With only three sitting weeks left before Parliament rises for the year, the functionality of the Senate is in question and Malcolm Turnbull is left licking another self-inflicted wound from the double dissolution election he forced on the nation.
The Prime Minister sent Australians to the polls early insisting a joint sitting of two new houses of Parliament was required to pass “important” industrial relations legislation the Senate was blocking.
But not only did the election return a far weaker House of Representatives for the Coalition, voters also thanked the PM for the double dissolution by giving him a mishmash of a Senate he can hardly work with – making a joint sitting pointless.
This week, it got even worse for the government with the eligibility of not one, but two crossbench senators being called into question.
Family First’s Bob Day has already gone – after quitting, then not quitting, then maybe quitting and finally quitting the Senate – but the right for him to be there in the first place is now under a serious cloud.
The Senate will be asked next week to back a High Court challenge to the validity of the now former senator’s election, over the constitutionality of his Adelaide electoral office and an alleged “indirect pecuniary interest”.
He quit facing bankruptcy following the liquidation of his housing empire, but it is a lease agreement with the Commonwealth for his electorate office that might see Family First denied the opportunity to replace Mr Day in the Senate with one of their own.
Depending on the legal outcome, Mr Day’s replacement could be decided by a recount rather than a state parliament ratification of a candidate chosen by his party.
Either way, Mr Day’s exit and the delay of a successor has left the government a vote short.
Mr Day was certain to vote with the Coalition for the return of the Australian Building and Construction Commission and in favour of the Registered Organisations bill, as well as for the controversial marriage equality plebiscite.
The numbers game
The government did need nine out of 11 crossbench votes when Labor and Greens joined to oppose its legislation.
With Mr Day gone, it now needs eight out of 10. Or is it eight out of nine?
A good question, because One Nation senator Rod Culleton’s election is now also being challenged – the High Court to be asked to review its validity because he had a conviction (since quashed) carrying a jail term of one year or more at the time of the election.
After first saying he would abstain from voting on any contentious bills while the matter is being sorted, Senator Culleton has changed his mind and says he will now continue voting on all legislation. A bit like Bob Day’s on-again off-again resignation.
With all this uncertainty there is no surprise to learn the contentious industrial relations bills – the ones that were so important a double dissolution election was called over them – are not on the agenda for next week.
Full steam ahead?
Labor says the government is now paralysed and the Senate is in chaos; both suggestions dismissed by Mr Turnbull who insists it is business as usual and full steam ahead.
“We will continue talking with the crossbench and when we believe there is a majority there to support it, we will present the bills,” he said on Thursday.
“It is important that we commit to a vote that we can win in the Senate.”
But Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the government’s legislative program was in chaos, “pure and simple”.
“This is a government divided on the inside and divided in the Senate,” he said.
“They are in a total state of chaos. Mr Turnbull thinks that this isn’t chaos, heaven help us for what Mr Turnbull thinks is chaos.”