News National A citizenship audit would force the nation to a new general election

A citizenship audit would force the nation to a new general election

Turnbull government at tipping point over Parry citizenship woes
Nationals MPs have been increasingly critical of the PM as they argue for a banking inquiry. Photo: AAP
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Make no mistake about it.

The stability of the Turnbull government is at tipping point, the catalyst being the extraordinary mishandling of Liberal Senate president Stephen Parry’s dual citizenship.

But the blame for that doesn’t lie only at his feet.

It goes back to the foolish cockiness of Malcolm Turnbull three months ago to declare that the High Court would “so hold” that cabinet ministers Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash were always eligible to sit in Parliament.

The court didn’t, and with it, advice to senator Parry to “sit tight” while the court sorted it all out, proved utterly misplaced. We know that the most senior Liberal in the Senate discussed his doubts with the manager of government business and cabinet minister Mitch Fifield.

Curiously he did not pass this on to the Prime Minister.

The Opposition suspects a cover up, as there are also reports of other ministers and Liberals being aware of Parry’s precarious position.

Labor’s Penny Wong says the government would have us all believe that senior ministers routinely shield Turnbull from unwelcome or potentially dangerous news. Employment Minister Michaelia Cash’s implausible deniability on the AWU police raids being another example.

The Prime Minister says he first learned of the Parry bombshell (along with the rest of us) on the internet while in Israel.

Really? Is trust and communication at the highest levels of the government so hopeless?

But Turnbull’s whack at Parry for not fessing up earlier when he was consigning six other senators to the High Court for adjudication triggered a severe backlash from the Tasmanian senator’s conservative allies.

They quickly turned the eligibility crisis into a leadership crisis.

The A Team, as former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and sacked cabinet ministers Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews are called, swung into action calling for an audit of every member and senator in the Parliament.

This is not as innocent as it seems.

Liberal MPs believe three to five of their number could be in jeopardy. If they were struck out, there would be no real option but for a new general election.

The government’s majority would completely disappear, and so many byelections – if for argument’s sake you throw in a couple of Labor MPs – would render the situation farcical.

Remember MPs and senators remain eligible until the High Court, sitting as the court of disputed returns, finds otherwise. Constitutionally, this is the only way eligibility can be solved. And it is a strong reason why Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten do not see an audit as the answer.

Although Labor is coming round to thinking it could be to its advantage.

Whoever does the audit, though cannot have the final say. Labor insists its strict vetting procedures mean that its parliamentarians have complied with the rules. The Liberals and Nationals, by their own admission, rely on the unchecked due diligence of candidates.

Victoria’s Liberal Party president, Michael Kroger told Sky News: “If the candidate doesn’t know whether they’re an Australian citizen or not we’re not going to know.”

So back to Kevin Andrews.

In several interviews on national radio and television he has struck out his Prime Minister. He described Turnbull as “leader at the moment” and said Australians are looking for strong and decisive leadership, which they are not getting.

The government does look like it is stumbling around in the dark. A Peter Dutton-Greg Hunt alternative leadership team is being floated in some quarters. Julie Bishop’s name is in the mix, though allies in the party say she is not harbouring ambitions for the top job.

Who could blame her? Cleaning up this mess would require a rare political genius. By internal party consensus, there is not one on offer.

This gives some credibility to Finance Minister Mathias Cormann’s claim on Friday that Turnbull “has the overwhelming support of our party room”.

Kevin Andrews would add “for now”.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. 

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