Things couldn’t be more dire for the Turnbull government.
There is a cloud over the eligibility of four and possibly more of its MPs and just as the torturous same-sex marriage survey process reaches a climax, Liberal reactionaries are threatening to derail the promised legislation.
These are the same people who foisted the whole process on Malcolm Turnbull and the nation in the first place.
They clearly believe their ploy has failed and are serving notice they want to wind back decades-old anti-discrimination laws not only federally but also in the states.
And just in case you haven’t noticed, the 23rd successive Newspoll has the government trailing Labor.
Only this time, the gap has opened up to a whopping 10 points and the Prime Minister’s approval has collapsed.
Mr Turnbull’s disillusioned moderate allies in the government are hoping he will finally step up and fight for a swift vote establishing marriage equality.
After all, that was his promise to the Australian people. He assured us that if “yes” succeeded it would quickly pass through the Parliament.
The 80 per cent participation in the voluntary poll is a sure indication that Australians are engaged with the issue and want to see it dealt with, something Mr Turnbull acknowledged in Manila when he described the exercise as a triumph.
On Tuesday, Liberal senator Dean Smith, whose private member’s bill has the support of Labor and the Greens as well as many of his colleagues, will serve notice he will bring it forward for debate on Thursday.
He is also expecting a strong result for the affirmative to be announced on Wednesday.
PM’s chance to stand for something
It is probably Mr Turnbull’s last best chance to be seen standing for something he has previously been seen to support. Based on politicians’ public statements this bill should easily sail through both houses.
There is simply no doubt that failing to deliver would be an egregious breach of faith.
It would drain away whatever vestiges of credibility the Prime Minister still has. Mr Turnbull needs something to begin re-building his personal – and the government’s – stocks.
The eligibility crisis – the word cannot be avoided anymore – has plunged the government into minority and there is no escaping the damage done by senior Coalition figures falling foul of the constitution.
Last week the government tried to spread the odour on to Labor, but if Newspoll is any guide the ploy did not have the desired impact. And that’s because the parallel is a stretch.
Labor’s Tony Burke summed it up: the opposition members fingered as dubious can document they took “all reasonable steps” to renounce their dual citizenship before nominating. The Liberal and Nationals who were caught did not.
The legal opinion proffered by the government to tar Labor’s MPs as ineligible was dismissed as “incomplete” and not supported by the High Court’s long-standing interpretation according to the opposition’s expert legal eagles.
Of course you get the advice you pay for but even the government’s expert admitted his view was not “absolutely certain”.
There’s little doubt the public is fed up with their elected representatives failing due diligence when they fill out their nomination forms.
Mr Turnbull is right, they want a quick resolution as much as he does.
On Monday, there was a breakthrough of sorts when the government and opposition agreed to a version of Bill Shorten’s “universal declaration”. Members and senators will now have to register their eligibility by December 1.
Those confessing to ineligibility will be referred to the High Court.
No matter what happens there, Mr Turnbull will do everything in his power to avoid an early general election. He would prefer death by a thousand cuts by way of a string of byelections than the presaged wipeout of his government.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He is Contributing Editor for Network Ten, appears on Radio National Breakfast and writes a weekly column for The New Daily.