per cent, have been assessed as genuine refugees and another 14 per cent are still undergoing determination.

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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?

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