The Canberra Quarterly presented by Inside Canberra’s Michael Keating

Inside Canberra Michael Keating

Inside Canberra’s Editor-in-Chief Michael Keating provides a summation of Canberra’s political landscape for the last quarter of 2017.

September

Labor has been promising that it would challenge the legitimacy of Barnaby Joyce remaining on the front bench. The argument became a trifle confused when they also challenged the legitimacy of the Coalition to form government because of the doubts over the Deputy Prime Minister’s eligibility to sit in Parliament. The matter was put to the test when the Leader of Opposition Business in the House, Tony Burke, moved for a suspension of standing orders so that Barnaby Joyce’s right to be a minister could be debated. The motion lost by one vote, presumably Mr Joyce’s, because the crossbenchers voted for the motion. The crossbenchers’ position was that he should stand down.

However the crossbenchers’ patience wore thin later in the week and by Wednesday they were voting against Tony Burke’s third motion to suspend standing orders. They were clearly concerned that the Parliament should get back to its core business and were happy to leave Mr Joyce’s future to the High Court.

Anthony Albanese developed a new approach for Labor on Wednesday when he asked a number of questions of Infrastructure Minister, Darren Chester, about projects that had recently been started in Mr Joyce’s electorate of New England. He asked whether the Deputy Prime Minister had already started campaigning for the inevitable by-election that would follow an adverse High Court decision. Mr Chester unashamedly delivered a campaign speech for his National Party leader.

A Senate committee released a Labor majority report that recommended an import ban on flammable building materials. Government representatives opposed the ban, a view that was supported by the fire authorities who appeared before the committee. The view of the experts was that cladding had considerable advantages and the risk could be managed. Labor Senators, led by Senator Kim Carr, said that the flammable materials were the equivalent of asbestos.

October

This week the political circus visited the precincts of the High Court, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns, for the dual citizenship applications related to six Senators and Barnaby Joyce. The hapless politicians were represented by a gaggle of lawyers who were said to be costing the Commonwealth a cool $2 million for the three days of hearings.

When the Solicitor General, Dr Stephen Donaghue QC, opened proceedings the Chief Justice Susan Kiefel asked the obvious question: why did the Court have to deal with this problem when Parliament had been aware of it for 25 years? Dr Donaghue said that there were matters of ambiguity in section 44(1) of the constitution that the Court needed to resolve. The Solicitor General said that the applicants had to be divided into two groups: those who were born overseas and acquired foreign nationality at birth and those who were born in Australia and acquired citizenship by descent. He argued that the latter group should not have to take measures to revoke their foreign nationality because it was not incumbent on them to be aware that they held dual citizenship.

Former Solicitor General Justin Gleeson SC, representing Tony Windsor, argued that this would lead to instability within Parliament because there would be no certainty as to who was eligible to be members and who wasn’t and that the state of parties on the floor of the House of Representatives would be unclear. He argued that it was incumbent on members to undertake the appropriate due diligence.

The lawyers for Malcolm Roberts argued that it was unAustralian for there to be a distinction between people born in Australia and those who were not because Australia was a multicultural country. The Court seemed to lose patience with this argument and his lawyers were repeatedly told to hurry up with their submissions. At the present time there is no indication as to how the court will rule.

Jennifer Westacott at the Press Club

During her address to the National Press Club, Jennifer Westacott, CEO of the Business Council of Australia (BCA), announced a major reform to tertiary education that her organisation wants implemented. She framed the need for the reform in the context of the requirement for Australia to improve productivity if it was to remain competitive within the global economy. This enabled her also to call for energy and tax reform as productivity enablers.

Ms Westacott acknowledged the reform that had taken place in the schools sector as a result of the Gonski initiatives. She said that, while the schools system had received a lot of funding recently, the reform of that sector was still a work in progress. The key was getting students to enjoy school while at the same time acquiring the necessary learning. Mathematics is a key component of that learning and we need to change the way that maths is taught. Ms Westacott added that we need to support and empower teachers in particular through developing an approach that allows good teachers to be paid more without swapping teaching for administration. However she said that before we do more to reform schools we need to settle on the objectives for education. One key objective should be that no child should leave school without a knowledge of reading, writing and mathematics.

When it comes to tertiary education there’s a need to value university and vocational education (VET) equally. At the moment there is a cultural bias in favour of university education. Funding is distorted. University students get substantial subsidies whereas VET students get much less assistance which means that students are more inclined to go to university than to undertake skills based learning. Universities are responding by credentialing more and more courses that are of limited value when it comes to national productivity.

The government spends $20 billion a year on higher education but it has no idea whether it is getting value for money. The BCA has produced a report which recommends measures that would lead to better economic returns from the expenditure. The report suggests that funding should belong to the learner. It proposes that every individual should have a lifelong learning account that would be funded by the government on an assisted loan basis and which could be applied at the owner’s discretion for courses that are deemed to contribute to economic productivity by an independent statutory authority established by the Commonwealth and the states.

The report also proposes the establishment of an independent platform that would list eligible courses, their prospects in the job market and the likely income that would they lead to in comparison with the cost of the course. Ms Westacott argues that this would lead to both a better allocation of educational resources and better economic outcomes.

In the meantime the BCA argues that no more money should be removed from the VET sector and TAFE should be reformed so that it can compete in the education market on the same terms as the private sector. At the same time there should a cost benefit analysis of the tertiary sector to ensure that the government is getting value for money.

Inside Canberra asked Ms Westacott whether a lifelong learning approach should include a reinstitution of the technical colleges first introduced by the Howard government so that secondary students could acquire high level technical skills prior to making career choices. She replied that the priority should be accorded to mature workers who needed to retrain.

Ms Westacott concluded with the observation that big reform was not beyond Australia but that it required leadership from both sides of the political divide and a focus on what was needed for the economy. It is not a case of trade-offs: tax cuts for big business will drive business investment which will lead to higher wages and stronger productivity. Higher tax revenues could support income tax cuts for those coming under pressure from bracket creep. It is not a case of one or the other.

November

Malcolm Turnbull had problems coming at him from all directions: the Libs and the Nats were fighting over the Senate presidency; more Coalition members were under threat of exposure as dual citizens; there were stories appearing that backbenchers are discussing leadership change; and Tony Abbott was talking of a resurgent conservative movement. With Labor threatening to create chaos on the floor of the House of Representatives when Parliament resumes for the last two sitting weeks before the summer break, there were questions about whether the government can hold it together until the end of the year.

The first issue was whether the government can keep control of the parliamentary process until Barnaby Joyce returns after his by-election. In normal circumstances this shouldn’t be a problem: in order to get a bill, say to establish a bank royal commission, voted on, the opposition would have suspend standing orders which requires an absolute majority of 76 votes. With all the Labor members and the crossbenchers it can muster 74 votes at the most so they need two government backbenchers to cross the floor. There are rumours that George Christensen and Warren Entsch are prepared to do that on banks but that remained to be seen. The position is less clear on the other bill that Labor wants to get up, the reversal of the Fair Work Commission (FWC) decision to cut penalty rates. George Christensen had indicated that he was unhappy with the FWC decision and earlier this year he crossed the floor to vote with Labor on a motion to have the issue debated. Labor will target him and Warren Entsch, both of whose electorates have suffered because of the cuts in penalty rates.

The dual citizenship issue is a festering sore for the government. Then over the last few days Josh Frydenberg and Alex Hawke have been outed as potential dual citizens and Labor has called for a process of universal disclosure whereby all Members and Senators will produce any material they have that’s relevant to their citizenship, presumably to the clerks of the House and the Senate who will open them for public inspection. Greens leader Richard Di Natale had a proposal that went further. He wanted to establish a parliamentary committee that would review the citizenship status of all Senators and Members and to refer all those that can’t be completely vindicated to the High Court. Presumably they would be asked to stand aside while their cases were pending. This proposal has hallmarks of Robespierre, St Just and the Committee of Public Safety during the French Revolution. It would be surprising if the parliamentary committee was not dominated by Labor, the Greens and the crossbenchers while the Liberals would be the party in the frame.

The rumours about leadership threats were raised with Tony Abbott’s offsider Kevin Andrews when he was interviewed on Sky News at that time. Mr Andrew’s insisted that he had confidence in the Prime Minister despite being at odds with him over citizenship. He said that he was unaware of any moves against Mr Turnbull at the moment. There are reports circulating that a group within the Liberal Party is trying to destabilise the leadership. This group is said to be behind the allegations over Josh Frydenberg’s citizenship and possibly the story about Alex Hawke. However this doesn’t mean that there is a plot to replace the Prime Minister before the election. At that moment it seemed as if he will lead the Coalition to a calamitous loss.

December

We are approaching the killing season, the time when weak leaders are put to the sword. Malcolm Turnbull is now a leader without authority, unable or unwilling to honour his promises. On same sex marriage he promised religious protections but would not support amendments that were supported by the majority of his party, a majority of his cabinet, and a majority of Liberal voters. The public has stopped listening to him and he can’t get the polls to move in any direction except down.

‘The Australian’s’ Dennis Shanahan says that in the circumstances a party has three options: change the leader; change the ministry; or change the conversation. At the moment the government’s leadership group appears not to want to take any of these options and seems to prefer to lose government. The problem is that, in these circumstances, a substantial number of Liberals will lose their seats. This prospect is making the backbench extremely nervous and causing the Nationals to adopt a separate political identity which is leading to support for a commission of inquiry into the financial sector.

At the end of this week the government will know how many by-elections it is likely to face next year. At the moment it’s reckoned to be at least six which is enough to bring about a change of government. Seen through this prism the Prime Minister will be matched with Bill Shorten in what is a proxy for a general election. If he loses government then he’s finished in politics so jeopardy is closer than ever. At the moment the Liberal Party is not ready for a major political stoush. It’s possible that John Alexander will win the Bennelong by-election because of issues that are peculiar to the electorate but it’s unlikely that these factors will come into play with other by-elections next year which Labor will represent as a referendum on the government and its leader.

And now we see the Prime Minister engaging in major reversal of his long-standing position opposing a royal commission to examine the several wrongdoings of the big four banks, apparently at the direct request of those big four banks although, at least around the water cooler, there seems to be a measure of scepticism about just who prompted who to ask for what.

Oh and another thing: Malcolm Turnbull announced that he’d vote in the Reps in favour of Attorney General George Brandis’ proposed amendment to the same sex marriage bill to protect the position of religious charities.

Stay up-to-date with what’s happening in Canberra by subscribing to Inside Canberra:
www.InsideCanberra.com