It's not business as usual for Australian politics

A decade of infighting leaves political parties unable to gain support from voters, and reform efforts in shambles.

It is conceivable that before Christmas, Australia will have a new government - its fifth in 10 years and the sixth prime minister in the same period - because the father of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was born in New Zealand.

Although unlikely, it is possible the High Court could rule that National Party leader Joyce was ineligible to be elected at the last election under the Constitution, along with a handful of senators, because he was a dual citizen or eligible to be a citizen of another country.

The citizenship crisis began in the Australian winter parliamentary break when two Greens senators resigned because they were found to be dual citizens. It then rapidly expanded to include two Nationals senators, Mr Nick Xenophon of the eponymous Nick Xenophon Team, a One Nation senator, another Green and finally Mr Joyce, the only member of the House of Representatives being challenged in the High Court.

The conflation of cases means this is not just a matter for individual or even party survival; an entire government hangs in the balance of the court decision.The Malcolm Turnbull-led Coalition government scraped back into power last year by only a one-seat majority in the House of Representatives.

The situation is even more complicated in the Senate, where the government does not have a majority and must deal with up to 10 non-aligned senators to pass legislation, if the Australian Labor Party and the Greens join forces to obstruct Coalition legislation and budget measures.

The real catastrophe for the Coalition will occur in the House of Representatives if Mr Joyce is ruled ineligible and it is forced into a by-election before Christmas, because the government will then not have a parliamentary majority.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, at Parliament House in Canberra in August. Mr Joyce, the National Party leader, faces a High Court decision on whether he was ineligible to be elected at the last polls under the Constitution, because he was a dual citizen or eligible to be a citizen of another country. PHOTO: REUTERS

At the moment, enough of the five independent MPs in the Lower House provide assurances that the government will not face a no-confidence motion or have its supply Bills blocked in the event of a lack of majority on the floor of Parliament.

But - and again this is unlikely but possible - if a by-election is forced in Mr Joyce's New South Wales seat of New England, and the government were to lose there in the face of a concerted independent challenge, then Mr Turnbull's government would lose its precious one-seat majority. It would be forced to deal again with independents to continue to govern, in the face of opposition Labor and the Greens' stonewalling to deny the government support.

It would be a throwback to 2010 when then Prime Minister Julia Gillard lost her majority at the election and was forced to deal with the independents, and negotiated a majority for Labor. It is likely this time that enough of the independents would support Labor's Bill Shorten to become prime minister.

It is also a possibility that PM Turnbull, faced with the prospect of losing a by-election that alters the balance of power against him, will choose to call a general election for the House of Representatives.

So, an election by Christmas or a new government with a new prime minister are two distinct possibilities.

Many people outside Australia are bewildered at how the citizenship debacle that first appeared quaint has evolved, escalating to constitutional challenges that can overthrow a government in power.

While much has been written about the stability of Australia despite its long period of political revolving doors, my own view is that this latest episode is different.

We cannot shrug it off as just an example of uncertainty and improbable politics. Nor should we assume that this is just a debate over a constitutional anachronism that can be safely ignored by relaxed Aussies still enjoying relative comfort and economic security.

It is not business as usual for Australia. Instead, this episode is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in the once-Lucky Country.

Indeed, this episode could not have come about if it were not for a decade-long build-up of public dissatisfaction with the major political parties, an absence of effective leadership, poll-driven disruptions, the cavalier removal of prime ministers, almost perpetual Senate obstructionism, populism without regard to policy, and a lack of bipartisanship on almost everything except the most basic and politically acceptable areas.

After more than two decades of stable, reforming and economically successful governments under the teams of Mr Bob Hawke and Mr Paul Keating, and Mr John Howard and Mr Peter Costello, there has been a decade of instability, uncertainty and increasingly limited necessary reforms.

The major parties have succumbed over the last decade to professional politicians using polling and perpetual electioneering to remove leaders and avoid tough decisions, and political leadership has lost the ability to convince the electorate of the need for tough decisions. Disenchanted voters have turned to micro-parties, populist independents and fringe groups in unprecedented numbers.

This has been reflected in the Senate, whether under Labor or the Coalition, where balance-of-power senators have been able to bargain over legislative changes, sweetheart deals or simply block vital reforms.

One example is the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which the Turnbull government just managed to re-introduce, but only after agreeing to an almost emasculation of the Bill. The commission is a watchdog established by the Howard government to stop corruption and improve productivity.

Meanwhile, more than A$20 billion (S$21.3 billion) in Budget savings proposed by the Tony Abbott government were simply dropped in the face of Senate obstruction, pension cuts and welfare savings have been trimmed back, and proposed cuts to business tax have stalled even as the United States moves to cut its rates further.

At the International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington, Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison was able to report signs of an improving economy with more jobs being created, growth improving to be on track for 3 per cent in 2018-19, the best business outlook for a year and a lower Budget deficit in the final figures for the 2016-2017 Budget year.

But many other essential reforms remain blocked, distant or diminished, such as critical spending cuts, productivity rises, wage rises, education reforms, the spread of the national broadband network and industrial reforms.

Reform is now incremental in Australia and at the mercy of political disenchantment from the voting public and opportunistic populism from political leaders keen to govern and hold power but seeming to have lost the ability to know what to do with that power.

The Australian economy continues to grow in spite of the bizarre political occurrences, but longer-term prosperity and resilience are going to require some political reappraisal and reconnection.

  • The writer, political editor of The Australian daily paper, has been covering politics out of Canberra since 1989.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2017, with the headline 'It's not business as usual for Australian politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe