Friday, October 27, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Crises, plural
The High Court decision points to other problems

Barnaby Joyce

Supplied by ABC News

Let’s recap: The nation no longer has a majority government. The cabinet lost two ministers. It is not clear, at the time of writing, whether or not there is, or will be soon, a deputy prime minister. There is a chance that decisions taken by the old deputy prime minister were invalid. And an unpopular government is about to fight a byelection.

When bombs explode out of nowhere, like the Michaelia Cash debacle, they seem massive – even though we’re talking about what, exactly? Someone tipping off the media about a police raid, something that, regrettably or not, happens all the time.

On the other hand, when a crisis is half-expected, it can end up seeming smaller than it is, simply because the various ramifications have already been considered, and accounted for. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and can allow some avoidance – or at least a diffusion over time – of the usual political hyperventilation.

Still, I’d invite you to take another look at that list. Given we’ve all been considering the items on it for months, they’ve come to seem almost normal. But it is still a formidable catalogue.

I want to deal with those elements (and I should note here that five of the seven MPs-in-doubt are gone with only Matt Canavan and Nick Xenophon surviving judgement), but first I want to skip elsewhere, to something that has snuck up on me.

As will be noted everywhere, Malcolm Turnbull, after the Barnaby Joyce citizenship problem had first arisen, said, in his best Rumpole voice, that Joyce was “qualified to sit in the house and the High Court will so hold”.

Obviously, he was wrong. That’s embarrassing, and hardy har har. But it wasn’t just a bold prediction: it was the prime minister’s justification for keeping Joyce in cabinet, prime decision-making body of the country.

Here, on the other hand, is Joyce himself, after the court delivered its findings today: “You don't try to second-guess the High Court”. Also: “I don't actually stand here totally surprised. ”

In other words, the deputy prime minister did not share the confidence of his prime minister, but decided, on the basis of the confidence he believed to be misguided, to continue sitting in cabinet, acting as a cabinet minister, contributing to cabinet decisions. Or, alternatively, Turnbull wasn’t that confident either, but was bluffing for the sake of political expediency: after all, Turnbull’s legal experience means he would have known that predicting the decision of the High Court is a mug’s game.

Joyce had already engaged in a bit of bluffing himself. Two weeks before doubts over his own citizenship publicly arose, he was casually asked about the matter on the Today Show. He laughed it off, saying that every MP had asked their parents, “When I was asleep, did you make me a citizen of Botswana?”, finishing with “I am an Australian – no problems there.”

Obviously, Joyce was wrong.

Let’s not forget Julie Bishop and her proxy war with New Zealand – except that it wasn’t just Bishop. Both Turnbull and Christopher Pyne talked about conspiracies; Bishop just happened to go further, saying she could not see herself building trust with the New Zealand Labour Party. And then, last week, after the Labour Party unexpectedly took power in New Zealand, Bishop turned on a dime. Not only did she disown her previous comments, she said that she hadn’t said them.

So, this is what we have:

Turnbull said one thing – something that was clearly ridiculous at the time – and then a couple of months later Joyce said the precise opposite.

Bishop said one thing – something that was clearly ridiculous at the time – and a couple of months later Bishop said the precise opposite.

Joyce said one thing, and then was forced to admit the precise opposite was true.

And, of course, there’s Michaelia Cash, who said one thing most of Wednesday – that her office hadn’t tipped off the media – and, a few hours later, was forced to admit the precise opposite.

The point here isn’t that politicians lie. Yes, they do, and it’s wrong, and it’s frustrating. Taken together, the combined impact of the past few months is worse than that. It’s as though the government is engaging in a concerted effort to convince us that words just do not matter at all. Want to allege a foreign conspiracy to bring down your government? Predict a High Court finding with utmost certainty? Declare your citizenship status a done deal? Want to turn around a few months later and pretend none of those things actually happened? Why, yes, go ahead, it’s Australian politics!

These aren’t minor players, either. We are talking about the three most senior people in government, or at least we were until one of them was booted.

Anyway, that’s the larger crisis unfolding, and of course it’s unfolding across the Western world – Donald Trump, Boris Johnson – and it’s a genuine threat to the conduct of serious democracy, and everyone’s got dirty hands to some extent (Labor on Turnbull using the police as his “plaything”), but that doesn’t mean we should let them all get away with it.

But let’s get back to the more contained crisis in our own particular democracy. 

As I said above, this is a crisis for the government because of the sheer scale of what is happening to it. Turnbull’s High Court prediction will be repeated ad nauseam. So will his repeated warnings about the dangers of minority government. Labor will jeer, and play hardball in parliament – it has already said it will not pair Joyce’s vote. The byelection will be a distraction. The government may struggle to pass controversial legislation, and for that reason may hold it back – this pause in the operations of the government could be the biggest issue.

On the other hand, minority government is fine: Julia Gillard got plenty done. Independent Cathy McGowan has said she will not bring down the government [$], which means that is off the table – Labor does not have the votes. Malcolm Turnbull moved swiftly this afternoon to shuffle his cabinet. The country will survive without Joyce as deputy PM. Joyce will very likely win the byelection, and it’ll all be over by December 2, anyway – the date’s already been set.

Turnbull did what he needed to do this afternoon. I’ve said before that this government is much better at day ones than day twos, but if we ignore experience and take today as an indication, then the government will contain the damage and see out the next five weeks just fine.

Around this time of year, as the heat creeps in, it’s hard not to think of the Christmas break, shimmering temptingly on the horizon. That will be true of Turnbull more than most.


In other news



Amy Winehouse, behind the beehive

An exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Australia pieces together missing components of the late singer’s identity

Jenny Valentish

Winehouse was drawn to the boozy underbelly and rockabilly flirtation of Camden Town, where she got a job in the market, selling candles. She moved there for good around 2000, when the suburb was fast becoming the hectic tourist trap it is now. The music-scene pubs she frequented – the Good Mixer and the Hawley Arms – were on the brink of becoming tourist destinations themselves, but the jukeboxes were irresistible to a kid who’d appropriated her father’s and brother’s record collections. (A mixtape Winehouse once made plays throughout this exhibition: Nina Simone, Carole King, The Offspring.)” read on


To walk in two worlds

The Uluru Statement is a clear and urgent call for reform

Megan Davis

“The passage of time, the passing of old people and the pressure of forced assimilation preyed on the minds of many at the dialogues and at Uluru. We frequently heard that this was the ‘last throw of the dice’. The urgency of the situation is why the Uluru Statement was issued directly to the Australian people. Our fellow Australians share our people’s cynicism about the capacity of our liberal democratic state to effect reform. If our democratically elected representatives won’t listen to us, then maybe the people who elected them will.” (July 2017) READ ON

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.



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