Saturday, December 16, 2017

A chaotic three weeks in Australian politics!

It's been a remarkable three weeks or so in Australian politics. It's been quite hard to keep up. In fact, I couldn't, even though I kept notes! Today, I just want to record some of the various happenings.

Marriage Equality

Wednesday 29 November 2017, the bill to legalise same sex marriage passed the Australian Senate. The vote was 43 ayes, 12 noes, with 17 absences or abstentions including approved leave from the chamber. On 4 December, the bill entered the House of Representatives, passing on 7 September. Only four MPs voted against, with a further nine absent or abstaining.

There was a certain romantic moment when Liberal MP Tim Wilson proposed. (photo Canberra Times) to his partner Ryan Bolger during his speech on the bill.. Mr Bolger, who was sitting in the visitor's gallery for the speech, said yes, a response duly recorded in Hansard.

It's been something of a roller coaster ride to this point, one whose culmination I wanted to note. It's been an issue where my own views have shifted over time from a degree of neutrality, I wasn't opposed but was concerned about pushing too hard, to public support for immediate action to bring the change about. . .

I had reservations about the voluntary ABS electoral survey on the issue. Whatever the validity of those reservations, the results (79.5% voting, 61.6% yes vote) were a sweeping affirmation in support of change. All states and territories voted yes, while 133 of the 150 House of Representatives electorates recorded a yes vote. You will find the full results here.

The distribution of majority no electorates was not quite what people expected; 14 of the 17 were in Sydney (12) and Melbourne (2). Only three regional electorates voted no, all in Queensland. The 14 electorates voting were all home to significant migrant communities.

Queensland Elections

Queensland went to the polls on Saturday, 25 November 2017. It took considerable time to finalise the results although the most likely result, the return of  Labor Party Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk with a slim majority, was clear quite quickly.

ABC election analyst Antony Green said on the night that this was the most difficult election he had ever had to call. I'm not sure why, for the results were a fairly accurate reflection of the public opinion polls which showed a close context in which the final balance would be determined by the on-ground contests in a small number of individual seats.

Main stream media commentary focused on the One Nation party results, with some surprise that the party had "failed' to win more seats. Again, I don't know why. One Nation was polling well in absolute terms, but it was going to be hard for it to translate that vote into actual victories because of the nature of preference arrangements. One Nation had to win clearly or at least get sufficiently far in front of the Liberal National Party candidates so that their preferences would carry One Nation to victory. This was always going to be a challenge.

I think that part of the problem for both Mr Green and the media commentators was Queensland's reintroduction of full compulsory preferential voting. Under this system, voters have to rank all candidates in order of preference. Preferences are then distributed until one candidate gets a majority of the vote.

I grew up under this system and do understand it. It tends to weaken the dominance of the main party machines by giving greater freedom to independents and minor parties to break through in particular seats. My own political biases mean that I like this system. I like minorities and individual results, I don't like the machines. Australia is not and never has been divided into just two main parties.

National Party Ructions and the Banking Royal Commission

The lead-up to the Queensland election had seen growing tensions within the Coalition, tensions not helped by the forced absence of National Party leader Barnaby Joyce campaigning to regain his seat of New England following the High Court decision that he was a dual New Zealand citizen and that consequently his previous election was invalid. Having renounced his right to New Zealand citizenship, Mr Joyce was free to run,  but his absence combined with the loss of the National's Deputy Leader Fiona Nash to the same citizenship imbroglio that had snared Mr Joyce left the party effectively headless.

While many factors played into the tensions between the Liberal and National parties, a key element was the belief that that Nationals had become submerged, that the party needed to assert its own identity or risk electoral disaster. This belief is not new, but has grown in strength over the last few years.

We saw it during the WA elections where the Liberal and National parties ran independent campaigns. We saw it in NSW where the Nationals' desire to assert independence, if still within a coalition framework brought down both Liberal premier Mike Baird and the then leader of the National Party Troy Grant, with Mr Grant .replaced by  John Barilaro, the member for Monaro. We have seen it federally with Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash running an active campaign centered on the decentralisation theme, presenting the Nationals as the party of the regions.

The position in Queensland has been especially complex, for there you have a combined party, the Liberal National Party. In a formal sense, the LNP is actually a division of the Liberal Party. There are no LNP members in the State parliament. However, Federal members may choose to sit as either Liberals or Nationals. Faced with the rise of One Nation, the continued existence of the Katter Australia Party and the unpopularity of the Liberal Party in some regional areas, Queensland Nationals have been asserting the need for separate identity, campaigning under the National rather than LNP banner.

Banks have been a hot issue in the bush for a long time. A number of National Party parliamentarians including Inverell based NSW National Party senator John 'Wacka' Williams, have been campaigning  for reform for a very long time . Senator Williams has not limited himself to the banks, but has also (among others) pursued auditors and insolvency practitioners such as Newcastle liquidator Stuart Ariff, earning a reputation as a tenacious and wily inquisitor.

The push for a banking and financial services royal commission was supported by the Greens and increasingly the ALP. However, it was strongly resisted by the Government who argued that it was already taking action, that a commission would not achieve anything and could damage the financial sector. It would, the Prime Minister said, be "rank socialism".

On Thursday 23 November, Queensland National senator Barry O'Sullivan unveiled draft  legislation for an extensive probe that ranges from banking, insurance and superannuation services to the adequacy of regulation and the treatment of small business and farmers. The draft Banking, Insurance, Superannuation and Financial Services Commission of Inquiry Bill  had been drafted so that its wide-ranging terms of reference reflected almost everything the Greens, Labor, One Nation, Bob Katter and the Nationals had variously demanded, with the intention that it would be broadly supported and passed quickly.

Pressure was brought to bear on Senator O'Sullivan not to proceed. However, following the Queensland elections on the Saturday  (25 November) which accentuated dissent, it became clear that enough Nationals were likely to cross the floor to get the legislation through. The issue had become another distraction throwing doubt on Mr Turnbull's leadership at a time when the introduction of the same sex marriage bill should have provided a welcome relief from partisan politics. By Friday 1 December, temperatures had reached the point where NSW Deputy Premier and National Leader John Barilaro called on Mr Turnbull to go.

It is obvious that discussions had been going on among ministers, in cabinet and with the banks. Later that  Friday, the Prime Minister announced that there would be a Royal Commission. into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry with Honourable Kenneth Madison Hayne AC as Royal Commissioner.

The New England By-election

Saturday 2 December saw the New England by-election. This had been a nasty campaign.

From the social media feeds, I learned far more of Mr Joyce's personal life than I ever wanted to know. I kept wanting to say stop. Mr Joyce is a public figure, but what you are doing is not fair on anybody else.

I was also conscious of what these social media accentuated divides are doing to social cohesion in smaller communities where, at the end of the day, people have to work together. I guess that's another story, but it's something that is important to me in a personal sense. I was sharply reminded of this on a recent visit to Armidale. My friends span political and indeed issues divides. Sometimes you just have to shut up, keep your opinions to yourself.

Mr Turnbull and the Government needed a circuit breaker in this election and they got it. Mr Joyce scored a primary vote of 65.1%, a swing of 12.8%. You can see the relief on Mr Turnbull's face. It was also an election that marked the end of the New England independents, as well as (but less certainly) a further decline in the Green protest cause. This is something I should write on for historical records. 

Section 44 and the continued Citizenship Imbroglio

Mr Turnbull needed Mr Joyce back in Parliament and they got him there quickly thanks to the election result. With votes in the House of Representatives, the Prime Minister needed him partly for his general support, more because  of the constantly evolving crisis over Section 44(i) of the Australian constitution and eligibility for membership of the Australian Parliament. Now the wheels came off for Labor leader Shorten, at least in the short term.

As I wrote previously,  Mr Turnbull's ho-hum attitude to the two Green senators who became the first victims of the crisis (they should have done their paperwork better) set the stage for his problems. Now, Mr Shorten was to experience the pain.

Mr Shorten had adopted the view that the ALP's vetting procedures were robust, that this was a coalition problem. As members of the two houses began to provide details of their family and citizenship, it quickly became clear that Labor had a problem too.

Now I have argued previously that the whole mess is something of a nonsense. This story by Jeremy Gans, Papers, please!, points to some of the difficulties. In a multi-ethnic country like this one where people come from multiple places in often difficult circumstances, it's just not possible to provide documentation of the level required where, in any event, the question of multiple citizenship also depends upon changing law in other countries and especially decisions by authorities in those countries on the position under their law.

I was especially struck by the need for our Aboriginal politicians with mixed heritage to provide information, to try to prove, their family trees in circumstances where their story is one of dispossession. The idea that an Aboriginal politician should be disbarred from Parliament because they happen to have a Scottish or British or whatever parent or grandparent strikes me as a pernicious nonsense.

Whatever the arguments, Mr Shorten's certainty and desire to gain political points made it extremely difficult for him to negotiate a sensible approach to the problem once Labor's problems emerged. So far, two Labor parliamentarians have been referred to the High Court. More may follow on both sides in helter-skelter unless the parties can agree a sensible approach.         .  

Section 44(i) of the Australian Constitution is not the only part of Section 44 creating problems for eligibility to Parliament. When Senator Nash was determined by the High Court to be ineligible to stand on citizenship grounds, the procedures laid down by the Court mean that the next person on the combined Liberal-National ticket, Hollie Hughes, was elected. However, there was a problem.

Following the election, Ms Hughes had taken a position on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, a Government appointment that she resigned as soon as Senator Nash was declared to be ineligible. On Wednesday 15 November 2017, the High Court ruled that Ms Hughes was ineligible. (here, here). The argument seems to run this way. Because Senator Nash was ineligible, Ms Hughes had in fact been elected. However, because she had, her subsequent acceptance of an office of profit under the crown meant that she was no longer eligible to be a senator and consequently could not take Senator Nash's place. Go figure!

On Tuesday 12 December, another eligibility question under S44 reached the High Court. The question here is whether Assistant Health Minister and National MP for Lyne David Gillespie is eligible to sit in Parliament.

Labor candidate Peter Alley, who unsuccessfully against Mr Gillespie, filed an application under the Common Informers Act in July in the first major case of its kind, arguing that Dr Gillespie should be disqualified because he allegedly holds an indirect pecuniary interest in an agreement with the commonwealth. The interest in question is the ownership of a small shopping centre in which one tenancy is held by a local agency of Australia Post.

The case raises a number of quite important constitutional issues. Watch this space.

Senator Dastyari and China

With Barnaby Joyce's victory, Labor's citizenship woes and then the marriage equality vote, Prime Minister Turnbull was on something of a roll. Then came the forced resignation of Labor Senator Dastyari over his China links.The issue was not so much the links themselves, but the way that Senator Dastyari prevaricated over aspects of them.

The Dastyari affair came at a time of increased sensitivity about Chinese involvement in Australian politics. Mr Tunbull combined the two in responses that played upon Australian concerns including national security and even included phases in Mandarin. The Chinese response was quite strong.

Over the period of the Howard, Rudd/Gillard and Abbott/Turnbull Governments, we have seen a constant stream of responses on issues with international implications that are driven by short term local political considerations. I suspect that this falls in this class. It deserves a fuller response.

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse

On Friday 15 December, the Royal Commission into institutional responses to child abuse delivered its final report.  This has been a long and complex inquiry, one that has been wearing on the Commission, its staff and the victims involved. Given the sensitivities of the issues, I think that all those involved really deserve commendation for the way they have approached the process.

Whether all the recommendations, the hopes and aspirations that flow from the process, are sensible or possible is a separate issue. Having studied the history of child welfare in NSW, I don't believe that perfection, the avoidance of all harm, even sometimes the achievement of positive results, is possible. Sometimes, initiatives intended to address and redress problems have worse results than the system they amended or replaced. We would have been better off if nothing had been done.

This is not an argument against taking action. Improvement is a process. Things only improve, injustices addressed, because people try.

At a professional level, I have to look at the detail of the report, because the problems identified and addressed fall within the scope of the history I am writing.

Bennelong By-election

Today, Saturday 16 December, is the by-election brought about because John Alexander, the sitting member, was declared ineligibly elected by the High Court. he is running again having sorted out his citizenship paper work. His labor opponent is Kristina Keneally, a former NSW Premier.  
This is an important by-election, given the present Australian Government's razor thin one seat majority. If Mr Alexander holds the seat, Mr Turnbull maintains his momentum.

The results are too close to call. The opinion polls suggest Mr Alexander will retain the seat, if with a swing. But there are some problems with the polls, because (among other things) people are sick of being polled. This electorate also has the largest overseas born Chinese voting population (around 16%) in Australia and no-one knows how they are are reacting to the China controversy.


This post basically covers just three weeks in Australian politics. Can you see why I am struggling to keep up?


The Liberal's John Alexander had a reasonably comfortable win in Bennelong (here, here) if with a considerable swing against him, thus restoring the Government's one seat majority in the House of Representatives. With counting still proceeding, the Australian Conservatives Joram Richa  is on 4.5% of the vote.

This was the Party's first lower house outing, and they appeared to devote considerable resources to the contest.There was a second Christian party candidate running, Gui Dong Cao from the Christian Democrats, a long established NSW party. The main Australian Conservative vote seems to have come from the Christian Democrat vote, although the two parties combined did achieve a small swing compared with the Christian Democrat vote at the general election.  

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