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It's always Happy Death Day in Canberra now

  • 30 October 2017


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.

For 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