2 December 2017
Little more needs to be said or written regarding the trouble afflicting Malcolm Turnbull since he led the Liberal-National Coalition to a narrow election win last year. After he became leader of the Liberal Party, and thereby Prime Minister, in a surprise challenge to incumbent Tony Abbott in September 2015, he was initially much more popular than his predecessor. But that popularity dropped away, and when Australians went to the polls in July 2016, he finished up with a one-seat majority. Since then, he’s endured all sorts of dramas.
Basically, many within the Liberal ranks can’t abide him. He’s long been a man with principles, but they’re different from what many Liberals support, and he can’t act upon them. This makes him look weak, and questions continually loom over his leadership.
One of the dramas afflicting him, however, looks like ending today, with a by-election happening in the seat of New England, in rural New South Wales. Barnaby Joyce held the seat until October, when a court ruling disqualified him and four other people from Federal Parliament. By-elections usually allow voters to show governments, and indeed their opponents as well, what they think of them, so as to send a message of sorts ahead of general elections. But Joyce looks like winning today’s by-election. This should give Turnbull some breathing space.
This whole drama started a few months ago, when the Greens lost Senator Scott Ludlam, who resigned after learning that he was a dual citizen. By law, members of Parliament cannot be citizens of countries other than Australia. Ludlam had been born overseas and came to Australia as a child, but despite becoming an Australian citizen, he was found to retained citizenship of another country, so he resigned from the Senate.
The Greens then lost another Senator under similar circumstances, and word got out about numerous other politicians being in trouble because of dual citizenship. In some cases, by virtue of having parents born overseas, politicians had been citizens of other countries, without their own knowledge. And one of those caught up in the drama was Joyce, who was leader of the Nationals and Deputy Prime Minister when it all began.
Seven politicians had their citizenship status, and thereby their eligibility for Federal Parliament, examined in court. Joyce was among the seven. In October, the court ruled that five of them, including Joyce, were dual citizens, and they were disqualified from Parliament as a result.
It turned out that more politicians had citizenship clouds having over their heads, but the allegations surrounding them didn’t surface all at once. This was why not all of them had their citizenship status examined in court. Since then, all Federal MPs have been required to verify their citizenship, and the whole saga won’t end for some time yet.
In the meantime, although Joyce wasn’t the only politician disqualified in that October court ruling, he was the only member of the House of Representatives to be disqualified, so only his seat would have a by-election. The other disqualified people were Senators, so the Senate results from the 2016 election were simply recounted, and new candidates were subsequently elected.
That said, another by-election will be held later this month for similar reasons to those affecting Joyce. It’ll be in Bennelong, in northern Sydney, from which sitting Liberal MP John Alexander resigned after suspecting that he too had dual citizenship. He actually resigned before he could be referred to court. But this by-election isn’t happening today because he resigned long after the start of the drama in which Joyce was caught up.
Naturally, both Joyce and Alexander sorted out issues regarding their citizenship, so they were free to run as candidates for the by-elections. In the case of Joyce, the New England by-election taking place today should be settled easily.
He first won New England in 2013, upon the retirement of popular Independent MP Tony Windsor, who’d won it in 2001. Normally it’d be a safe seat for the Nationals.
Windsor won it from Stuart St Clair, a first-term National who’d entered Parliament in place of the long-serving Ian Sinclair in 1998. Sinclair had held the seat since 1963, after a few years in the State Parliament of NSW. He became leader of the Nationals in early 1984, and was dumped from the leadership in 1989. He retired after losing preselection to St Clair. But Windsor ended St Clair’s brief career in 2001.
New England is a rural seat where the Labor Party is usually an irrelevancy, although Sinclair came close to losing the seat a few times. Notwithstanding Sinclair’s close calls, many voters here don’t see Labor as caring about them, although Labor’s vote is often inflated as voters who hate the Nationals end up voting for Labor. Over recent decades, other voters have become unhappy with the Nationals, but they couldn’t vote for Labor either. When Windsor ran, he won the votes of those unhappy with both the Nationals and Labor. When he retired, he left Joyce an easy path to victory.
Major disillusionment with the Coalition probably won’t cost Joyce today’s New England by-election. There’s no appealing alternative out there. The Bennelong by-election will be closer, but I suspect that Alexander will win. The two by-elections should therefore see Turnbull through for a period of time.