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It's always Happy Death Day in Canberra now



In the recent slasher film Happy Death Day, an unfortunate young woman called Tree awakens to find herself reliving, in an endless loop, the day in which she's murdered. It's not a very good movie: basically, it adapts the conceit from Bill Murray's Groundhog Day, and then adds some stabbing. But it does offer a nice metaphor for contemporary Australian politics.

Masked killer from Happy Death DayFor who can deny feeling a certain déjà vu about the events currently engulfing Canberra? An unpopular PM blundering through a series of bizarre humiliations? A ruling party that's given up on ruling and instead lurches from one catastrophe to the next? The political assassins in the background sharpening their knives? Yes, we've been through all this before.

But the sense of eternal recurrence stems as much from the response as from the crisis. Just maybe, in a different period, a different PM might have risen to the challenge.

Could not, perhaps, our constitution's debt to the paranoid nationalism of federation have spurred an outbreak of statesmanship? We've just learned that the nation rests on a document that renders all Australians with dual citizenship (a huge quantity of people) ineligible for parliamentary office. One could imagine a bipartisan push to bring the constitution, and all that follows from it, in line with 21st century norms. But that's not what's going to happen.

After all, throughout his tenure, Turnbull has deferred both to his factional enemies on the right of the party and the xenophobes of One Nation. It's impossible to imagine such people allowing a sensible discussion about citizenship and the parliament. If your administration can't take an unequivocal position on marriage reform, you're scarcely likely to shepherd through constitutional changes that depend on a real referendum and not a weird postal survey.

In fairness to Malcolm Turnbull, last week's events were, even by Australian standards, particularly strange. Who would have thought that, after decades of hysteria about border security, citizenship would have brought so many politicians undone? A Senator from One Nation owing fidelity to two nations? The irony's entirely perfect.

But Turnbull's response to the eligibility crisis has showcased the mixture of bluster and incompetence that's become so characteristic of this government. His declaration, back in August, that the High Court would rule in favour of Barnaby Joyce might be compared to Michaela Cash's attempts to link Bill Shorten with union corruption: in both instances, strategy (or even common sense) gave way to the exigencies of desperate short term manoeuvring.


"Turnbull now resembles the iconic cartoon coyote speeding off a cliff, keeping himself aloft by frantic motion and desperate pretence."


'The decision of the court today is clearly not the outcome we were hoping for,' said the Prime Minister after the ruling, 'but the business of government goes on.' That's probably true. For all that Labor's emboldened by the result, the Turnbull administration won't collapse this week.

Nevertheless, the PM's on borrowed time, precisely because everyone knows that 'the business of government going on' means more of the chaos that they've come to expect. Turnbull now resembles the iconic cartoon coyote speeding off a cliff, keeping himself aloft by frantic motion and desperate pretence.

That's what makes the whole situation so very familiar. In 2015, after narrowly retaining his leadership, Tony Abbott promised 'good government starts today', a pledge that unwittingly acknowledged how woeful the previous year and a half had been. Seven months later, Turnbull carried out a mercy killing, supposedly on the basis that he'd bring to an end the dire polling, weird zigzags and disastrous 'captain's calls'.

Abbott, of course, had won the 2013 election largely because he offered an alternative to the shambolic leadership of Kevin Rudd, who'd himself promised to provide stability when he toppled Julia Gillard, the leader of the anti-Rudd coup in June 2010. In each of those cases, the incoming PM made almost the identical pitch: a declaration that the chaos and confusion of their predecessor would now give way to efficiency and order.

On face value, Turnbull gave at least as credible a version of that pledge as anyone else. Unlike Abbott, he wasn't beholden to unpopular socially conservative nostrums. On the contrary, Turnbull presented an eminently saleable narrative to accompany his stellar polling. He was a modern, moderate Liberal — fiscally responsible but personally progressive, a republican who liked leather jackets and the internet, and believed in climate change.

That's why the disaster engulfing his government suggests something more deeply wrong in Australian politics than a succession of personal failures. What is the Turnbull agenda? It's not an easy question to answer about a leader that possesses no obvious philosophy at all. So let's let's try another: whom does the Turnbull government represent?

Partisans of the ALP might respond that Mr Harbourside Mansion governs for the nation's wealthiest. In one sense, that's true. But what strategic orientation does he offer Australian capital? How, precisely, has he built a constituency for his particular vision?

If you ask the same questions about Turnbull's immediate predecessors, you draw a similar set of blanks. It's very difficult to identify any of the recent prime ministers — or any of the previous administrations — with a coherent project that might provide a firm electoral base (rather than fleeting personal popularity) and thus long term stability.

That's why it's always Happy Death Day in Canberra. Each government follows the same pattern, as the promised constancy gives way to more poll-driven instability. Politicians believe in nothing — and that's what they deliver.

Furthermore, it's by no means over.

You'd have to think, from where we're now at, that Bill Shorten will win the next election. Or, more exactly, that the Liberals will lose it, with Shorten taking power on the basis of little much other than not being Malcolm Turnbull.

The alarm clock will sound. The day will start again.



Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Happy Death Day (pictured, main) is in cinemas now.

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, Malcolm Turnbull, Barnaby Joyce, Scott Ludlam, Fiona Nash, citizenship



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Existing comments

“We've just learned that the nation rests on a document that renders all Australians with dual citizenship (a huge quantity of people) ineligible for parliamentary office.” Every immigrant to the US not born of a US citizen cannot become president. Is that a big deal? Every immigrant to Australia can become a federal parliamentarian, if they ditch their previous citizenship (or citizenships, because what the Constitution forbids for federal parliamentarians is multiple citizenships). Why is that a big deal and where is the proof of the twenty-first century norm (as in a norm that is a mere seventeen years old or are we claiming that the contemporary norm should be venerated because it has been sitting inside the sensus populi for much longer)?

Roy Chen Yee | 30 October 2017  

I guess it's the selection process: political parties are now so tiny and unrepresentative of the general community, that hyper-ambitious ghouls like our present parliamentarians can work their way up and gain power. Perhaps we should move to a random selection of Order of Australia recipients instead.

Russell | 30 October 2017  

Brilliant suggestion Russell! But wait! Perhaps we would have to cull out those who broke the rules by canvassing nominations for their award, sometimes dictating their own references to their nominated referees.

surprised recipient | 30 October 2017  

I can offer a few reasons, Roy. The first, is that dual citizenship is a valuable asset not to squandered lightly. Renouncing that second citizenship is difficult to reverse. Given that at least half of all candidates lose elections, you’re asking a lot of anyone with dual citizenship to hazard that asset on a risky venture. Secondly, once elected, the parliamentarian makes a declaration, or oath, to serve Australia in her/his role as a parliamentarian. That’s the ‘allegiance’, for want of a better word, that’s important

Ginger Meggs | 31 October 2017  

The 21st century norm is that dual citizens should have eligible for all the ruling offices of the nation? Where did that idea come from, Jeff? It's only valid if citizenship is only about the rights of the individual. If it's also about responsibilities of the citizen to the nation, it's clear that a person might have conflicting responsibilities to two different nations. Like many other things, this issue is not all about the individual.

Joan Seymour | 31 October 2017  

Like the conflicting responsibilities of the Queen of England/Australia/Canada/NZ et al, Joan ? Or those of Catholic bishops and archbishops, for that matter ?

Ginger Meggs | 31 October 2017  

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