Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly


An unlikely crisis
What could Turnbull have done, really?

Today was the last day to vote in the same-sex postal survey. Courtesy ABS Source

Does anyone else out there feel just a tiny bit uneasy about the fact a government could fall because some MPs didn’t fill out some nomination forms correctly?

Now, I know it’s more complicated than that. And I know what some of you would say: we’re talking about the Constitution here, and that matters. Also, that MPs routinely expect other people to meet stupid requirements (Centrelink applicants are repeatedly raised), so surely there’s hypocrisy here. There’s also the argument about national security, that only people with clear allegiance only to Australia should have access to the type of information MPs do.

I buy all of those arguments to some extent, but also … not that much. Yes, the MPs were lazy and reckless and should have filled in their forms and stuck to the Constitution; also, it’s arguable that the Constitution is outdated. Hypocrisy, tick, but enough to bring down a government? And on national security, some other countries get by just fine with dual citizens in their parliament.

Anyway, I acknowledge these are points on which reasonable people can differ. It’s just that when it gets to a whole government changing, it all feels a little overblown.

Thinking this over, I began to wonder what Malcolm Turnbull should have done. Given where this has all ended, the answer seems obvious. Right at the outset, as doubts began to emerge about various MPs, he should have put in place the process he did yesterday. He could have said that this was important, yes, but essentially it was an administrative issue that needed to be dealt with, and which would likely affect a range of MPs from different parties. That would have been preferable to what has happened. It would have made the problem seem bureaucratic in nature. It would have avoided the multiple embarrassments the prime minister has suffered: falsely declaring the High Court “will so hold”, losing the court case itself, the Lib-Nats blame game, the emergence, not long after the PM put in place the new declaration process, of yet another government MP in potential difficulty.

But that’s with the wisdom of hindsight. Turnbull couldn’t know things would go as badly as they have done. And if he had acted early, and that had led to byelections, he would have been monstered by his enemies in the Liberal Party for exposing them to the risk of losing government. Sometimes, governments have to wait until the pressure seems almost intolerable to get away with acting; act earlier and they can be accused of jumping the gun.

If you wanted to add to the ledger against Turnbull, you’d make the point that all of this wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the political context he’s done so much to create. Byelections stretching into next year wouldn’t matter so much if 2017 hadn’t been as bad as it has been. Acting at the last possible moment on citizenship disclosures wouldn’t seem so messy if acting at the last possible moment hadn’t become the house style.

To that, Turnbull could fairly say these problems have been forced on him by a party that refuses to function properly. He could add that, with a one-seat majority, byelections right now would be dangerous whatever the government’s current political standing. To which his opponents could reply: yes, but byelections wouldn’t matter so much if we had more than a one-seat majority, and that’s on you.

You could go back and forth on this stuff forever. If the government does end up collapsing it may not be entirely sensible, or fair, that it happens in this manner. But politics is rarely fair, and often brutal. The beginning of a chain of events, in politics or elsewhere, may later seem absurd: that World War I could unfold from the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is only the most famous example. How we got here is no longer that important.

The filter of history works in many ways. Right now the citizenship mess seems a major crisis. If Turnbull finds his way through, and emerges into a successful 2018, it will all seem like so much dust. That seems highly unlikely. But then politics is full of unlikely events.

 


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Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

 

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