The PM’s move today seemed desperate. It was.
Desperate and transparently self-serving political manoeuvres are not always the wrong strategy. Yes, you’ll get called out on them by your opponents. You’ll endure a bad media cycle or two, because journalists – with fair reason – hate them. But of course the strategists know this in advance; it’s just the price they are willing to pay for avoiding what they’ve decided is an even worse political consequence.
Is this the case for the government’s announcement today that it will delay the sitting of the House of Representatives by a week, until 4 December? It’s a lineball call, but I reckon the prime minister got this one wrong.
There’s been lots of speculation already about what precisely the government’s hidden agenda is, but at least part of it is hiding in plain sight. Christopher Pyne, who is in charge of managing the government’s parliamentary strategy, said it was about ensuring the marriage bill will be passed by the end of the year. The Senate will wrap up the bill by 30 November. By delaying the House sitting by a week, the government has given the bill longer to get through the House of Representatives. It’s true that the government knew all this last week, but it’s also true that last week Pyne was reportedly sounding out MPs on adding an extra sitting week to the year, which is exactly what he’s ended up doing.
But that truth disguises a much bigger issue for the government. This is an admission that Malcolm Turnbull is not at all confident that the marriage bill will proceed as smoothly as he’d hoped. What the government would have wanted was for all amendments to be dealt with while the bill was in the Senate. That sounds like a boring technicality – in practice it would have meant a shorter debate, with less controversy and fewer headlines. Presumably the PM and his lieutenants have now realised that the debate is likely to be messy, due to a possible rearguard action by conservatives in the House deciding to express their discontent by moving amendments at a late stage. While these would be unlikely to pass, it is plausible that the government will accept some in order to soothe wounds. The extra time then allows the bill to boomerang between the chambers, and still pass by the end of the year.
The second factor is the government’s attempt to limit the time it is operating in minority government, without Barnaby Joyce and John Alexander. Pyne insists this isn’t the case because Joyce won’t be back on 4 December – his byelection is on 2 December, but results need to be officially declared before he can return. Rubbish. Joyce may well return quite quickly; this way he is likely to be around for at least one sitting week out of a possible two.
But of course there may not be two sitting weeks, and this is the third factor, and probably the most important. The government may be preparing for the worst on marriage, but it is hoping for the best. The dream scenario is for the marriage bill to pass the House easily, early in the week of 4 December. The citizenship disclosures have been pushed back due to the cancelled week. Rather than a debate over referrals playing out over an entire parliamentary week, the government will be hoping it takes a day or two, at which point the parliament can go on break until next year.
It will also mean that any related disastrous revelations occur after Joyce’s byelection, not just before – which may suggest the government is bracing for bad news.
That shortened period will deliver one final benefit, which is the opposite of what you’d normally expect. Usually, governments want legislation passed in that last week, to get it off the ledger and start the New Year fresh, with achievements to boast about. But right now the government wants as little legislation as possible dealt with. In particular, the government is facing the threat of Nationals MPs crossing the floor to set up a commission of inquiry – like a Royal Commission – into the banks.
That would be serious. Loss of confidence in a government can be shown by “defeat on an issue central to government policy”, which this would clearly be. That’s not an automatic death knell, but it would be bad. Now, the tricky part is that this doesn’t have a lot to do with the government’s minority status. In any situation, an absolute majority is needed to bring on debate, which means two government MPs would need to cross the floor. If a government MP crossed the floor on that, there’s a fair chance they’d cross the floor to vote for the bill, too, which would deliver victory for the bill, and a defeat to the government (though without Joyce and Alexander the numbers are there already).
But this is pretty much in play with or without Barnaby Joyce. In this case, the government isn’t delaying until its numbers are better. It is delaying in the hope of stabilising over the Christmas break.
The PM is fighting on too many fronts right now. Remember when climate negotiations were the biggest thing to be dealt with? They seem to have been completely forgotten. Barnaby Joyce’s byelection has slipped way down the list of major problems. Instead, the government is focused on beating a surging Kristina Keneally in what should be the safe seat of Bennelong; surviving the citizenship debacle; worsening polling; and renewed leadership chatter [$] over marriage.
To this point, Turnbull has managed to hold his government together. George Christensen has previously been restrained from causing chaos on banking, but he has now renewed his threats. The government still has the crossbench on side on confidence and supply – but if government MPs begin to splinter off, why should independent MPs be expected to hold their nerve?
As with all great upheavals, there is only one answer: the healing power of time. Turnbull needs this year to end.
But to encourage others to hold their nerve, the prime minister needs to hold his. He needs to proceed as though everything were a series of problems that simply need to be resolved – which, after all, has been his rhetoric of late. He needs to be able to argue that he is merely the recipient of wicked problems, not their creator. Unforced errors are his great enemy because they allow for the parcelling out of blame. The final weeks of parliament would have been difficult, but they were not going to be fatal.
And that is why delaying parliament is a mistake. Perhaps he’ll get away with it, but it is far too risky a move from a PM who cannot afford risk right now. Slow and steady, PM – it’s your only hope.
In other news
The View from Billinudgel
A Liberal-led smear campaign will only make Kristina Keneally a bigger threat to the government
“[Kristina] Keneally is a well-known, serious, sensible, convincing and personable politician and under normal circumstances would be an ideal candidate for a marginal seat in a normal byelection – the kind of byelection in which the incumbent declares that he has to desert his constituents because he needs to spend more time with his family, whether he has one or not.
But these are not normal circumstances – the long-running debacle over dual citizenship has left the voters confused and resentful. However, they are not likely to take their anger out on [John] Alexander, nor for that matter on Barnaby Joyce, whom they regard as dinkum Aussies, whatever the bloody High Court might think. True, Alexander’s very belated admission of his ignorance over his ancestry was more than somewhat negligent, but what the hell – the man played tennis for Australia, so most, if not all, can be forgiven.”read on
Meeting Kristina Keneally
“Like [Nathan] Rees, [Kristina] Keneally was wrenched from a progression through the ministry to the premature premiership of the country’s most populous state, constituting 40% of the national economy. Rees’ parting gift was to call the then 40-year-old Keneally a puppet. Why condemn a politician felt to have strong promise – perhaps even on the national stage – to lead a reviled government to certain defeat within 15 months? One day, as we sat in her office on the fortieth floor of Sydney’s Governor Macquarie Tower, I asked Keneally why she had agreed to the job. Her reply was that even though she had been warned off by some, including the party machine, she believed it was her duty to take on the task, and to let the future look after itself. Doesn’t that sound like another piece of politician’s pap? Well, yes, dear Reader, it does. But could it be that things are not always as they seem? For Keneally is an unusual specimen in the political lab.” (November 2010)READ ON
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