‘Business as usual’ is a worrying prospect for voters

Still work to do: Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop.

Still work to do: Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop. Photo: AAP

It took Acting Prime Minister Julie Bishop two-and-a-half days for her to get the job, thanks to National Party blowback, but now Malcolm Turnbull’s deputy has assured the nation: “It’s business as usual.”

If that is the case, there is no real reason for optimism.

Ms Bishop went on to say “we’re continuing to govern just from Western Australia”.

If by ‘continuing to govern’ she means the Turnbull government will not fall on the floor of the Parliament, she is almost certainly correct.

Confidence has been assured by at least two of the crossbench in the absence of Barnaby Joyce.

But the “business as usual” that we have seen since last year’s election is certainly not impressive as far as the voters are concerned.

For the 22nd consecutive week, Newspoll has the government trailing badly. It simply can’t close the gap that is entrenched between 6-8 points Labor’s way.

The Liberals may not want to admit to any sense of political crisis but the continuing chaos born of internecine rivalries and unbridgeable policy divides – topped by crass political management – have become the government’s trademark.

The acting PM’s consolation that “there’s 18 months to go till the next election” presumes that the modus operandi, the destabilising underpinnings of the whole show, will somehow miraculously disappear and reverse, is simply incredible.

Almost as unbelievable as Employment Minister Michaelia Cash’s brain snap that it was a good idea to sool her new union attack dog, the Registered Organisations Commission, on to Bill Shorten over political donations made 11 years ago.

Never mind that the documents had been produced to the unions royal commission or that the ROC had to correct its claim that the union had refused to hand them over. It hadn’t. The commissioner was almost as embarrassed as his minister by the farce.

From scandal, to chaos

That abuse of state power and the minister’s denial she knew anything of the police raids is far from over, but it was shunted out of the headlines by the High Court finding Mr Joyce and fellow Nationals cabinet minister Fiona Nash were ineligible to sit in Parliament.

The Court comprehensively rejected the government’s attempt to argue that ignorance of the law was an excuse. It was hardly surprising especially as the nomination form for candidates spells out the need for due diligence about citizenship requirements.

The Prime Minister’s credibility was definite collateral damage. His ‘and the court will so hold’ – always foolish overreach – shows he doesn’t know as much as he would like us all to believe. Mr Turnbull’s retention of Mr Joyce and Ms Nash in cabinet after doubts were raised about the wisdom of it have opened some of their decisions to challenge. Ms Bishop has admitted as much.

Any success Mr Joyce has in winning his by-election won’t end the messiness. Another Nationals’ minister, David Gillespie, faces the Court in December over a pecuniary interest conflict that could see him struck out in similar fashion to Family First’s Bob Day.

The judges confirmed last week they are not into fancy footwork around the words of the constitution.

Mr Joyce will still be out of the Parliament when the marriage equality bill is likely to be debated. The indications are that the ‘Yes’ vote is winning comfortably, but the same conservatives who foisted the $122 million survey on to the nation are now threatening a revolt unless freedom of religion exemptions are extended. One hundred amendments have been foreshadowed.

The Nationals, too, are seething and in a fighting mood over the loss of Ms Nash’s cabinet slot. If Mr Turnbull fails to appease them the chaos could become a real crisis.

Julie Bishop is right. It is business as usual.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. 

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