With the resignations of the two ministers now formally confirmed, Scott Morrison has announced that Western Australian senator Linda Reynolds will become Minister for Defence Industry, with Ciobo stepping down at once from that position.
If the government is re-elected Reynolds, who has a background in the Army Reserve, will be the new defence minister. Pyne will remain in the defence job until the election.
Reynolds will be immediately elevated to cabinet, bringing the number of women in cabinet to seven.
Her pre-election promotion has an eye to the government’s so-called
“women problem” – much negative attention has been focussed on the low
level of female representation in its parliamentary ranks.
Currently an assistant minister, Reynolds will retain her responsibility for emergency management. In this role, she has been at Morrison’s side on his visits to the flood areas.
Morrison said in a statement: “When you can call up a brigadier, in the form of Linda Reynolds, to take on the role of defence minister, it shows we have a lot of talent on our bench to draw from”.
He said it was Pyne’s responsibility to continue to manage strategic issues through the election period. “This will ensure a consistency in our approach and the opportunity for a seamless handover to minister Reynolds, should we be successful at the election.
“As a cabinet minister in the defence portfolio minster Reynolds will also have a unique opportunity to transfer into the role in the event the government is re-elected”.
He said the appointment of Reynolds would bring the number of women in cabinet to the highest of any cabinet since federation.
In a 29-year Army Reserve career, Reynolds served in many part and full-time positions. Attaining the rank of brigadier in 2012, she became the first woman in the Australian Army reserves to be promoted to a star rank.
Reynolds said: “My background has prepared me well for this new role”.
The Defence Minister, Christopher Pyne and the Defence Industry Minister Steve Ciobo, both cabinet members, are set to announce they are quitting parliament at the election, in the latest of multiple high profile exits from the Morrison government.
These foreshadowed departures – in this case within the same portfolio area – open the government further to Labor’s criticism of being a lame duck administration.
Cabinet ministers Kelly O’Dwyer and Nigel Scullion, junior minister Michael Keenan, and former deputy leader and foreign minister Julie Bishop have earlier announced they are leaving at the May election.
Pyne, 51, Leader of the House and a moderate within the Liberal Party, has been in parliament since 1993 and is an active factional player. He holds the South Australian seat of Sturt which is on a margin of 5.4% Pyne only reached his long held ambition of becoming defence minister in the reshuffle after the removal of Malcolm Turnbull.
Ciobo, 44, holds the Queensland seat of Moncrieff and has been in parliament since 2001. His seat is on a safe margin of 14.6%.
Ciobo was demoted in the Morrison reshuffle last year, losing the trade job although remaining in cabinet.
Scott Morrison, in North Queensland to announce a relief package for farmers and graziers after the devastating floods, batted away questions about the expected announcements. The government had hoped to push the story into the dead Saturday news time but it leaked out.
Both ministers have been fending off questions about their futures. On the show they share on Sky on Friday, Labor’s Richard Marles asked Pyne about whether he was resigning.
Pyne told Marles: “Once I decide to announce my retirement you will be the first to know”.
Marles said Pyne had had a stellar career and if it were true that he was going, “I for one will miss you”.
Punishing the person or persons responsible for this week’s Cabinet Files leak does not address the underlying issue. The real problem is that the way governments and businesses keep records is broken.
Recently, we collaborated with Queensland State Archives to design a bot to automatically identify, appraise, store, and secure their records. No human intervention, or compliance, is required.
This kind of system is called “compliant-by-default”, and it is just one way we can re-imagine record-keeping to address low levels of compliance in our organisations.
A compliant-by-default system manages issues of security and restricted access by ensuring that only people with appropriate permission can see the contents of a record, while others are still allowed to see that the record exists, alongside high-level attributes of what the record contains.
This is essentially the difference between seeing the outside of an envelope versus its contents. The information written on the envelope is public, to aid in searching data, while the contents of the envelope are private.
The federal government’s current record-keeping system relies on employees fully understanding all the rules and standards associated with creating, storing, managing, preserving, and destroying records. Getting this right 100% of the time is not only improbable, but is unnecessary when it could be automated.
But it’s not just in government that record-keeping needs updating. A recent report found that in Western Europe, 57% of office workers spend an hour or more a day looking for missing documents.
This is the most basic example of a broken record-keeping system.
From record-keeping to record-using
The cabinet files were published by the ABC because there is an appetite for transparency around political decision-making.
But how many of us actually go and search the records that are already available? There is an opportunity here to re-imagine the way government agencies keep records, so that they not only become more usable, but more accessible for the public as well.
For instance, if someone inside an organisation starts a project with blockchains, a system like ours would make it easier to search and connect with other teams working on similar projects. This would not only allow for more collaboration, but give better transparency through the organisation and avoid duplicate spending (taxpayer money or private funds).
This also has the potential to unlock new revenue streams, by using the records to provide services that were not previously possible. This is similar to how the advent of MP3 technology and high-speed internet made it possible to buy and store music libraries online.
While the general perception may be that physical records are easier to secure and manage, the reality shows that this is not the case. There are finite possibilities of what can go wrong with digital – copy, hack, share – but there is always a trace.
With physical records, there are infinite possibilities of things that can go wrong, and no way to trace it. There is no way to know what is being photocopied, if a record leaves a building, or who has the key to the cabinet.
While the sheer scale of potential attacks on a digital storage system may be much higher, a well-designed digital system can be protected.
It would be absolutely fine to print the records that need to be printed for the time they are needed. Systems should be designed to allow individuals to work in the way they prefer to work. Such a “digital first” approach is now being championed by the Queensland Government in its recent strategy.
The Cabinet Files story is not about who lost the key, or who sold the cabinet. It is about why these papers existed, were in a filing cabinet, and how such a range of documents ended up together.
If we must continue keeping records, then digital records offer new value to both government and business. Archival agencies have an opportunity to redefine what record keeping means to people and why it’s important, and to turn it from a chore to a superpower, from a back-end operation to front-facing business intelligence.
A digital record isn’t something to be locked away in an archive, it is the currency of knowledge transfer. What is unique about this solution is that we are not looking to make humans more compliant, rather, to making the system compliant-by-default.
Cabinet government requires confidentiality. Ministers have to be able to discuss alternative options to solve the problems they must manage. They have to able to express opinions and probe proposals. If they do not, then cabinet government becomes a rubber stamp for solutions devised elsewhere. Whether they always do argue matters less than the fact that the opportunity, and the expectation, is there.
When confidentiality is breached, when leaks provide the public with the range of views expressed and identify those who lost the argument, then ministers will tend to keep quiet, and prime ministers will take the debate somewhere else – into cabinet committees or into their own offices.
The principle of collective responsibility, which holds that all minsters are bound in public to support the decisions of the government, whether or not they were involved making it, can work only if the minsters (usually) had an opportunity to influence that decision.
That is just practical politics. Decisions are normally a matter of degree, not a case of right or wrong: how much or how little, this or that wording. The core may be easy, the difficulty is in the detail. The air of certainty, of governments arguing there is only one proper response – theirs – and all else is inadequate, is an artifice, a pretence that no-one should believe.
When decisions are actually made, information is often incomplete, time pressures acute, political consequences uncertain. In a neat phrase, governments “puzzle on the community’s behalf”. If the options were public, all would have advocates to whom no decision is right except the one they support; they would be even more outraged in that they knew government could have chosen their preferred option.
Given the ferocious misrepresentation that passes for political debate in this country, an opposition would pick one of the options not chosen, identify the losers and lampoon the decision. It is better for any form of competent government that the debates and calculations be kept confidential. For a time.
Governments are usually careful. There is a separate network for the lodging and management of cabinet documents. These days, it allows careful tracing of what happened in each case. Each submission has an identifier. (Lesson: if a cabinet paper is leaked, it is better to retype than photocopy.)
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet should be able to trace the history of these papers. As the process becomes more digitised, the possibility of filing cabinets of cabinet documents turning up will be reduced.
Does it matter if cabinet files, given to the ABC, become public? In terms of content, for most of the time for most of the papers, probably not. They will have long been overtaken by events. The problems of political sensitivity are different. If treasurers, for instance, lose an argument in cabinet and then properly adopt the agreed line in public, and the divisions in cabinet become known, they will be accused of failing to manage the economy, of not fighting enough. If governments were to make a habit of releasing the papers of their predecessors, in order to show how divided they were, governments would simply stop keeping records. There are good reasons for confidentiality.
So in this case there are two issues. First, how did this set of papers get locked in a cabinet that was then sold without checking the contents? The papers should have been returned to the cabinet office. They are the rules and for good reasons. They were not followed. The filing cabinet should have been checked. That is carelessness, slack, silly, lazy, incompetent, bad practice: all those pejoratives can legitimately be applied. But not malice, or they would not have been sitting there for years.
The second issue is what should have been done about it. When a cabinet document is leaked it makes a story – a rare insight into how cabinet government works. The release of a mass of papers is wrong, but potentially can be fascinating, a voyeuristic peephole into government. Think of the Pentagon Papers or WikiLeaks.
But they were designed to damage and undermine the government. This was happenstance. The use of the papers by the ABC seems to have been random: what made a headline or shocked, rather than asking what it tells us about the way we are governed. That requires more work, and they probably were a bit uneasy and aware that time would be limited once knowledge of the filing cabinets was public. The story was more about the filing cabinets than the cabinet papers, about the carelessness rather than the content.
In practice, most cabinet papers soon reach a use-by date. They are dull, time-specific, advising in long-forgotten particular circumstances about what may seem, in retrospect, minor incidents. In terms of content, rather than political sensitivity, most cabinet papers could be released within five years. Only a few would still matter.
In the 1980s, I wrote a study of Malcolm Fraser as prime minister. I started in 1984, a year after he lost office. Following the British practice of allowing prime ministers and minsters access to the papers they saw in government when they wanted to write their memoirs, he gave me access to all the cabinet papers of his administration.
In this case, he chose to delegate rather than refresh his memory. The papers were fascinating, detailed, voluminous and mostly unlikely to cause a stir. By the time the book was finished, most of his ministers had left office – the one big exception being John Howard. So while cabinet documents may contain the occasional nugget, most are routine, just as most government is routine.
We could still be a little more open. The New Zealand prime minster has a press briefing after each cabinet to tell the press the main conclusions of the meeting: selective but informative.
Even the Standing Committee of the State Council in China, known as China’s cabinet, releases a list of the items discussed in their weekly meeting; not everything, but more that the Australian public gets. We still need to balance a legitimate desire for transparency with the need for free and thoughtful debate (or rather, the possibility of thoughtful debate).
We should be able to find a balance in managing a system that does not threaten the ability of journalists and academics to write about the procedures and debates in cabinet, but also prevents random acts of stupidity that fill a cabinet with cabinet papers, forget they are there, fail to return them and then sell the filing cabinets.
Patrick Weller, Professor Emeritus, School of Government and International Relations; Adjunct Professor, Centre for Governance and Public Policy, Griffith University
Prime Minister’s Malcolm Turnbull’s reshuffled cabinet has five new faces, but one of the Nationals’ best performers, Darren Chester, has been unceremoniously dumped by his party leader Barnaby Joyce.
Christian Porter replaces George Brandis – who quits parliament to become high commissioner to London – as attorney-general, in an extensive frontbench overhaul that Turnbull said focused on the dual themes of economic growth and jobs and national security. Porter is a former Western Australian attorney-general.
The new faces in cabinet are the Nationals’ freshly elected deputy Bridget McKenzie, Michael Keenan, Dan Tehan, John McVeigh, and David Littleproud.
McVeigh and Littleproud entered federal parliament only last year, and have leapt straight from the backbench, although McVeigh served as a minister in the Queensland parliament.
Joyce, who takes Chester’s infrastructure portfolio, told him he had to go from cabinet on geographic grounds. Both Chester and McKenzie – whom Chester strongly backed to become deputy over Joyce’s preferred candidate Matt Canavan – are from Victoria, a state in which the Nationals only have four federal MPs.
When quizzed at his news conference about Chester being dropped, Turnbull indicated it was Joyce’s call – the Nationals’ leader gets to choose the party’s ministers – saying pointedly: “Barnaby Joyce will no doubt be able to explain this directly”.
“Plainly the Nationals have a very large component of their partyroom that comes from Queensland and Barnaby was keen to see that reflected in their representatives in the cabinet,” Turnbull said.
Turnbull said Chester had been an “outstanding minister” and he regretted he was no longer on the frontbench.
Chester told a news conference he had been offered a position of assistant minister but he had declined it.
He made it clear he felt he had been treated badly. “I don’t think my loyalty to the leadership team has ever been questioned. I’ve gone above and beyond on many occasion to support the prime minister and the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce,” he said.
Joyce has also sacked Keith Pitt, who is from Queensland, as an assistant minister.
The catapulting into cabinet of the inexperienced Littleproud, who is from the Queensland seat of Mananoa, to replace Chester, is likely to stir resentment among Nationals who have waited much longer for promotion.
McKenzie, who as deputy Nationals leader goes automatically into cabinet, will become minister for sport, rural health and regional communications.
Keenan, previously justice minister, moves to human services; Tehan goes from veterans’ affairs to social services, held before by Porter; McVeigh takes regional development; while Littleproud gets agriculture and water resources.
As earlier announced, Peter Dutton has a new mega portfolio of home affairs. Two junior ministers and an assistant minister will sit under him. Angus Taylor becomes minister for law enforcement and cyber security, and Alan Tudge will be minister for citizenship and multicultural affairs. Alex Hawke is assistant minister for home affairs.
Michaelia Cash, who has been employment and workplace relations minister, becomes minister for jobs and innovation, which includes the industry area.
Arthur Sinodinos, who has been industry minister, is being treated for cancer and asked not to be considered for the new ministry, while making it clear he hoped to return to a senior ministerial or other government role later.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann adds permanently to his responsibilities the post of special minister of state, which he has recently overseen in a temporary capacity.
Cormann, seen as very competent in negotiating with the Senate crossbenchers, also steps up into the Brandis’ role of Senate leader.
In changes in the outer ministry, Craig Laundy has been promoted to minister for small and family business, workplace and deregulation. This will include direct responsibility for workplace relations, recently a controversial area for Cash who, however, retains overall responsibility as the senior portfolio minister.
Turnbull said Cash, Laundy and Zed Seselja, who becomes assistant minister for science, jobs and innovation, “will work together to make sure we harness the jobs of the future through new industries and small business”.
Paul Fletcher stays as minister for urban infrastructure, with some expanded responsibilities.
Michael McCormack, a National, moves from small business to veterans’ affairs and defence personnel.
Backbencher Melissa Price is elevated to become assistant minister for the environment.
The Nationals’ David Gillespie moves to a newly created role of assistant minister for children and families.
Victorian National Damien Drum will be assistant minister to the deputy prime minister.
David Coleman becomes assistant minister for finance, while Luke Hartsuyker moves to become assistant minister for trade, tourism and investment.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said: “All that we can deduce from this reshuffle is that the civil war which is a fact of life in the Liberal Party has now infected the National Party. How else can you explain a competent minister like Darren Chester being demoted?
“What we have here is we have a prime minister and a deputy prime minister who are engaging in such hubris and arrogance that they are now just punishing the people they don’t like in their own party.”
Attorney-General George Brandis will become Australia’s high commissioner to London in a ministerial reshuffle set to be announced on Tuesday.
Brandis’ appointment opens the way for Malcolm Turnbull to elevate deputy Senate leader Mathias Cormann to Senate leader, and gives the Turnbull government a cabinet vacancy.
But it leaves Turnbull with the problem of being seen to have adequate representation from Queensland in the cabinet. A Queenslander will have to be elevated, but the choice is limited and there is no standout candidate.
Queensland is a vital state for the Coalition at the next election.
While Brandis is a Liberal, the Nationals have been agitated for months about the need to boost Queensland’s representation in the ministry – and Brandis’ departure complicates the issue further.
Favourite to get Brandis’ portfolio of attorney-general is Social Services Minister Christian Porter, who was attorney-general in the Western Australian government before he moved to federal politics.
The Nationals, who appear confident of holding their five cabinet spots despite losing a parliamentary seat to the Liberals, now find themselves with an excess of Victorians in cabinet.
Their new deputy, Bridget McKenzie, is from Victoria, as is existing cabinet member Darren Chester. The party has only four federal MPs from that state.
It is speculated that Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, who is agriculture minister, will move to Chester’s infrastructure portfolio in the changes.
The reshuffle also is likely to see the return of former health minister Sussan Ley, who resigned after allegations of the misuse of travel entitlements, which she denied. Turnbull wants to promote women and personally likes Ley.
The reshuffle comes as the government is behind Labor in the 25th consecutive Newspoll. The ALP leads 53-47% on a two-party basis, unchanged from the previous poll.
Turnbull said recently he regretted referring to Tony Abbott losing 30 consecutive Newspolls when he launched his 2015 challenge against the former prime minister.
Abbott replied that he will respond to this Turnbull statement of regret, but he wanted to leave it until after Saturday’s Bennelong byelection.
What on earth was Julie Bishop thinking when she declared she’d support a “formal investigation” into this week’s damaging cabinet leak?
Bishop was defending herself as the questions swirled about who might be the leaker, saying it wasn’t her. But to have one of the most senior ministers – she’s deputy Liberal leader too – talking about a probe into cabinet members just underlines the serious breakdown not just in the government’s discipline but in its common sense as well.
The leaked story was by the Daily Telegraph’s Sharri Markson, reporting that a “despondent”: cabinet had discussed, in the context of the backbench revolt on banking, whether the government should capitulate and hold a royal commission.
Treasurer Scott Morrison said no; Peter Dutton, one of the conservatives who has had Malcolm Turnbull’s back, was reported to be “opposed in principle” but open to the idea on pragmatic grounds. But Turnbull remains against changing policy and has said this publicly.
For Bishop the affair is a rerun of an old movie. After a leak from the Abbott cabinet, Bishop denied being the source, saying that if the prime minister found the culprit he would “take some action”.
In retrospect, if not always at the time, it seems obvious the 2015 leaks were mostly inspired by those wanting a coup.
This time, the “who” and the “why” aren’t clear. There is no evidence of any organised push against Turnbull, like there was against Abbott, although leadership speculation has become media grist.
The leaks, of which there have been several, may be driven by the general angst around or reflect jostling by various players in uncertain times.
We’ve seen publicly the respective positioning by Morrison and Dutton on the marriage legislation, with Morrison putting himself at the forefront of the “safeguards” brigade and Dutton – on this issues as on others – looking for a compromise way through.
Anyway, there won’t be an investigation. The Australian Federal Police almost never finds the source of leaks to the media, but imagine if it had an unexpected success! That indeed would present a problem.
Bill Shorten described the situation as the government eating itself. Alternatively, think of an army in untidy retreat, sloshing through heavy mud, when it becomes every soldier for himself.
We’re back to the Gillard days or, for those with a sense of history, to the Liberal party of the late 1960s, as it lost its way in the post-Menzies years.
Despite cabinet’s now well-canvassed discussion, the government is still faced with the push from the Nationals’ rebels for parliament to set up a commission of inquiry (only marginally different from a royal commission) into the banks.
Turnbull has tried to minimise the scope for the rebels and Labor to make trouble by cancelling next week’s House of Representatives sitting, but the action just exposed his weakness.
The rebels are unbowed with Nationals senator Barry O’Sullivan on Thursday circulating his private senator’s bill for “a commission of inquiry into banking, insurance, superannuation, financial and related services”.
O’Sullivan confirms he is determined. “I’m not someone who blinks”, he said. He dismissed suggestions his absent leader, Barnaby Joyce, was trying to dissuade him. He’d spoken to Joyce early on – Joyce just “asked me to keep him posted”.
It should be remembered the Nationals generally have no problem in cracking down on the banks. In fact, if a proposal for a royal commission were put to the Nationals’ party room, it would likely get up. Nationals assistant minister Keith Pitt was blunt on Thursday: “Clearly the government’s position is not for a royal commission, however we do have a number of members in the Nats who think it’s something that they want”.
Amid the tumult, former prime minister John Howard has used the occasion of Friday’s tenth anniversary of being turfed out of office to buy into the contemporary debates on banking and taxation.
The latter debate was reignited after Turnbull held out the prospect of personal income tax relief in a major address on Monday, albeit devoid of detail. On Thursday Finance Minister Mathias Cormann was dealing with scepticism about its affordability, arguing “we have effectively already assumed future further tax cuts in our budget projections”.
Howard claimed a banking commission would be “rank socialism” – to which O’Sullivan says, “I don’t understand what he means”.
As for tax, Howard, who nearly lost office in his (successful) pursuit of a GST, told Sky it would benefit the government “if it were to embrace very significant further tax reform”. This should include the GST, which couldn’t be left “where it is indefinitely”.
The best of luck with that. Turnbull is tossing tax into the mix to try to show voters he has some sugar in his back pocket to put on their tables. But sweeping reform would see losers as well as winners. For a government perennially behind in the polls, with the slenderest majority before it fell into its current minority position, a major tax overhaul including the GST would take more bravery than presently in sight.
The tenth anniversary of the Howard government’s defeat is also the anniversary of the loss of his own seat of Bennelong. Now the Liberals are again fighting to hold Bennelong, after John Alexander became a victim of the citizenship crisis.
It is too early to get a real sense of how that December 16 byelection will go. On a 9.7 % margin, Alexander has a big buffer, as he faces Labor’s Kristina Keneally.
But this week the Liberal campaign, already looking lack lustre, was snagged by an embarrassing 1990s video of Alexander telling a crude Irish joke and another about “a black guy in Chicago” describing a rape.
Alexander wasn’t the only government byelection candidate who became an embarrassment. There was Joyce’s jaunt from his New England campaign to Canberra for “AgDay”, described as the “brainchild” of his good friend Gina Rinehart, who presented him with a $40,000 cheque, reward for being a “champion of our industry”. He only belatedly declined the money.
It was another example of the poor judgement that infects this government.
The opposition says at least 20 executive decisions and 47 ministerial announcements made by Joyce could be open to challenge.
These include the controversial decision to relocate the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to Armidale in his New England electorate, various grants and appointments, and any decisions under the Water Act, where he had power to determine claims for payment to water access entitlement holders.
The list comes from a paper Labor sought from the Parliamentary Library on the ministerial decision-making powers exercised by Joyce and Nash, and specific important decisions they made.
Joyce had ministerial responsibility for agriculture and water resources. Nash was minister for regional development and regional communications.
The opposition says at least eight executive decisions and 43 ministerial announcements made by Nash could be subject to challenge. These included elements of each of the regional NBN rollout, the mobile blackspots program and the rural decentralisation program, as well as grants under the Building Better Regions Fund.
Labor has as well released updated advice from senior silks Matt Albert QC and Matt Collins QC about the legal status of decisions made by the former ministers.
The Constitution allows a minister to hold office for three months while not being a member of parliament.
The legal advice says that any decision made by Joyce or Nash after three months had lapsed from their appointment as ministers was open to challenge.
“Any decisions made by Joyce and Nash, purportedly in their capacity as a minister, on and after October 20, 2016, are open to challenge.
“The likelihood of proceedings being brought to challenge such decisions is high, having regard to the significance and seniority of their relevant portfolios,” the advice says.
Brandis said the government was looking very carefully at the question of the validity of the former ministers’ decisions. But “I doubt that there are many if any decisions that would be relevant in any event”, he said on Sky.
“Most decisions that ministers make are in fact made by the cabinet on the recommendation of ministers. Appointments are made by the governor-general or the federal executive council on the recommendation of ministers. So I think you will find that there is no legal consequences here at all.”
Tony Burke, manager of opposition business, told the ABC there would be “vested interests” with an interest in challenging decisions of Joyce.
“When you’re in charge of Australia’s quarantine service, there’s importers and exporters who make or lose money depending on decisions you make.
“There’ll be a series of decisions there with vested interests now combing through, and there being a whole lot of legal doubt over those decisions on the simple basis that Barnaby Joyce didn’t do what Matt Canavan did,” Burke said.
“Matt Canavan turned out to have been legally in parliament. But at least he took the precaution to step aside so that there was no risk to there being illegitimacy to his decisions.
“Barnaby Joyce and Malcolm Turnbull decided, oh no, nothing to see here, let’s just ignore the last 25 years of how the High Court ruled on this and pretend that it’s all going to be different this time.”
Burke said there was a reason why the government had not revealed the solicitor-general’s advice. “I don’t believe for a minute it was as strong as they were claiming,” he said.
The Senate, bordering on the farcical all year, has finally descended into burlesque, with the tale of the bright young cabinet minister whose mum made him a son of her parents’ old country.
Before the strange case of the Nationals’ Matthew Canavan burst into public view, the Senate had already lost four of its number, under various parts of the Constitution’s Section 44, including the Greens’ two co-deputies within a week.
And then there’s been the media chase after One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts, in pursuit of documents to back his assertion he didn’t hold British citizenship when he nominated for the Senate.
Canavan’s story of how he was signed up for Italian citizenship – unknown to him, he says – by his Australian-born mother of Italian heritage, is as bizarre as they come.
It’s anyone’s guess whether the High Court will find he’s in breach of Section 44, which rules out dual citizens standing for parliament.
There are differences here with the circumstances of the two Greens, who were born overseas and hadn’t quashed their other citizenship, making their ineligibility clearer cut. Neither chose to dispute the situation.
Legal experts are unsure what the High Court may conclude on Canavan. There are also claims and counter-claims of what one is required, or not required, to do to become Italian.
So, it is not surprising the government has decided to fight for Canavan, who has resigned as a minister while his parliamentary status is determined.
For the Nationals, the stakes are particularly high and complicated.
If Canavan were found ineligible to have been elected, there’d be a countback, with his replacement being Joanna Lindgren, a former senator who lost in 2016. Lindgren is a grand-niece of the late Neville Bonner, the first Indigenous person elected to federal parliament.
A Liberal when she was a senator, Lindgren would likely find herself in the Nationals’ partyroom.
Where she sat would not be her decision but that of the Queensland Liberal National Party. The two parties are merged in that state, though they’re sharp-elbowed bedfellows, who break into their separate tribes once in Canberra. It is understood the LNP would not allow the loss of Canavan to disrupt the present balance of numbers coming out of Queensland.
Until the court case is decided – by year’s end on the optimistic assessment – Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce is acting in Canavan’s resources and northern Australia portfolio.
This will overload Joyce, who already looks under strain, this week making injudicious comments about the alleged theft of water by irrigators. Even if Canavan survives, his immediate absence from cabinet is a blow to Joyce, because he provides policy heft.
If the case goes against Canavan, Joyce would face a dilemma in who to elevate to cabinet.
The most obvious choice, on seniority and experience, would be the only National in the outer ministry: Small Business Minister Michael McCormack. But McCormack is from New South Wales. The Nationals would be desperate to keep up their representation from Queensland, a vital state for them, and the Coalition generally, at the election.
Queenslander Keith Pitt is an assistant minister, but his critics say he’s been difficult rather than supportive in that role. Then you get to backbenchers such as senator Barry O’Sullivan, based in Toowoomba, and David Littleproud, from the regional seat of Maranoa.
Littleproud is spoken of as a man with a future, but is a newcomer. There are wildly opposite views on O’Sullivan, a one-time detective and later businessman, whose performances with Senate committee witnesses can resemble the tougher side of police interrogation. His critics think he should be bumped from the Senate ticket at the next opportunity; his admirers believe he could be cabinet material.
The High Court decision on Canavan will at least provide clarity on a more obscure aspect of the dual citizenship ban.
Inevitably, however, the slew of actual or potential victims of Section 44 has led to calls for constitutional change.
There are arguments for and against the dual citizenship prohibition but convenience should not be included. Notwithstanding the peculiar Canavan situation, surely aspiring politicians should be able to ascertain if they have a foreign citizenship.
On the question of substance, some argue that in a multicultural community there should not be a requirement to relinquish citizenship of another country. There is the counter argument – which I think is more compelling – that the single allegiance is a reasonable condition to impose on those responsible for making national decisions.
Dual citizenship could throw up perceived conflicts of interest – for example, for trade or foreign ministers.
Two other parts of the wide-ranging Section 44 claiming victims this year relate to having a direct or indirect pecuniary interest in an agreement with the Commonwealth, designed to prevent corruption and conflicts of interest, and being “under sentence, or subject to be sentenced” for an offence carrying a year or more imprisonment.
The eligibility of a House of Representatives Nationals MP, David Gillespie, an assistant minister, is being challenged in the High Court by Labor on the ground of having an indirect pecuniary interest, because of a post office located within a shopping centre owned by a company in which he is a shareholder.
In 1977 Malcolm Fraser won a change to Section 15 of the Constitution to ensure a casual Senate vacancy is filled by a member of the same party. This followed shenanigans by a couple of conservative state governments in filling vacancies in the Whitlam government’s time.
That change was simple and demonstrably the right thing to do. In contrast, an attempt to alter the dual citizenship ban – and indeed any other qualification rule in Section 44 – would be more contested. That, and today’s generally negative electoral mood, would likely doom any referendum.