Constitutional or Dual Citizenship “Crises”?
The announcement of Alexander’s resignation as an MP for Bennelong (and a by-election on December 16), and indications that at least three Labor MPs may be dual citizens as defined under Section 44 of the Constitution, raises a question as to whether Parliament will be functioning for a period as an effective political entity. Of course, after a series of by-elections next year Parliament can again become a body containing all “genuine” Australians. But should it make decisions on policies in the meantime or hold a general election that would bring the dual citizenship issue to a head?
Turnbull claims that, assuming Barnaby Joyce is re-elected on 2 December, the Coalition will hold 75 out of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives and also have assurances from sufficient of the 5 non-Labor MPs to support the Coalition if it is faced with a no-confidence motion or a denial of “supply” sufficient to operate government. It will be recalled that in 1975 the Senate “delayed” voting on supply unless the government agreed to call an election, but Whitlam’s refusal to do so led to his dismissal by the GG. But there is no such Constitutional “crisis” in prospect now and nor does there seem to be a dual citizenship crisis which prevents the effective functioning of Parliament. Accordingly, even though his support in Parliament may largely be assured to no confidence motions, Turnbull’s refusal to hold a general election therefore appears justified in this context.
In an article in the Weekend Financial Review, constitutional expert Prof Anne Twomey considers various possible situations, including that the GG could have grounds for dismissing a PM from “such as failures to secure the passage of supply or being defeated on a confidence motion and refusing to resign or request a dissolution”. But she says that “As the PM has already been commissioned to form a government, he has the right to continue to govern until he resigns or is defeated on a matter of confidence on the floor of the House”. She adds that “as sufficient time has now passed since the 2016 election, it would be highly unlikely the Governor-General would refuse a dissolution” (Copy of article is not available digitally).
But a Serious Political Crisis Exists
But there is a serious political crisis in that Turnbull has long ceased to be an effective leader and the Coalition has experienced for a considerable period polling which shows a large negative gap on a TPP basis. An advance copy of tomorrow’s Newspoll released tonight shows that the Coalition’s TPP has actually deteriorated further to 45/55 (from the last 46/54) and Turnbull’s lead as Better PM has been reduced to only 36/34 (from 41/33). He is also rated within the Liberal Party as second to Bishop (27/43). Relevant also is a “special” Newspoll on 31 October which showed that, despite Turnbull’s assertions that Australia must stick to the Paris agreement to cut CO2 emissions by 26-28% by 2030, a withdrawal was supported by 45% with 40% wanting to stay in.
Turnbull’s rushed announcement, with Frydenberg, of a National Energy Guarantee scheme in late October is a recent example of the mis-handling of the increased electricity prices problem which originates mainly from his environment policies. He said it would reduce wholesale generation costs by 20-25% but based his claim on seemingly one-sided advice from “experts” outside the public service and who provided no back-up analysis. Since then some Coalition MPs have given public indications of dissatisfaction with Turnbull’s leadership and his apparent inability to implement policies which are effective and of acceptable costs. Turnbull’s response (sic) has been to take two “official” visits overseas and arrange for substantial TV photo shots for the home audience.
This week-end economist Judith Sloan has outlined significant deficiencies in a number of policies adopted by the Turnbull government and concludes that “the policy record of the Coalition government has been a crushing disappointment. It has been too keen to continue to embark on large-scale government schemes — NBN, Gonski, NDIS — knowing full well that these endeavours almost always end in tears while eating through masses of tax revenue. It has made some monumental mistakes by dithering — VET FEE-HELP, for example — and it has simply refused to do the obvious by reducing the permanent immigration intake to take the pressure off our two largest cities. Most important, it has forgotten the maxim that good policy is good politics” (see Coalition Policy Failures).
In short, there is now an even stronger case to replace Turnbull and for the new leader to call a general election in February next year.
Is It Too Late to Change Leadership?
Some commentators argue that it is now “too late” to change leadership. The Australian’s major political commentator, Paul Kelly, for example, argued that “any new leader would inherit a broken party and would face the exact same problem as Turnbull without the instruments to resolve the crisis and with the certainty of being undermined at once by looming by-elections and the threat of minority government.” Yet the risk is that a continuation with Turnbull as leader will likely worsen not only the electoral outcome but the division within the Liberal Party after the election.
Both the latest Newspoll and the latest polling in the Queensland election confirm a worsening outlook for the Coalition. A Galaxy poll of 900 Queenslanders last week showed support for the LNP had dropped to a five-year low of 32 per cent ahead of the state election while the Labor vote was unmoved at 35 per cent. While neither major party is likely to win a majority, and would have to rely on One Nation (whose polling is strong) and independents to form government, such an outcome would be bad news for the Coalition at the federal level and in regard to subsequent internal divisions.
Another commentator from The Australian, Chris Kenny, has adopted a more realistic assessment: “We approach the end of 2017 seemingly ungoverned and almost ungovernable. The Prime Minister is paralysed by indecision and surrounded by obstacles. The parliament is fragmented and intransigent. Labor is obstructive and ascendant. The media is Balkanised and superficial. Universities, bureaucracies and public broadcasters are activist and misleading”.
Kenny acknowledges that “Some of the wisest heads in parliament and punditry point out that the modern habit of leadership switching is fatal. To dump another prime minister, like another swipe on political Tinder, runs the risk of confirming the shallowness of the enterprise”. But he argues that “there is a large counterpoint to this assessment and that is that the person who created this scenario was Turnbull. The Coalition should have learned all the lessons about stability, weathering difficult times and avoiding leadership convulsions. But Turnbull took them down this path in 2015, inviting intense pressure to perform and a hellish denouement for failure. Voters know this. It is why the Coalition has lost standing in the polls, not to Labor but to breakaways on the right”.
In Kenny’s view, a leadership alternative does exist currently if it is what he describes as a “reversion” viz
“a return to Abbott cannot be ruled out because it would reinstall someone elected in a landslide in 2013 and robbed of a chance at re-election. Marginal MPs know Abbott would fight Shorten on core issues dividing the major parties. He is not popular but he has legitimacy and known campaigning skills. As has been the case since 2009, Turnbull and Abbott remain the only Coalition options this side of an election” (see Kenny on Turnbull/ Abbott). It must be doubted that, while Bishop might be regarded as a reversion, she would be an effective opponent to Shorten and an effective representative of Liberal philosophy.