A day of tidbits
A tricky combination for Turnbull might be approaching
In her 2016 Harry Evans lecture, constitutional expert Anne Twomey outlined the travails of sometime Labor premier of New South Wales, sometime acting Labor premier, sometime Nationalist premier, William Holman. Back in the 1910s, Holman, you see, had difficulty in keeping hold of his parliamentary majority.
He lost it once due to the resignation of two MPs – who were protesting a decision over rural leaseholds – but survived a subsequent vote of censure because a sleeping MP happened to be counted on the side of the chamber on which he was slumbering. Then Holman lost his majority again, this time after one of his MPs “toppled over the balustrade of a staircase in Parliament House while attempting to avoid a Hansard reporter”.
Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.
I was about to write that Malcolm Turnbull has done rather a better job of maintaining his majority, but then I remembered it’s only been a year and a bit since he was handed his sliver-thin victory. Perhaps it’s just that it’s been such a long year.
At any rate, the High Court today wraps up its three days of hearings into the Dopey Seven (a little bit of prejudgment in that phrase, but, hey, I’m not a judge). Watching from a very great distance, the omens haven’t seemed great for Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, but, as I’ve said before, predicting the High Court is the muggiest of mug’s games.
At any rate, the point of all this is that three little tidbits grabbed my attention today, and their combined influence may well come together at year’s end.
If Joyce is disqualified – and let’s be honest, the other cases are interesting, but not actually that important politically – then there will be a by-election for his seat. He’ll probably win it, but what interests me right now is what happens in the weeks before that.
Because in that period, Turnbull will find himself in a similar position to William Holman: without a clear majority in the parliament.
This needn’t spell disaster for the prime minister. Labor, after all, is still a very long way from a majority of its own. The prospect of actually losing substantive votes based on policy is not that high. Turnbull would simply avoid bringing contentious measures to the House. There will always be speculation about the potential of losing important votes, which itself is sometimes equated with a loss of confidence in the government, but it would almost certainly only be speculation. And it seems unlikely that every independent will choose to deprive the government of a guarantee of supply and confidence, at least while the by-election remains undecided.
But it’s the speculation, of course, that is the problem. Forget the by-election itself – it’s a distraction, yes, but it’s still a fairly localised distraction, with the result the main thing. Think instead of the weeks of parliament Turnbull will have to endure as leader of a minority government. Think about what Labor will do with that speculation, and the games, however unedifying, the Opposition will play.
One option – raised by Twomey, and pointed out to me today – is to prorogue the parliament, that is, have the governor-general suspend proceedings until the by-election is over. That font of all wisdom Cory Bernardi has suggested as much, and so you won’t be surprised when I say I think that would be a terrible idea. Parliamentary chaos is bad, but a PM openly declaring that things are on hold for a month or so would be worse. (The average wait these days from a vacancy being declared to a ballot is around seven weeks.)
All this also raises the question of what Labor will do. Antony Green recently wrote: “There is a very old principle that temporary changes in parliamentary numbers should not be used to bring down a government. The normal practice would be for the Opposition to provide a pair or agree to an adjournment.” But I would be pretty surprised if Labor provided a pair. It declared at the outset of this parliament that no pairs would be forthcoming, and I can’t see why that would change. It might be possible to make a strategic decision to look “statesman-like” rather than oppositional, but so far that has not been Bill Shorten’s style.
The second tidbit comes from James Campbell at the Herald Sun [$], who writes: “According to three conservative — previously Abbott-supporting — MPs who have spoken to the Herald Sun in recent weeks, when talking about the possibility of regaining the leadership, Abbott has asked all of them how they would feel about ‘bringing Peta back’.”
You might say that we all know Tony Abbott wants the leadership back. But it’s worth remembering that we’re also told, on a reasonably frequent basis, that Abbott has given up on the leadership himself, and just wants to tear Turnbull down. Campbell’s report scotches that. Now think back to what Abbott was capable of doing to Julia Gillard when she ran a minority government – and think just how much more viscerally he hates Turnbull.
Finally, it was revealed today that Peter Dutton recently predicted the Yes vote would prevail in the marriage plebiscite. More significantly, to my mind, he today told 2GB that he would work to deliver religious protections as part of any bill, but cautioned: “It’s difficult, because you’ve got the Greens and the Labor party who control the Senate, and we’ve only got a one-seat majority in the lower house, but we do need adequate protections and I think people would expect that from the parliament.”
That reads to me like Dutton is telling both his conservative colleagues and the party’s base: I will do what I can, but this bill is going to pass, and there’s only so much we can do on the way through.
He’s right. Turnbull needs the bill to pass, and that means not overbalancing towards the conservatives and losing too many Senate votes on the way. Ideally, he needs the Labor Party onside – to make this the nationally unifying moment it should be, and that he himself needs politically – and while the ALP will be loath to vote against any marriage equality bill, you’d have to assume Shorten will not allow himself to be pushed too far, either. The faster Turnbull moves on this, the better. Another very good reason to keep parliament working. If Turnbull can’t get a marriage bill through without Joyce’s vote (and Joyce has said he’ll do what the Australian people tell him to), then it’s the wrong bill.
In other news
Stephin Merritt brings his ‘50 Song Memoir’ to the Melbourne Festival
“Over the years, Merritt has earned a reputation for being a hard interview. His public Q&A events are regularly punctuated with discomfiting Pinteresque pauses. When pressed for an encore, he and his band once performed John Cage’s ‘4’33’’’. Strike the right topic, though, and he’s positively cuddly. Merritt lights up at the chance to explain the superiority of Act One of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods over Act Two, or describe the qualities of the cittern, his most recent exotic instrument purchase from a music shop in Bristol.
Reflections on one of the great essayists at the launch of a new biography
“He was uncompromising where the stakes were high; many of us settle for less. He swam deliberately, courageously, sometimes even outrageously, against the current, and one thing we know about currents is that most of us find it easier to swim with them.
I think it would be impossible to agree with everything Pierre believed or said, unless you were him, and maybe not even then. I can’t agree with it all, and have found some of his views disconcerting, but even when I wonder, I never for a second doubt that he was – to use a phrase of his own, but which he didn’t apply to himself – an ‘inspired talent’– and of course that’s a problem in itself. People might forgive lots, but not that.”READ ON
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