Senior Turnbull government figures are staying tightlipped about a contempt of court saga that has cast doubt on the political future of three ministers and sparked fears of a constitutional crisis.
A lawyer for frontbenchers Greg Hunt, Alan Tudge and Michael Sukkar attended the Victorian Court of Appeal on Friday to explain why they shouldn’t be charged with contempt of court over their comments attacking the state’s judiciary.
Amid concern a contempt finding would disqualify them as MPs, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said he would be “saying nothing” on the matter, which he conceded was “unusual” for him.
“If the court says that there’s an issue here then I’m going to shut up,” he told ABC’s Insiders on Sunday.
Host Barrie Cassidy suggested that if the saga went “badly”, the ministers would be ineligible to serve in Parliament.
Mr Joyce replied: “Well, I hear what you say and you are probably right and I want to do everything in my power to make sure it doesn’t go badly.
“So I’m going to be saying nothing, and that’s unusual for me.”
The scandal is more bad news for a government that, according to Sunday’s latest Newspoll, was trailing Labor 47 to 53 per cent in two-party-preferred terms.
Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg also would not be drawn on the matter in a television interview earlier on Sunday.
The three ministers were asked to explain themselves after they savaged the Victorian judiciary in an article published by The Australian newspaper.
They accused the judiciary of conducting “ideological experiments” and going easy on terrorists. The comments were interpreted as relating to the 10-year sentence handed to Sevdet Ramadan Besim, whose case is still before the Court of Appeal.
Commonwealth Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue QC, representing the three ministers, told the Court of Appeal his clients had not intended to interfere with the courts.
But the ministers stopped short of apologising. Mr Tudge and Mr Sukkar deleted tweets criticising the Victorian judiciary over the weekend.
The court will now decide whether they should be referred for prosecution for contempt of court – a decision that could bring down the government, according to some observers.
If the MPs are found guilty they risk being disqualified from Parliament under Section 44 of the constitution, triggering by-elections that could remove the government’s one-seat majority, Monash University political expert Dr Zareh Ghazarian told The New Daily.
Crossbench senator Derryn Hinch, thrice convicted of contempt, came to the ministers’ defence on Sunday, tweeting: “Insiders legal ‘experts’ on ministers and contempt of court forget you cannot influence a judge. Pollies’ comments were legit.”
The ministers’ legal troubles come as the Turnbull government faces a race against the clock as it tries to secure a new schools funding deal – dubbed ‘Gonski 2.0’.
With four sitting days left before Parliament’s winter break, Education Minister Simon Birmingham warned schools would not have certainty over their funding for next year if the package did not pass this week.
Labor has vowed to block the package, calling it a $22 billion funding cut, meaning Senator Birmingham needs significant crossbench support.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale and NXT leader Nick Xenophon have appeared open to passing the package with a few changes.
Public education unions have rallied against the package, which they claim is inferior to Labor’s model, as has the Catholic sector, which wants more consultation on the changes.
“Voting down this rational, centrist Gonski 2.0 approach, which was an attempt at a bi-partisan model, would be a win for special interests and politics over policy,” Grattan Institute school education program director Dr Pete Goss told The New Daily.