News National The Turnbull government teeters on the edge of the abyss

The Turnbull government teeters on the edge of the abyss

Turnbull government at the edge of the political abyss
An AEC redistribution could cause another headache for Malcolm Turnbull's government. Photo: AAP
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Most politicians have fled Canberra at the end of a horror fortnight of Parliament for Malcolm Turnbull.

Morale in government ranks is low, fuelled by persistent doubts about the political smarts of the Prime Minister, his senior colleagues and his office.

The broader context is of a government that has not regained ascendancy since it fell across the line by one seat in last year’s election.

The past month has been a downward spiral, picked up in the polls with the Essential opening up an eight-point gap in the past two weeks Labor’s way, and the Newspoll maintaining the six-point gap of the past six surveys.

Long before Foreign Minister Julie Bishop forfeited her chances to ever lead the Liberals by losing her senses over Barnaby Joyce’s citizenship stuff-up, there was the Abbott factor.

Why she thought it smart to declare New Zealand a foreign power colluding with Labor to damage the Australian government is bewildering.

It briefly distracted from Mr Abbott’s determination to keep the prime minister off balance. His outspoken views on same-sex marriage and energy policy were the prelude to this week’s mess. These bitter divisions have not gone away. They were the feature of the first sitting week.

Mr Abbott and his allies succeeded in making Mr Turnbull look like a weak leader, handcuffed to an agenda nobody thinks he really believes in.

And there is every chance his latest appeasement of his internal critics – the same-sex marriage postal plebiscite – will not survive the High Court challenges.

Even if the plebiscite survives, but then records a ‘No’ vote, the issue will not go away. The Liberal rebels demanding a free vote this year will force one in the Parliament. There will be no respite for the hapless Mr Turnbull

If all of that isn’t messy enough, there is the complete mishandling of the eligibility of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce to even sit in the Parliament.

Many Liberals are simply despairing of the way Mr Turnbull and Mr Joyce have made a bad situation worse.

Mr Joyce simply refused to stand aside from cabinet once his New Zealand citizenship was confirmed. His arrogant obstinacy was a political gift Labor seized to devastating effect.

Manager of Opposition Business, Tony Burke led the charge, questioning the legitimacy of the government relying, as it does, on Mr Joyce’s vote to give it a majority.

Crossbench MP Bob Katter accused Mr Turnbull of hypocrisy, leaving Mr Joyce in place while his colleague Matt Canavan in the Senate was encouraged to stand aside from the ministry and refrains from voting.

Mr Katter has withdrawn his pledge to guarantee confidence and supply. That leaves three on the crossbench still inclined not to bring down the government if it falls into minority, but they have told Mr Turnbull he should stand Mr Joyce aside.

The Nationals have three senior ministers who simply did not pay sufficient heed to their constitutional obligations. Photo: AAP

The government’s pain worsened at the end of the session when Mr Joyce’s deputy senator Fiona Nash revealed she too was a dual citizen.

She, unlike her colleague, Senator Canavan, will follow her leader and brazen out her predicament, remaining in cabinet and voting. Any pretence of high-minded political ethics have been abandoned. Survival at any cost is now the rule.

It is incredible that the Nationals have three senior ministers who simply did not pay sufficient heed to their constitutional obligations.

Two other Nationals are also in difficulty with their parliamentary eligibility . Their problem is under another provision of section 44 of the constitution which goes to pecuniary interest.

There can be no early end to this chaos for Mr Turnbull. Indeed, his ability to be able to govern at all is increasingly problematic.

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