Wentworth, or, How to Hang a Parliament

I’ve been meaning to do another ‘what the hell is going on in Australian politics this week’ post for a while, but I simply can’t keep up.  The ridiculousness just moves way too fast for me to keep up.

But since my computer has just died, and trying to read and synthesise dozens of tiny party policies is an absolute pain on my tiny travel laptop (I like having all the policies open at once in separate windows, so I can group them more readily, and you need a big screen for that), and since I’ve wound up having a day off to take my computer to the computer doctor (two hours with no news is hopefully good news for my data, at least); and since my US friends could probably use the distraction of someone else’s utterly ludicrous politics right now, I feel like now is a good time to catch people up on the most recent installment of Australia’s most popular new soap opera – Pollies  Behaving Stupidly.

(And speaking of good times to do things – it looks like I need to buy a new computer, which was not quite in my budget yet, so if you appreciate what I do here, I’d love it if you’d consider clicking on the ‘Buy me a coffee’ link on the right hand side of this page and dropping me a couple of dollars.)

So. You may recall that in 2016, Turnbull’s Liberal (properly Coalition, but we will leave the shenanigans in the Nationals for later) government squeaked back into power with a one seat majority.

(Digression: I’ve just re-read what I wrote back in 2016, and I am so very, very, sorry, Australia.  I promise never again to make sarcastic predictions about who will be our next Prime Minister.) (On second thoughts…  Oh no!  What if Penny Wong were to become our next PM?  What a terrifying and bizarre notion!  Surely such a thing could never happen!)

(I mean, you never know your luck, right?  Maybe she will come down from the Senate to save us all…)

Anyway. In August this year, Dutton challenged Turnbull for the leadership and Scott Morrison won, which makes sense if you are in Australia (I lie. It’s ridiculous. But we enjoyed it because we hate Dutton slightly more than we hate Morrison).

So Turnbull resigned, leaving his seat vacant, meaning they needed to elect someone new for his seat. Which should have been fine because the Liberal Party has held that seat for as long as there has been a Liberal Party to hold it, and before that, it belonged to the Conservatives, so basically it’s been in conservative hands for 117 years and Turnbull held it with a 17% majority.

Except… the voters in that seat *really* liked Turnbull, and they were Not Happy when he got rolled.   This is an electorate of old-school Liberal voters, who are by and large well-educated, economically conservative, and socially progressive enough to have voted an enthusiastic Yes (80.8%) in the Marriage Equality plebiscite.

Also, Australia in general is getting pretty peeved with the government, which persists in doing incredibly stupid things. For example, in the week or so leading up to the election:

  • Some helpful soul leaked a government report on religious freedom, that included the right of schools to expel gay students and sack gay teachers.
  • The government accidentally voted yes on on a motion proposed by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation stating that it’s ‘OK to be white’, and then claimed this was an administrative error.  (Is it better to be racist, or completely incompetent?  What about both at the same time?)
  • Morrison attempted to woo the Orthodox Jewish vote in Wentworth by announcing that Australia would move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.  This was politically stupid for many reasons, including, but not limited to, the facts that:
    • We are currently in the middle of negotiating trade agreements with our various south-east-Asian neighbours who are, by and large, Muslim, and who were extremely unamused by the entire idea.
    • As were our security organisations. And we don’t really know what our Foreign Affairs people thought about it, because evidently they found out about it at the same time we did!
    • The Orthodox Jewish community had already voted before the announcement was made, on account of the fact that they are Orthodox Jewish and our elections are held on the Sabbath.  So as far as blatant wooing of your electorate goes, this was a wash.
    • Australians are, by and large, not big on public and stupid displays of religiously-inspired political posturing, especially if it’s likely to have nasty economic and political consequences.  (I honestly don’t understand why the Liberal Party keeps trying to play by USA rules when we have a very different culture to the USA.)
    • The independent candidate is also Jewish, though not Orthodox, so…
  • Meanwhile, the other half of the Coalition (the National Party) spent the week making the sort of noises that suggested that they were about to roll their party leader and bring back the one who resigned a few months ago under a cloud after a series of scandals involving allegations of sexual harrassment; very definite sex (probably consensual, if a bit dubious in terms of power dynamics, and was certainly extramarital – which we probably would have cared about a lot less if he hadn’t gone on and on and on about the sanctity of marriage during the plebiscite last year) with a staffer; the creation of very highly paid jobs for said staffer; and a bit of bonus travel rorting.

Note that this is just one fortnight in the life of the Morrison government. They are not usually quite this concentrated in their stupidity, but absolutely all of this was in character.

And in contrast to this, we have Independent candidate Kerryn Phelps, a local doctor and community leader who was very prominent in the ‘Yes’ campaign for Marriage Equality, who feels very strongly that we need to do something about climate change and about protecting refugees, and who converted to Judaism many years ago so that she could marry her wife.  (Note, I’m not saying that the Orthodox community would *approve* of her Judaism, but it still feels like the wrong string to pull…)  She’s conservative enough to appeal to those who can’t bring themselves to vote Labor, and she is very definitely not a member of the Liberal Party.  The perfect candidate for people who are very unimpressed with the Morrison government and want to send a message.

… and guess which seat a 27% swing away from the government on the evening of the election, which reduced to a slightly-less impressive but still more-than-sufficient 19% swing over the following weeks, and went to the independent candidate who represents an awful lot of the things the government most dislikes?

Which leaves the government with not enough seats to pass bills unless they can get the independents or other parties to agree. And this is the party that went on and on about how Labor had no mandate and shouldn’t be allowed to govern because they were a minority government. And were unstable because of leadership changes. Oops.

And, apparently the Liberals are now talking about rolling Morrison, because clearly the lesson to take from all this is that Australians just love changing prime minister twice a year.  Or maybe it’s all Turnbull’s fault, because he should have campaigned for the Liberals after they dumped him.  Also, Malcolm Turnbull should stay out of politics. And if he goes to Indonesia, he shouldn’t say things on behalf of the government.  Even if he was sent by the government.  And has those things in writing from Scott Morrison.

Oops, looks like another administrative error…

It’s nice to see them learning from their mistakes, eh?

Setting aside the Schadenfreude, which is considerable, there are some interesting and mildly hopeful things coming out of this.

First, the situation in Nauru, which I haven’t written about here for a while (I’ve been saving my fire for the government), has been getting increasingly brutal, with large numbers of children suffering from resignation syndrome, the chief medical officer and Medicins Sans Frontieres having been kicked off the island (this suddenly sounds like a reality TV show…), the Australian government fighting tooth and nail to prevent sick children from being brought here for treatment, and rumours that parents of children with mental health issues are now being arrested by the Nauruan government for the crime of child neglect, which is just despicable.

It’s reaching that tipping point where even more right-leaning Australians are beginning to feel uncomfortable (and about bloody time, but never mind that). Increasing numbers of Australians have been getting vocal about this, including some Liberal backbenchers.  It’s also something that Kerryn Phelps feels very strongly about.

So it’s probably a coincidence that just last week the government announced its intention to get all children off Nauru by Christmas, don’t you think?

(NB: the government is still fighting medical evacuations.  Because of course they are.  And it should be noted that we also shouldn’t be imprisoning and torturing adults, but we’ll set that aside for now.)

But also… remember that one seat majority that the government doesn’t have any more?  One thing they have been doing with it is blocking attempts to refer Liberal MPs to the High Court for possible Section 44 violations.   Now, we have mostly become familiar with Section 44 because of all the dual citizenship cases, but actually, this section covers a wide range of reasons why someone might not be eligible to sit in Parliament.

Like, for example, if an MP is married to someone who is benefiting directly from government funding to childcare centres under new legislation which the MP in question helped to write.

Remember Peter Dutton, and how he was really quite sure that he was eligible to sit in Parliament?  Well, last time Parliament voted on whether he shold be referred, they only won by one vote.  And there are several crossbenchers now who are pretty unhappy about the refugee situation.  And Julie Bishop has made some entirely unreassuring noises about how, if such a thing were to come up, she would vote ‘on its merits’. (She seems to have changed her mind since then.  But I wouldn’t feel too confident, were I Dutton.)

And Kerryn Phelps, who is very pro-refugee, who is not a fan of Morrison’s right-wing social agenda, and who, as a leader of the Yes campaign, probably remembers far better than I do that the postal plebiscite was Peter Dutton’s idea… has responded to yesterday’s official declaration that she is the winner of the Wentworth seat by immediately seeking an urgent briefing on the possible referral of both Dutton and Chris Crewther to the High Court.

And if the High Court rules as conservatively on Dutton and Crewther as they have on other Section 44 violations, that means two more by-elections.

And both Dutton and Crewther are sitting in very marginal seats – with margins of 3% and 1%, respectively.

And the Australian public is getting very sick of this government, and there is a lot of quite personal animus against Dutton, and not just from this blogger.

And Scott Morrison thinks that minority governments are non-functional…

Stay tuned for the next exciting installment…

4 thoughts on “Wentworth, or, How to Hang a Parliament

  1. The problem is that Phelps has committed to the government serving out its term (probably not least because she doesn’t really want to go through another election campaign straight after this one, particularly not if it saw a swing back again in order to keep a conservative government in power.) So I don’t honestly think that there will be two more by-elections before the next Federal election, although when that will be is anyone’s guess (there is a sweep going on in a few places. I tend to think they’ll get to May.)

    The kids off Nauru sounds like a sop to keep people uninformed and happy that at least we’re not torturing kids. Which we still are because even when we bring them here we’re still keeping them locked up, which is absolutely horrendous. Also if they age out they stay locked up. Also if their fathers are unfortunate enough to be being kept on Manus or Nauru then the kids don’t get to see them.

    I really wish we were not in the business of torturing people. But apparently we are. One slightly hopeful thing is that Hillsong people are now joining protests about Nauru and Manus Island. It’d be nice if they manage to join the bloc and convince the government that this “solution” is more expensive and trouble than it is worth.

    • I absolutely agree re the kids off Nauru stuff – it’s not enough. But I’m willing to take any win in that direction, and then keep pushing for more. And yes – I was pleased to see that even the ACL was pushing for the kids off Nauru and Manus thing. Love Makes A Way is ecumenical and has a fair number of evangelicals in it as well.

      Regarding Phelps… I saw that. But if she is committed to supporting the government until the next election, why would she be suggesting referring Dutton et al to the High Court? (To blackmail the government into better behaviour on refugees, I suggest hopefully?)

      I think you are probably right overall, but I’m trying to be optimistic as far as possible…

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