A series of by-elections next month appears likely to decide whether Australia’s beleaguered government will survive a bizarre citizenship crisis that has already rubbed out its wafer-thin parliamentary majority.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has ruled out calling an early election, but opinion polls suggest that his own leadership may be in the balance whatever course he takes. A challenger could emerge within months.
The ruling coalition of the Liberal and National parties will be forced to rely on the support of independents to pass legislation following the resignation of lower house member John Alexander at the weekend.
Like Deputy Prime Minister and National party leader Barnaby Joyce, who quit in late October because he inherited his father’s New Zealand citizenship, Alexander fell afoul of an obscure constitutional clause that prohibits serving politicians from holding dual nationality – a difficult requirement in a country that has always been driven by immigration.
Reports have said half of the population is an immigrant or has an immigrant parent. But changing the constitution by referendum seldom succeeds in Australia, due to requirements all registered voters must cast ballots.
Witch-hunts have also claimed four other members of the lower House of Representatives and Senate upper house. Most were ousted because a parent was born abroad, thus entitling them to citizenship of that country, even though they had not actually resided in their second “homeland.”
Now reduced to 74 lower house legislators in the 150-member assembly, the coalition is technically a minority government. Labor has 69 MPs and the support of five cross-benchers, thus also giving it 74 votes. Two independent MPs pledged their support to the government, but one – Rebekha Sharkie – faces a high court hearing over her own citizenship.
Turnbull should regain the 75th seat when Joyce contests a by-election for his safe rural electorate in early December, but could lose it again when a poll is held later in the month for Alexander’s Sydney seat. Although it has traditionally been Liberal, the seat now has a strong Labor voting bloc.
Labor could also benefit from a strong swing against the government in at least one other seat, vacated by an independent. Even if neither of the major parties wins this by-election, the coalition will be in trouble if more than two other legislators fail citizenship challenges and are forced out.
Questions have been raised about the eligibility of almost a dozen sitting coalition members, including former prime minister Tony Abbott, who was born in the United Kingdom. The opposition Labor Party is in the same boat, with as many as 18 MPs under scrutiny, including its leader Bill Shorten.
The opposition is more likely to hold onto its seats in subsequent by-elections, as voters generally turn against incumbent governments.
Nonetheless, Turnbull is trying to turn up the ante against Labor MPs with a new disclosure rule that will effectively require all legislators to show that they meet the eligibility requirements set out in the constitution.
Reports said Australian-born lawmakers will have to provide details of their parents and grandparents’ dates and countries of birth to demonstrate that they have not inherited a second nationality. Immigrant lawmakers must document steps they have taken to renounce their original nationalities.
Shorten hit back with a threat to directly target five government MPs thought to be vulnerable if his legislators were referred to the high court.
The by-elections could not be coming at a worse time for the coalition – and Turnbull – as their ratings in opinion polls have been plummeting for at least a year. A Newspoll this week gave the government 45% of the two-party preferred vote, behind Labor with 55%. This represents a drop of one percentage point in the coalition’s support since around mid-year.
Backing for Turnbull as the preferred prime minister fell by five points, and he now leads Shorten by just two points. Perhaps more worryingly for Turnbull, the poll also confirmed voters would prefer that he stepped aside in favor of his own deputy Julie Bishop, now the Foreign Minister.
Bishop was supported by 40% of those polled, compared with a meager 27% for Turnbull, a lawyer from an affluent background who is portrayed by Labor as indecisive and out of touch with the needs of ordinary people.
Not surprisingly, Turnbull is dampening talk of a dissolution and early general election, but events may be slipping out of his control. Despite lukewarm guarantees by Bishop that Turnbull will lead the Liberals into the next poll, which isn’t scheduled to be called until 2019, it is believed her supporters are gearing up for a party vote early in the new year.
If she topples Turnbull, Bishop will become Australia’s seventh prime minister in the past decade. Little wonder that a 2016 survey found 28% of voters have lost confidence in the system of government and have little faith that either major party will address issues that matter to them.
About half of 18-year-olds, who will get their chance to vote for the first time at the next election, have not even bothered to register. Many said they viewed the nation’s political leaders as dishonest and untrustworthy.