Last Friday, Labor’s Bill Shorten proposed a “universal declaration” whereby every member and senator would outline in the Parliament their citizenship status. It was a backflip for him, but it was at least something more than what was on offer from the government.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull slammed it as an imprecise “witch hunt” and ruled out anything that smelt like an audit.
His reaction looked like more of the same: Anything Labor proposes is bad or hopeless, and the best way to deal with difficult issues that could threaten him or the government’s precarious hold on power are best shunned.
Cabinet spent most of Monday cobbling together its version of the Shorten idea. Members and senators would be required to declare their citizenship status in the same way they have to comply with the register of pecuniary interests.
That’s the one they often forget to either update, or in which to include all their shares and investments.
There is just a bit too much “trust us” in this proposal which really kicks the can down the road. And when the pollies do file their statements, 21 days after the House and the Senate agree to the new arrangement, it will be left to others to run a credibility ruler over them.
Tony Abbott was right to describe the citizenship saga as a circus undermining confidence in the Parliament. Victoria’s former Liberal premier Jeff Kennett thought Mr Turnbull was “bereft of leadership” on the issue.
The PM has certainly been dragged kicking and screaming to this proposal. But Mr Shorten, who sniffed the community’s frustration before Mr Turnbull, says he’s willing to co-operate as long as it is not a ruse to protect government members.
His suspicion is warranted given that senior ministers advised Liberal Senate President Stephen Parry to stay shtum on his dual-citizenship doubts in a gamble on the High Court changing the rules.
The Greens are utterly unimpressed and still calling for an audit. Leader Richard Di Natale says the register proposal is like being hit “with a wet lettuce”.
We shouldn’t forget that candidates for Parliament already have to fill out declarations they comply with section 44. That’s the form signed by all five parliamentarians who were recently struck out.
Assurances from the Prime Minister at his news conference that no more Liberals are in doubt rang hollow within a couple of hours. Sydney MP John Alexander was pinged in the Fairfax press for having a cloud over his eligibility thanks to his British father.
This messiness will not be cleaned up by the register plan and will continue casting a shadow of doubt over the Coalition’s legitimacy to govern, even if Barnaby Joyce restores its one-seat majority after the byelection.
The citizenship imbroglio has already exposed the raw tensions between the Liberals and the Nationals.
The junior party is still seething over Liberal “cowards and bastards” who spent weeks anonymously attacking them for being so slack in their non-compliance with the constitution.
The colourful counterattack came from Senator John “Wacka” Williams. He is now threatening to defy convention and run against a Liberal for president of the Senate.
Here Mr Turnbull, whose appeasement of the Nationals is most apparent in his embrace of coal at the expense of real climate change action, is not game enough to publicly intervene.
Labor may well save the day for him. Though some senior people believe they should create mischief by voting for Senator Williams on Monday, others say he is too much of a hot-headed partisan.
The opposition is now waiting for the Libs to come up with an acceptable candidate for them to back.
This caravan may move on, but there’s plenty to keep the dogs barking.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics.