Section 44’s biggest scalp yet has thrown the Turnbull government into chaos, but the Prime Minister’s response to the saga reeks of desperation. Section 44 is a clause in the Australian Constitution prohibiting those under the influence of a foreign power from holding office. In light of revelations surrounding Barnaby Joyce’s dual citizenship, Turnbull and his ministers have pivoted straight into conspiracy mode, alleging collusion between the Australian and New Zealand Labor parties. The significance of a potential ouster of Joyce from his New England electorate cannot be overstated, which lends the government’s response a sort of cornered animal ferocity. Unfortunately, their punches have not landed, and have incited almost as much pity as they have disappointment.
Turnbull’s torrid recent run has illuminated just how tenuous his hold on power is, and the prospect of losing his deputy Prime Minister and his one seat majority in the lower house has necessitated significant changes. However, alleging international conspiracy to topple the Liberal government is not only the height of hubris, but also political foolishness.
Led by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s accusations of trans-Tasman Labor treachery, the Liberal offensive has aimed to discredit Labor in the interim between now and the High Court’s ruling on Barnaby Joyce’s ministerial eligibility. In doing so, however, the government has revealed their own inadequacies and set a dangerous precedent for Australian politics moving forward.
With three federal politicians previously forced to resign due to their unwitting possession of dual citizenship; Joyce’s case is not ground-breaking. What is unique about this instance, however, is that the government has taken no responsibility for this situation. In reality, it is the deputy Prime Minister and the government’s fault for this oversight, and it is they who have thrown into doubt their slim majority in the house, not Labor. That Turnbull and Bishop have the gall to accuse Labor of treason amidst a scandal of their own unwitting making is plainly desperate. Rather than securing their position until Joyce’s future is cleared up, this tactic has merely revealed to the opposition and the public how truly damaged the government is. After a calendar year which has seen the failings of the NBN, Cory Bernardi’s defection, George Christensen crossing the floor, Tony Abott’s overt dissension and now the universally panned plebiscite, the Turnbull government’s hold on power has never been weaker. That is the root of this desperate accusation. The government feels so threatened by the prospect of losing their slender majority – on top of public opinion – that they feel compelled to thrash out at all justified opposition; unfortunately for Turnbull, it was a gravely miscalculated move.
As damaging to the government’s credibility as these accusations of trans-Tasman collusions are, the damage done to Australian-New Zealand relations is potentially graver. In her scathing attacks against both Labor parties, Bishop censured the conduct of the New Zealand Labor party and alleged that leader Jacinda Adern sought to influence the Australian parliament to the benefit of Bill Shorten. Bishop also asserted that should New Zealand Labor win government, she would find it difficult to work with them. Such harshly worded statements are hardly appropriate for a close ally, least of all one with so much shared history and so many common goals. What renders Bishop’s attacks even more ridiculous is her claim that she would find cooperation with a New Zealand Labor government difficult in her role as foreign minister, despite her ability to find common ground with representatives from nations like Iran and the Philippines. Clearly the New Zealand Labor party’s role in some far-flung conspiracy against her party is a bigger disqualifier than any of the injustices of the Khamenei or Duterte regimes. Bishop’s credibility, not to mention Australian-NZ relations have taken a big hit.
Desperate attempts to stave off a big political defeat rarely succeed, but few seem as futile as the one perpetrated by the government last week. Damaging to both their own reputations and relations with New Zealand, the accusations of Labor collusion bear the hallmarks of recent Liberal self-inflicted wounds. Time will tell if the government can recover from the potential scalp of Barnaby Joyce by Section 44, but lobbing wild allegations and threats across the Tasman likely isn’t the best way to proceed.
Dante Boffa is currently studying a Bachelor of Communication (Public Relations) at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). He begun writing at an early age, and has an interest in current affairs and classic literature, his influences are varied and ever expanding. For more, follow Dante on Instagram.