Barnaby Joyce looks like he’s doing it tough. Day after day, the Deputy Prime Minister sits behind Malcolm Turnbull in question time, facing Labor’s unrelenting attack on his right to be on the frontbench.
There’s the occasional laugh, to keep up appearances, but mostly he has the face of a man who’s whipping himself.
What’s most personally painful for Joyce, who as leader has been very focused on maintaining the Nationals’ sense of loyalty to the team, is that he has let the team down.
A check would have revealed he needed to address his dual New Zealand citizenship. He regularly warns the Coalition party room against distractions and he is embarrassed that he’s caused a big one.
But what’s done – or wasn’t done – is now in the past. Turnbull might be confident the High Court will uphold his position but Joyce is already preparing for a by-election if things go badly.
The government can accuse the opposition of neglecting mainstream issues in its preoccupation with Joyce.
Its tactic, however, does serve to further unsettle him. Also, if the court were to find against him Labor, with its argument that he should have stood aside from the front bench at the start, would have laid the groundwork for some of its byelection campaigning. If Joyce is vindicated, however, Labor will have misplayed.
The court outcome on Joyce – to be considered among the swathe of MPs’ citizenship cases – is harder to predict than was the result in the challenges to the same-sex marriage postal ballot. On Thursday the court declared that ballot constitutional, as always seemed more likely than not.
There are still hurdles ahead for Turnbull on same-sex marriage – notably, he needs the ‘Yes’ case to win. But at least he’s over a major one. Having the ballot struck down would have brought a crisis for him.
If the court does uphold the eligibility of Joyce and those with similar circumstances, it will surely mean it is effectively rewriting the constitutional provision that makes dual citizens ineligible for parliament. It would be saying that many dual citizens, born in Australia of foreign-born parentage, can be properly elected.
Amid the various distractions and the continuing bad polls, Turnbull’s strategy has become to focus, laser-like, on what is currently the biggest bread-and-butter issue in the community – the state of energy prices and the future of energy policy.
Turnbull faces multiple separate but related pressures: to get people some early relief with their bills; to deal with the circumstances of coming summers; and to craft a long-term clean energy policy that can survive a party room where the forces of the right have loud voices and a deep commitment to coal.
This week, against the background of a report from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) highlighting the risks to the reliability of the electricity supply in the next few years, Turnbull was looking in particular to the medium term.
While at times he has encouraged the idea of supporting the building of new clean coal power stations, the AEMO report pointed to keeping some existing generators operating longer as a more practical course.
Thus on Tuesday Turnbull told parliament he and energy minister Josh Frydenberg were in discussions to extend the life of AGL’s Liddell coal- fired power station, in the Hunter region of NSW, for at least five years beyond its scheduled 2022 closure.
But then Tony Vesey, chief of AGL, which has made much of its long-term intention to move out of coal, reaffirmed via Twitter the Liddell closure schedule.
Later Turnbull told reporters AGL was willing to sell Liddell to “a responsible party”. In a statement to the ASX the following morning, however, AGL seemed less than keen on a sale, although it was unclear whether this was a substantive or holding position.
The government has since said Vesey made the comment that he would consider selling to a responsible party a month back, when Turnbull and several ministers met electricity retailers.
It has all looked pretty messy. Turnbull should have been more precise in his remarks to parliament, or waited to make them until the position was clearer.
AGL copped a vitriolic spray from Matt Canavan, the former resources minister who will be back in the job if the High Court clears his citizenship issue. Canavan called AGL “the biggest hypocrite walking around Australia at the moment” for making money from producing coal-fired power while advertising its exit from coal – but not until 2050.
It makes a somewhat fractious backdrop to the meeting Turnbull and Frydenberg will have with Vesey on Monday to discuss a possible sale.
After all that’s been said, the stakes seem high for both the government and Vesey. On the other hand, the government believes that in the public mind the power companies are about as unpopular as the banks, so going after them wins rather than loses points.
The government is confident a buyer will be available for Liddell, although it doesn’t want to be the purchaser. Any buyer almost certainly would demand some sort of government financial support.
The AGL affair is another example of the extraordinary amount of intervention in the market and the manhandling of business that the Coalition is willing to resort to as it grapples with the energy conundrum.
Retailers have been summoned twice to be told to ensure customers can get the best deals available. The government not only plans to expand the Snowy but wants to buy out the whole enterprise. Then there is its willingness to use export controls to get more gas available for the local market.
As one government man puts it, “extraordinary problems create extraordinary interventions”. And ironies too, now that ministers have taken to labelling Bill Shorten a socialist leading New “Red” Labor. It would make as much sense – which is not much – for Labor to throw similar rhetoric back at the Coalition.
Whether from all this, and the still-to-be-joined battle over a clean energy target, will emerge a policy framework sufficient to convince voters that the government is getting on top of the challenges remains to be seen.
In trying to grapple with energy Turnbull is playing on the right field, but being able to kick the goals is another matter.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra