Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Citizenship tests Shorten
The gloves are off

Five by-elections loom after today’s citizenship ruling from the High Court, and the battlelines are clear: the government hopes to foment a crisis of confidence in the character and leadership of “Labor bovver boy” Bill Shorten; the Opposition hopes voters will take the chance to tell the government, in no uncertain terms, that they don’t want to see $17 billion in tax cuts going to the big banks. The ongoing citizenship fiasco, and the possibility that it will play into an earlier-than-expected federal election, gave Canberra an almighty case of budget indigestion on one of the busiest days of the year on the hill.

Senior ministers Christian Porter and Christopher Pyne wheeled out their attack lines in a press conference at 11am today, called shortly after the High Court handed down its judgement in the case of Labor senator Katy Gallagher, who was found ineligible to sit in the parliament. Labor argued that Gallagher had taken all reasonable steps to renounce her British citizenship ahead of the last election. However, the High Court ruled again that the dreaded section 44 of the Constitution should be interpreted strictly, and, that unless there was some insurmountable obstacle, the renunciation had to be completed by the time she nominated. The judgement in Gallagher’s case was expected to serve as a clear precedent for four lower house MPs in similar circumstances: Labor’s Justine Keay (Braddon, Tasmania), Susan Lamb (Longman, Queensland) and Josh Wilson (Fremantle, WA), and the Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie (Mayo, SA).

Porter and Pyne took turns to lash Shorten. Whereas government MPs facing citizenship doubts – Matt Canavan, Fiona Nash, Barnaby Joyce and John Alexander – had stepped down, resigned or referred themselves to the High Court, Shorten “behaved like a trade union leader trying to avoid accountability and transparency”, they claimed. Shorten had failed, and Pyne tried to stir up trouble in Labor’s party room, which is facing unwanted and expensive by-election challenges, saying that Shorten had “created this problem for his caucus”. Porter and Pyne insisted that the Labor MPs must resign before close of business today, casting it as a “character test” for Shorten:

“Is he a person who is appropriate to be prime minister of Australia, who thinks it significant whether his members have a constitutional eligibility to sit in the parliament, or is he going to simply get away with trying to again obfuscate, put up hurdles, behave like a trade union leader, like a Labor bovver boy, trying to avoid the by-elections …?”

Porter and Pyne got their wish: by Question Time, all five MPs including Senator Gallagher had announced that they would resign. Beforehand, Shorten and the manager of Opposition business, Tony Burke, called their own press conference and made it clear that they were looking forward to the by-elections and confirmed that the three Labor MPs, Lamb, Keay, and Wilson, would re-nominate for their seats. Shorten said that Labor had acted in good faith in accordance with the party’s legal advice, but refused to release the advice. He billed the by-elections as “an early opportunity for Australians to cast their view on Mr Turnbull’s proposal to give $17 billion to the big banks”.

The press pack went in hard – and none harder than Channel 7’s chief political reporter, Mark Riley, who bowled up a killer first question: “Mr Shorten on many, many occasions you assured the Australian people your vetting processes were iron-clad [and] there was no cloud of any of your members. Just how much of a goose do you feel today?” Shorten, unfazed, repeatedly refused to apologise and tried to turn the focus back on to the government and its “hoax of a budget”.

It was a foretaste of what will be a bruising federal election, whether it comes this year or next. Even after today’s ruling, the citizenship saga may not be over. When asked, Burke said that there was still a cloud over the citizenship of the four Liberal MPs whom Labor sought to include in a bulk High Court referral last year: Julia Banks, Jason Falinski, Alex Hawke and Nola Marino. Burke singled out Falinski as “the one where the evidence appears strongest based on his entry in 1958 and Polish passport back then. We’re not saying he should leave the parliament tomorrow, but that one should be referred to the High Court.” A spokesperson for the attorney-general, Christian Porter, told The Monthly Today that the documents Falinski provided to the Citizenship Register show “he’s not now, nor has he ever been a citizen of another country”. We may need to have the world’s most boring referendum to sort out section 44 once and for all. Perish the thought.

since this morning

A union protest in the centre of Melbourne’s CBD shut down roads and tram routes for three hours this morning as up to 60,000 workers rallied for new pay deals.

Commonwealth Bank will pay $25 million and admit that it tried to engage in unconscionable conduct as part of a planned settlement over allegations of interest rate rigging.

The Coalition’s plan to dock people’s welfare if they repeatedly fail to pay fines has been denounced by community sector advocates as a “brutal” measure that will drive those on the lowest incomes into homelessness. Meanwhile, former prime minister John Howard has backed an increase to Newstart, telling the ABC: “I actually think there is an argument about that, I do. I was in favour of freezing that when it happened, but I think the freeze has probably gone on too long.”

in case you missed it

Among acres of budget reaction this morning, in The Australian Peta Credlin predicts [$] an early election and accuses the government of moving to the left. Meanwhile, in The New Daily Michael Pascoe calls the tax cuts for middle Australia a con and accuses the government of swinging from the centre back to the wealthier right.

The federal Opposition last night supported the government’s plans to bring domestic intelligence into the Home Affairs super ministry created in December, despite concerns that the legislation gives too much power to minister Peter Dutton.

The Wilderness Society has threatened legal action to overturn a decision to leave the Murray-Darling Basin Plan intact, agreed this week by the government and the Opposition. The environmentalist group has described the decision as a “disaster for the River Murray”.

In international news, US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose US sanctions could be disastrous for the Middle East, writes the ABC’s Middle East correspondent, Matt Brown.

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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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