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Consolations from the Liberal Party mess



What a mess! Poor Fellow My Country. Today is not a day for reckoning about any big policy issues, because none of them was in play when members of the Liberal Party cast their votes in the party room.

Woman goes through the Seven Stages of Political Spills. Cartoon by Fiona KatauskasAnd the reckoning on issues like climate change, energy policy, tax reform, school funding, the NDIS, migration and population policy, Indigenous constitutional recognition, multiculturalism and freedom of religion requires a functioning parliament and party rooms where deliberation and compromise within the contours of the various party philosophies are possible. To start the policy reckoning for the good of the country, the rules of political engagement need to be clear. And perfidy needs to be punished.

There are three consolations and a couple of abiding concerns about the vote in the Liberal Party's party room meeting. The first and major consolation is that Peter Dutton was not elected leader and thus is not our new prime minister. I say this, not because of any aversion I have to his policies or because of his political philosophy, but because of his reckless, wrecking behaviour in working assiduously to terminate the prime ministership of Malcolm Turnbull.

Dutton's behaviour this past week is not to be rewarded with the ultimate political prize. In these leadership battles, there is next to no political morality at play. It's about winning the individual prize (and presumably trying along the way to maximise the prospects that the party will win the next election). It's about raw power and getting the numbers.

It would be even more consoling if there had been at least three self-described 'conservative' members of the Liberal Party who voted for anyone but Dutton and who would have otherwise voted for Dutton but for his wrecking behaviour this week. But that's probably too much to hope for. If it were true, it would mean that Dutton would have had the numbers were an assessment made only on the basis of political philosophy and capacity for leadership, and that he was deprived the top job by 40 votes to 45 as punishment for his engaging in self-promoting wrecking behaviour.

Had Dutton become prime minister, he would never have enjoyed any legitimacy given the tactics he employed to get there, and such behaviour would have been repeated and rewarded yet again in the future. The consolation is that even in the derelict state of Australia's contemporary politics, Dutton's perfidy augmented by Tony Abbott's desire for revenge are no longer to be rewarded.

The second consolation is that the last of the 43 signatures on the petition seeking the spill was that of Warren Entsch who specified that he was doing it for Brendan Nelson. Nelson was the first Liberal leader to suffer at the hands of a wrecker who happened to be none other than the then political novice Malcolm Turnbull. You live by the sword, you die by the sword.


"Political revenge, personal perfidy, and a rolling series of by-elections might feed the 24-hour media cycle, but they do nothing for the common good."


On both sides of politics, we have now experienced a cyclical blood lust which has done nothing to assist the nation confront the big policy issues confronting us. Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull all failed to achieve their potential, being brought down by one of their own. Entsch was prepared to bring on the spill so that a line might be drawn, with both sides of politics and both wings of each major political party putting an end to political fratricide which makes party unity and cabinet solidarity all but impossible to maintain.

The third consolation is that neither of the victors, Scott Morrison nor Josh Frydenberg, has blood on his hands. There is some prospect of a fresh start, and on both sides, given that Bill Shorten is secure in the wake of the recent by-elections.

There are two abiding concerns. Malcolm Turnbull was able to buy time for 'anyone-but-Dutton' by invoking the pesky section 44 of the Constitution which sets out the qualifications for membership of the Parliament. This outdated section continues to wreak havoc with the democratic legitimacy of the Australian Parliament, undermining the public's trust in their elected representatives. Neither side of politics shows any appetite for amending this troublesome provision.

For the last couple of years, the Parliament has been paralysed and the public troubled with an unnecessary series of by-elections because of the operation of s44(i) of the Constitution. The 1988 Constitutional Commission, which included Gough Whitlam and Rupert Hamer as members, recommended that section 44(i) of the Constitution be deleted and not replaced. They further recommended that the Constitution 'be altered to make Australian citizenship a necessary qualification for membership of the Parliament'.

They also thought the Parliament should have the power to impose a qualification requiring members 'to comply with reasonable conditions as to residence in Australia'. It's now 30 years since the Constitutional Commission reported to Parliament on the very problem which confronted all the members in the recent spate of by-elections. The Constitutional Commission reported:

'Even though a person who is granted Australian citizenship may have taken all appropriate steps to relinquish the non-Australian nationality so far as he or she is able, the person may have retained the status of a subject or citizen because of the laws operating in that country. In that case a person may at present be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a member of Parliament. The person's right to take the fullest part in our representative democracy could be impaired by being ascribed a status by a foreign system of law that does not permit voluntary relinquishment of that status.' The Commission further recommended: 'Any Australian citizen, including a person with dual citizenship, should be able to stand for Parliament. Accordingly, section 44(i) should be deleted.'

This week, the concern has been about the operation of the equally vague and problematic section 44(v). The suggestion was that Dutton was standing to gain a pecuniary benefit under an agreement with a Commonwealth government department because he has an interest in a family trust which runs child care centres and which 'by agreement' is in receipt of Commonwealth funds. Once again, only the High Court could give a definitive ruling on the operation of this part of section 44. The House of Representatives voted against a motion referring the matter to the High Court.

Prime Minister Turnbull sought 'urgent' advice from the Commonwealth Solicitor General. This request bought the anti-Dutton forces the necessary additional 24 hours they needed to garner support after the Dutton ambush earlier in the week. Meanwhile the office of Solicitor General was exploited for political purposes with the Solicitor General going as far as he responsibly could, giving his opinion that 'the better view is that Mr Dutton is not incapable of sitting as a member of the House of Representatives by reasons of s 44(v) of the Constitution'.

The Solicitor General said that 'it is impossible to state the position with certainty', in part because 'There is a possibility, consistently with the approach that the High Court recently took in the context of section 44(i) of the Constitution, that the Court might endeavour to create a clearer line in the interests of certainty, which might involve a broader reading of section 44(v)' than in earlier decisions of the court. It's time for our politicians to lead the people and propose sensible constitutional change to section 44. But they won't. And they will continue to exploit ambiguities and uncertainties in this outdated section for their own political advantage.

The second abiding concern is that a by-election in the seat of Wentworth prior to any general election will create further instability and distraction disabling our major parties and the parliament from reckoning with the big policy issues confronting us. We don't need any more by-elections. We need parliament to work between now and the next general election which will be in May 2019 at the latest. For the good of the country, either Scott Morrison or Bill Shorten needs to be given some clear air and a realistic political horizon for passing substantive legislation for the good of the country and as soon as possible. Political revenge, personal perfidy, and a rolling series of by-elections might feed the 24-hour media cycle, but they do nothing for the common good.



Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison, Julie Bishop, Tony Abbott, Liberal Party



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Existing comments

I think all our major party politicians have blood on their hands with the deaths of 12 innocent people who were justly seeking asylum in Australia but have since died because of their largely bipartisan cruel immigration policy. And there art still many children even left to languish on Nauru, with no certain future. Depression and self harm are now the norm in these hell-holes. Please engage in political advocacy on behalf of these desperate asylulm seekers whom our major party politicians have put out of sight and out of mind. If we don't do this when we can, haven't we also got blood on our hands? And please vote for humane compassionate politicians at the next Federal electon, not those who support such terrible cruelty!

Grant Allen | 25 August 2018  

I just emailed Scott Morrison with the following letter: "Dear Scott, While you rejoice at your successful elevation to Prime Minister, and not having 'blood on your hands' in recent eventsl, I think you, along with many other Australian politicians, will continue to have 'blood on your hands' if you don't act quickly to bring the asylulm seekers on Nauru and PNG quickly to Australia. A 12-year-old boy cruelly sent by the Australian Government to Nauru is now close to death, reportedly suffering severe depression and having not eaten for 2 weeks. There are also 118 other children still trapped in forced detention on Nauru. Please act quickly and save the lives of all these desperate people, children and adults, who sought asylulm in our country that once had humane immigration policies. Malcolm Fraser, as PM after the Vietnam War ended, flew tens of thousands of Vietnamese asylum seekers here from Malaysia, after coming to an arrangement with the Malaysian Government. Our current immigration policy is both un-Christian and un-Australian. Yours sincerely, Grant Allen" Readers, please engage in political advocacy on this issue before there are any more deaths of asylum seekers on Nauru or PNG.

Grant Allen | 25 August 2018  

I second Grant Allen's plea for a return to clemency and humane treatment for people whose only motive in seeking refuge in Australia was to escape jeopardy or death for themselves and their families. What an irony that a politician who imposed the harshest treatment conceivable on such people has a vested interest in childcare centres - having effectively robbed the children of asylum seekers of their right to a childhood.

Jena Woodhouse | 25 August 2018  

Thanks Frank for some sanity. As you say this bloodletting has had nothing to do with the visionary management of Australia and its place in the world, nor empathy for our fellow persons. But I think we should continue to drill down inquiring who benefits from this and whence they came. There is a strong scent of Howard senior puppet master. But there are also destabilizers Abbott and Joyce. Since the Jesuits have had a strategy of training leaders, might it not be a good idea for their colleges to study the biographies of these two alumni and find out what not to do?

Michael D. Breen | 25 August 2018  

I wonder if Peter King, who was the Liberal MHR for the seat of Wentworth until Mr Turnbull decided he wanted a tilt at Parliament) wants to run again?

David Arthur | 25 August 2018  

"Dutton's behaviour this past week is not to be rewarded with the ultimate political prize.' Well, not yet, anyway. But will he be returned to his super ministry of 'Home Affairs'? Morrison has already said that he would welcome him into his team; what does that say about refusing to reward intimidation and bullying? And of course there will still be Abbott, with his principles in one hand and and his wrecking ball in the other. When the party's branch members in Warringah and Dickson refuse to preselect their current members for the next election, then I'll accept that the behaviour we saw this week is considered unacceptable. But not till then.

Ginger Meggs | 25 August 2018  

Given that Warren Entsch would have prevented the change of leadership how is his decision to sign it a correct one? I consider it unethical to sign a petition I do not agree with. His logic sound like a cunning rationale to have two bob each way.

Harry Who | 25 August 2018  

While I agree that neither Morrison or Freudenberg played a direct role in the removal of Turnbull from the office of PM, both have blood on their hands for their role in the treatment of refugees & asylum seekers to Australia.

Marie B | 25 August 2018  

there is no stability in government i thought that tony abbott stopped all of this stupid garbage why have they ignored this.

maryellen flynn | 25 August 2018  

Grant: it is disingenuous to call the people you refer, “asylum seekers”. They are not. They are economic refugees. They purchased plane tickets to Indonesia and knowing they could not access Australia via a Visa program, they chose to board a boat and arrive on Australia’s shores demanding we accept them. They managed to dispose of every single identifiable item on the last part of their journey. The western world cannot save the economic fortunes of the underdeveloped world. We can try to educate and assist with the development of infrastructure but ultimately it’s up the the individual citizens to change their own nations for the better. This will increasingly be an issue for the western world. How many people can the country absorb.... it will only become a harder issue as we go forward because of the growth in the earths population. Importantly, each major party in Australia understands their voting constituencies want them to maintain the cutrent approach. Don’t expect changes any time soon.

Patrick | 25 August 2018  

Few policies have been properly debated for some years, maybe it was Abbotts revenge or simply supporting a Liberal view and Dutton or someone needed to bring it to a head - these are facts, so perhaps now something might be done for Australia, if not the circus will continue and as always the ones that really suffer are those who can least afford too.

Brian Goodall | 26 August 2018  

Patrick, Grant was not talking about the complexities of the refugee problem in the world today. He was talking about those on Manus Island and Nauru. These people, including many children, might be called 'economic" refugees or any other label you like but they are at present imprisoned by our government. The evidence of the effect of this punishment is obvious if you follow the writings of Arnold Zable or Behrouz Boochani, a prisoner himself. It is time these people were released from this prison and given safe harbour on our shores.

Tom Kingston | 26 August 2018  

Thank you Frank for a very nuanced view of the sorry state of politics in this country. Everyone I know, family and friends breathed a huge sigh of relief when Dutton failed in his coup against Turnbull . While Morrison is not my favourite polly because of his treatment of the refugees on Manus and Nauru, at least he is better than the extreme right wingers under Dutton. Shorten will waltz it into the Lodge at the next elections.

Gavin O'Brien | 26 August 2018  

Patrick: I dispute your claim that the children on Nauru are economic refugees rather than asylum seekers. And I ask you and other readers to read the following article: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/aug/25/begging-to-die-succession-of-critically-ill-children-moved-off-nauru

Grant Allen | 26 August 2018  

Patrick and other readers: I suggest you firstly download and read the following article and also consider subscribing to "Asylum Insights FACTS & ANALYSIS" for ongoing information on what is happening to those desperate people who have found themselves sent by Australia to Nauru and Manus Island. https://www.asyluminsight.com/media-round-ups/#.W4IjSugzaUk I suggest readers also watch the documentary 'Chasing Asylum' - freely downloadable on SBS Movies and described as, 'This powerful documentary that provides disturbing never-before seen footage of the living conditions of asylum seekers in offshore detention centres". Much has been said about some of our politicians having 'political' blood on their hands by deposing their party leaders, but 'real human' blood is on the hands of those who enact and support the current cruel immigration policies of all our major political parties. I ask readers to read and view articles and documentaries such as the above, discern the truth of what is happening in our name to desperate people who come here seeking asylum, as most of them genuinely do, and engage in political advocacy on their behalf. Let us return to the days of the pre-Tampa era - to a time when Australia had a compassionate bi-partisan approach to immigration.

Grant Allen | 26 August 2018  

Politics is not an occupation for the faint-hearted. Turnbull has been ousted because of personal animosity by some members of the Liberal Party. A big mess made worse by ego overdrive. Julie Bishop has been a casualty after serving for 11 years as Deputy Leader and a very creditable career as Foreign Minister. What little esteem voters harboured for politicians has been severely damaged. We can hope that the new leadership team in the Liberal Party will think deeply about the events of the past week and their obligations to the people of Australia and their fellow parliamentarians.

Pam | 26 August 2018  

Abbott wasted three years of his life hating Turnbull with a burning passion and spending every waking moment plotting to bring him down. I wonder if he now feels any sense of happiness from such an unchristian practice and whether his 'faith' will motivate him to do likewise with Scott Morrison.

Everald Compton | 26 August 2018  

Everald Compton, in response to Frank Brennan's characteristically luminous piece, asks a fascinating question about whether Abbott's unChristian machinations will stop now that Turnbull has been deposed. I doubt if Abbott had much more in mind than a personal vendetta against Turnbull, who for all his braggadocio and brouhaha, is a far brighter person than Abbott ever was. Furthermore, Abbott is unlikely to unseat Morrison because, despite Morrison's neoliberal politics, he too is far brighter than Abbott and well able to articulate a conservative policy program, at best supported by Abbott, and which Abbott could never have managed to articulate in a month of Sundays.

Michael Furtado | 26 August 2018  

It may be more likely, Michael Breen, that Abbott and Joyce have strayed from their educational base through self-interest rather than through the failings of the Jesuit school they attended. The educational philosophy of the Jesuit schools (as I'm sure to know)was, and still is, the promotion of 'MEN FOR OTHERS" in the tradition of their Ignatian motto, "To the Greater Glory of God". Clearly, some of their students didn't get it but, it seems to me, the vast majority did. We have done enough damage to our religious heritage - let's not start tearing down the few good institutions that remain.

john frawley | 27 August 2018  

Readers, as a final thought on 'blood letting' by many of our politicians in our name, please download and read the following article: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/27/darkness-surrounds-me-nauru-child-refugee-paints-pictures-of-despair This article portrays the mother of two terribly traumatised children on Nauru and the despariing letter she has written in her own blood. And please engage in political advocacy on behalf of the desperate asylum seekers on Nauru. Saint Mary McKillop, Australia's great Saint, invoked others to never see a need without doing something about it. Surely one of our greatest needs as Australians is to do all we can to stop the terrible cruelty to those innocent people seeking asylum here, including children, whose lives are now quickly slipping away as they face indefinite detention on Nauru.

Grant Allen | 27 August 2018  

Picking up on a digression in the comments re political leaders links to catholic education- I find it distressing that this most Catholic of govt and opposition too is so cruel and lacking in compassion and the ideals taught from childhood in our catholic schools about loving thy neighbours, doing unto others- the mantras of our faith so discarded and sinned against. What happened that these brutish leaders can wear their faith like a brand but ignore and disrespect its sacred precepts?

Pamela | 28 August 2018  

In 1988, the Constitutional Commission chaired by Sir Maurice Byers and including the nation’s leading academic scholar of constitutional law, Leslie Zines, said a number of things in relation to section 44(v) of the Constitution which is now occasioning Mr Dutton (and his prime minister) some embarrassment and uncertainty in the light of the payments received by a family trust administering child care centres. The 1988 Commission noted in its report (at para 4.878): ‘There is uncertainty about whether the disqualifications could apply to a variety of transactions between members and the Crown, including many where goods, services and other benefits are provided by the Commonwealth on the same terms and conditions as they are made available to the public’. The Commission said, ‘The uncertainty is a cause for concern, especially as disqualification is automatic.’ The Commission noted that questions had been raised ‘about some other more routine types of payments by the Commonwealth to members of Parliament which, on a strict interpretation of the provision, may cause those members’ places in the Parliament to become vacant. Examples include the position of members who are pharmaceutical chemists or medical practitioners and who receive payments from the Commonwealth under the National Health Act’ (para 4.880). What then of a member of parliament whose family trust has an interest in the running of child care centres receiving payments from the Commonwealth? The Commission noted that the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs back in 1981 was of the view ‘that the whole question of members’ pecuniary interests remains in need of systematic clarification by a formal constitutional amendment or, at least, by Parliamentary guidelines’. The Standing Committee recommended that the existing provision be deleted. At the Adelaide Constitutional Convention in 1983, the relevant subcommittee recommended repeal. The 1985 session of the Convention in Brisbane supported in principle the need for constitutional alteration. So, the 1988 Constitutional Commission recommended the deletion of the whole of section 44 and its replacement by detailed provisions set out in their proposed Constitution Alteration (Qualifications and Disqualifications of Members) 1988. In the absence of any amendment to the Constitution, it’s little wonder that the cautious Solicitor General advised then Prime Minister Turnbull last week: ‘I consider there to be some risk, particularly in light of the substantial size of the payments that appear to have been made by the Commonwealth to RHT Investments, that the High Court might conclude that there is a conflict between Mr Dutton’s duty as a parliamentarian and his personal interests.’ Given that there has been no appetite amongst our members of parliament to amend section 44 these last 30 years, they have no option but to refer ambiguous situations like that of Mr Dutton’s family trust to the High Court.

Frank Brennan SJ | 29 August 2018  

Immense Thanks, O Frank, for the trouble you have taken to research this ancillary opinion! I hope too that everybody who reads it does their utmost to ensure that it is widely circulated, especially in influential political circles, so that the High Court can adjudicate on it.

Dr Michael Furtado | 31 August 2018  

I agree with your comment Pamela. I am so puzzled by these politicians who call themselves Catholic yet do not reflect the precepts of their faith in their behaviour and policies. It would be more honest to call themselves Catholic lite or progressive Catholics or whatever the term is for I want to be a Catholic according to my own rules. We are being betrayed from all sides. One really needs a rigorous traditional Catholic education reinforced with Catholic family values to survive the confusion and all these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Our country does not deserve to be the play thing of egocentric self interested politicians.

Cressida de Nova | 07 September 2018  

Like many of those giving feedback, I think we have to look at the real spilled blood our politicians have been involved with over the years rather than the metaphorical blood spilled during the recent change of PM. There is the matter of the appalling treatment of asylum seekers, but what about the other spilled blood scenarios brought about by some of our callous politicians. The refusal of governments to implement the recommendations of the 1987-1991 Black Deaths in Custody has seen more needless indigenous deaths. Australian government support for the Indonesian military over the years has contributed to massive loss of life and great suffering in West Papua, East Timor, Acheh and parts of Indonesia itself. The continuing support our leaders have given to US policies has contributed to similar outcomes in Indochina, Chile, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Palestine. I see Scott Morrison as unfit for the job as PM because of his role as immigration minister. He is also the politician who thought it was clever to take a lump of coal into parliament when there was a debate about energy planning. responsible Australians know that climate change will also lead to more death and suffering. We need to consider the massive numbers of people who are already very sick and dying because of widespread pollution and the numbers who will die when their island homes will be submerged under sea water. And then our leaders tried to cheat the poorest country in our region out of its resources! Poor Fellow My Country indeed! We all need to urgently choose leaders who are dedicated to compassion, social justice, human rights and care for the environment to act responsibly to deal with these problems - not contribute to them.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 15 September 2018  

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