Friday, November 10, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly


Caught in the matrix
Every day is the same, and might be for months

Liberal MP John Alexander Source

The word “believe” has taken a battering in recent weeks. As MPs lined up to say they “believed” they were a citizen of this or that country, or that their parent was, the word quickly acquired a strong air of suspicion. Where previously it may have implied I believe this on some reasonable grounds, therefore meriting the benefit of the doubt, it seems to have morphed into I believe this because I always have, and oh, also, it’s politically convenient. When the prime minister himself defended his party by saying the federal director “has told me that all of the Liberal Party members believe that they are in compliance with the Constitution”, it felt like we were being given a practical demonstration of pop philosophy in action. What is real, anyway? How do we know we’re not inside the matrix? Or to update our pop culture references, are we not simply like the dreamer who dreams and then lives inside the dream?

The other common usage that I think we can safely laugh out of town is “legal advice”. With great respect to the legal community – and I can truly say that some of my best friends are lawyers, or they were until I wrote this paragraph – if you’ve recently received any advice from lawyers, burn it. Malcolm Turnbull said he had strong legal advice – from the solicitor-general no less – that Barnaby Joyce would be fine. Labor MP Justine Keay says she has legal advice that she’s fine. The government reckons it’s got legal advice that says the opposite [$]. Everyone’s got legal advice. Goodo. I don’t care.

At this point I think we can say only two things with certainty. The first is that, when it comes to what is real or not, at least with regard to citizenship, the only body any of us can trust anymore is the High Court. The second is that the citizenship farce becomes more farcical every day, and therefore also more tedious. I am frustrated as all hell by now. Aren’t you?

Today there are reports that Liberal MP John Alexander, who may be a Brit, is considering resigning [$] to maximise his chances of winning a byelection that would then be held on December 16. The big downside for the prime minister is that his government would be down another vote in parliament. That will be troublesome, but by itself seems unlikely to take down the government.

That’s just one of a host of things happening. An MP from Nick Xenophon’s party, Rebekha Sharkie, may be in strife, and the PM called to tell her so. Part of the reason he did, one can presume, is to put pressure on the three Labor MPs – Keay, Josh Wilson, and Susan Lamb – who seem to be in a similar position. That is to say they renounced their citizenship, but didn’t get confirmation of their renunciations from the British government until after nominating for parliament, which is the deadline by which you’re supposed to have sorted this stuff (thought the facts around Lamb remain unclear).

That wasn’t the PM’s only active intervention. Turnbull also wrote back to Bill Shorten – in a rare example of actual political agility – from his plane, en route to Vietnam, to say that no, he couldn’t guarantee not using the government’s numbers in the parliament to refer Labor MPs to the High Court. (Whether the government will in fact have the numbers to do so is a separate, interesting question.) Shorten had requested such a guarantee, citing convention – a convention Attorney-General George Brandis had referred to a few months ago.

Labor is right, in the sense that it’s really unfortunate if the parliament begins referring MPs to the courts on partisan grounds. But Labor is also dreaming if it thinks any prime minister would agree at this stage. Shorten has not come close to making clear that he believes his own MPs should be referred – and in the absence of a guarantee of such, Turnbull is not going to give up the one piece of leverage he has. I have no idea whether the Labor MPs would survive a court challenge, but I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone at this stage that nobody else knows either – quick, get me some legal advice! – meaning there’s enough doubt for the PM to argue pretty forcefully that the situation needs clearing up. We should all hope Turnbull won’t follow through on his referral threat, but we should also hope Shorten doesn’t push him to do so.

The priority right now should be getting everything resolved as soon as possible. At this stage, “getting everything resolved” will almost certainly have to involve a mass referral of MPs to the High Court. Malcolm Farr today cites a figure of 28 to 30 [$]. There seems little alternative.

But whether those things happen is, right now, subject to a rolling tactical improvisation by both the government and the Opposition. The government is discovering new problems every day and is getting correspondingly more aggressive in its mixture of defence and offence. The Opposition is, right now, one step ahead, but is having to work harder and harder to stay there; its hope, transparently, is that the government almost accidentally tears itself down before Labor’s troubles become any larger.

And so we are all treated to a landscape that, every day, seems tediously similar to that of the day before, but also with important differences. It’s all very, very boring – and yet to understand it you have to pay very, very close attention.

If this is in fact a dream, we should all hope to wake, and soon. But we probably won’t. This particular nightmare is likely to last at least until March.


In other news


ARCHIVE

Back to where I came from

A trip to Iran brings a senator face to face with the life that could have been

Sam Dastyari

Everyone who comes to Australia gives up something. Some more than others. What they don’t tell you is that cultures evolve and leave you behind: in diaspora, you’re holding on to an image that is outdated and out of sync with the place you have left. When you leave you stop belonging, and if you are not accepted in your new home you are not accepted anywhere. We rarely talk about the mourning for a home that never was and never would be but that haunts the imagination of those who have adopted a new place. We don’t talk about the fading memories and the growing distance.” (August 2017) read on


ARCHIVE

The science question and feminism

STEM is the future and women need to be part of it

Margaret Wertheim

“As Malcolm Turnbull seems to endlessly stress, we live in an age of ‘innovation’ – of new medical technologies, energy systems, agricultural technologies, materials (electronics, opticals, composites), vehicles (driverless cars, bullet trains), communications tools, software. Whether we agree or disagree with this arc of history, a substantial part of our future economic viability as a nation is bound up with how STEM-savvy we will be. As Australia implements its ‘innovation strategies’, women should be part of the planning and shaping of policy, and sharing in the rewards. We can’t do that if we don’t have the training. Or the interest.” (February 2017) READ ON

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was an adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He is The Monthly’s politics editor.

@mrseankelly

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