The good news for Malcolm Turnbull is that his government is not in immediate danger of falling – at least, not any more than usual.
The laws of mathematics (the ones Turnbull believes can be overridden by the laws of Australia, but let that pass for the moment) reveal that the coalition currently has 76 members, Labor 69, and the crossbenchers the other five.
If Barnaby Joyce is found ineligible (which the High Court, defying the Prime Minister, may well determine) that will leave the government with 75 – six more than the opposition. They cannot rely on the Greens’ Adam Bandt or the maverick Bob Katter for support, Andrew Wilkie and Rebekha Sharkie are wavering, but Cathy McGowan is standing firm against a vote of no confidence.
And in any case, even if Joyce was temporarily rubbed out, he would stand in a by-election for his safe electorate and win in a canter – if the quixotic Tony Windsor ran again, he would be crushed by a coalition onslaught willing to spend anything, throw anything, to bleach its black New Zealand ram white again.
So despite the feverish headlines of last week, the Turnbull government is not about to fall. But the bad news is that its leader and his ministers are doing their level best to push it to the brink.
Many years ago a court found that it was defamatory to claim a minister couldn’t run a chook raffle in a pub, so I will forbear, merely observing that our beloved leader and his troops would struggle to access sexual intercourse in a house of ill repute with a hundred dollar note attached to their nether garments – and that applies to Julie Bishop as much if not more than her male counterparts.
The great Kiwi conspiracy apparently started when Barnaby Joyce’s father was treacherously born in the land of the long flat vowel and continued when he covertly married an Australian and surreptitiously sired our current deputy prime minister. New Zealand law was deliberately and deceitfully designed to ensure that not only did Joyce have dual citizenship but covert brainwashing was instigated over many years to addle his mind so he could never become aware of it.
And of course this was all Bill Shorten’s fault. As Bishop fulminated, the Labor leader was trying to undermine and overthrow the government of Australia. Well, yes – that is, after all, his job. Bishop may have discerned a hint in his title: Leader of the Opposition. It is true that Tony Abbott is trying to usurp the role, but as things are, Shorten is still sitting across the table from Turnbull.
And if members of his party or their helpers have talked to similar parties overseas – fraternal organisations, as they are known – it is hardly a shocking revelation. Bishop’s Liberals constantly hob nob with the British Conservatives and the American Republicans among many others, and often attend conferences to show their friendship and solidarity.
Is it really suggested that they never discuss their domestic problems over a chardonnay or two? This is hardly treason, even when it comes to New Zealand – unless, of course, it involves cricket or rugby.
The only interference with domestic politics came when Bishop interrupted the New Zealand election to threaten that she might somehow refuse to talk to ministers if the Labour Party across the ditch won the poll. Even the commentators of the right regarded this as stark, staring mad – straight out of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
But she wasn’t the only actor in the theatre of the absurd which took over parliament last week. Struggling to explain why Joyce could remain in cabinet when the apparently less culpable Matt Canavan could not, Turnbull declared that the High Court will – not may, not even should, but will – find Joyce eligible.
If he had said so outside parliament, he could well have been charged with contempt, an attempt to intimidate the judges. Even under privilege, it was an attack on the doctrine of the separation of powers worthy of that other great New Zealand dual national, Joh Bjelke-Petersen. But who cares — this was an emergency; a confected one, certainly, but none the less real for Turnbull and his demented troops.
Joyce himself had said the constitution was black and white, dual citizens were out. But, as Turnbull pointed out patronisingly, his deputy is not a constitutional lawyer. Nor, for that matter, is Turnbull; his advocacy skills lie elsewhere. And he may live to regret his bravado.
But not for a while. The High Court will now have five matters to consider – seven if you count Scott Ludlum and Larissa Walters – and they will likely have to be dealt with separately. The three wayward Nats – Joyce, Canavan and Fiona Nash – and perhaps even Nick Xenophon, may be taken as a job lot, as Turnbull hopes.
But One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts will be a problem – he may or may not be an Indian or an Englishman but he is clearly some sort of alien – he came from outer space. And of course the court also has other urgent matters to consider, not least the validity or otherwise of the ABS postal plebiscite. It will be another messy few weeks.
But just when it appeared that the only sensible course the coalition backbenchers could pursue was to take a few slow, deep breaths before moving on to a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down, Pauline Hanson arrived to save them. Her burqa stunt gave George Brandis a rare moment to shine, to the applause of the opposition and at least a sigh of relief from the government; a new atrocity swamped the front pages and the airwaves and, with a very welcome week away from Canberra to recover there was a chance, just a chance, that they could regroup.
So it was a truly fortuitous break—but was it a break? Might it not have been another conspiracy, this one hatched up between Hanson and Brandis — it is hard to believe that the serial bumbler could manage such passion and conviction without rehearsal?
Even Julie Bishop can hardly blame the Kiwis for this one, but there may well be other sinister, treacherous forces at play. Spain, for instance – was the terrorist attack in Barcelona just a little too convenient to give Bishop and Turnbull a chance to draw breath and insist that they are not insane after all?
Let’s face it, after the last week it is hard to believe that this government could have done anything right without help from outside. And that’s the really bad news.