Tricky times for Shorten and Turnbull

Haig Park marriage equality picnic – Canberrans react to the Yes vote. Photo by Karleen Minney.The final few weeks of this political year will be tricky for both sides. The two issues that dominated the second half of the year – dual citizenship and same-sex marriage – refuse to go away.
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Each must be treated carefully by Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten. The “yes” result for the same-sex marriage survey means Turnbull now needs to make good his promise of legislation before Christmas. A private member’s bill backed by the government will be put to the Parliament, with all MPs to have a free vote. That sounds easy and should pass comfortably on the back of the resounding “yes” vote. Yet Turnbull will still need to negotiate his own crossbench, including a cabal of conservatives trying to hijack the process.

Turnbull ended up being on the winning side within the Coalition for a change, because he supported same-sex marriage, but he won’t get much credit: he campaigned without much passion or determination. His Liberal deputy, Julie Bishop, didn’t campaign at all.

Turnbull will try to manage the last stages of same-sex marriage while he has been reduced to minority government by the dual-citizenship fiasco, which cost him his majority in the House of Representatives through the resignations of Barnaby Joyce and John Alexander. His government will need to negotiate the final two House of Representatives sitting weeks of the year. Survival should be straightforward with the support of the crossbench on matters of confidence, but survival with his dignity intact will be harder.

He has not handled the dual-citizenship matter at all well. He was unsympathetic towards the first of those who resigned, Greens parliamentarians Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters. He then misread the likely High Court decision. He allowed Joyce to stay on as a minister. He failed to act decisively on the question of an audit and was then let down by Stephen Parry and Alexander.

While all this happened, he consistently lagged in the polls, most recently by 55 to 45 per cent in the latest Newspoll. His internal critics, such as Tony Abbott, stalk his every move.

This puts Turnbull in a potentially dangerous and complicated situation that needs careful handling: the dictionary definition of a tricky situation.

Shorten, on the other hand, is in a tricky situation of a different kind. It, too, needs careful handling but for different reasons.

The first element concerns dual citizenship. It could still turn against Shorten if he pushes too hard and appears unreasonable in trying to protect his own MPs. It seems Labor’s head office did run a tighter operation than the Liberals, but was let down by the tardiness of some of its candidates, who took acted too late for comfort in renouncing their British citizenship. There is now enough doubt to legitimise Turnbull’s wish to refer these Labor MPs to the High Court.

This is where the other dictionary meaning of tricky comes into play. Shorten may undo his advantage over Turnbull if it seems he is being crafty or deceitful in defending his MPs and refusing to endorse their referral. Here, Shorten is entering dangerous territory because there is no worse perception in politics than to appear to be two-faced or hypocritical. He should be very careful how he proceeds.

The same is true in the case of same-sex marriage and minority government.

On same-sex marriage, Shorten backed a winner, but navigating conservative amendments of the private member’s bill may still be tricky. Any amendments will be on the basis of a free vote so Labor will not need to formulate a party-wide position. But Shorten’s own vote will still be watched carefully. It will be interesting to see how many Labor MPs join with conservatives in the Coalition to try to expand the scope of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Shorten may still need to exercise his authority.

But handling a Turnbull minority government poses the trickiest situation for him. He must make the most of Turnbull’s discomfort while still maintaining the dignity of Parliament. He can’t hope to dislodge the government by a no-confidence motion because he lacks crossbench support. That’s probably fortunate for him as the community may see that as tricky for taking advantage of the government’s misfortune.

The manager of opposition business, Tony Burke, insists Labor will prosecute its agenda, which may mean an attempt to pass specific bills on matters such as a banking royal commission or penalty rates.

Success would make an early general election more likely, but not immediately, as neither side wants an election before July. Instead, the by-elections for New England and Bennelong may be followed by further by-elections early next year in several other seats.

Shorten must think through carefully just what his message to the community will be during this period of uncertainty. Even in the unlikely event that Labor wins Bennelong, it will still lack the numbers to form government, though it would put enormous pressure on Turnbull’s position.

Does Labor hope that Turnbull survives or would it be happy to take another prime ministerial scalp and then deal with Bishop, Peter Dutton or Scott Morrison?

Does Labor raise the stakes and go for one big hit on the government? Or does it continue to bask in its lead in the opinion polls, with a view to eventual victory in 2019?

These questions must trouble Shorten.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the n National University.

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