In more than an understatement, Malcolm Turnbull opened his news conference after the High Court’s swingeing blow to the government by saying this was “clearly not the outcome we were hoping for”.
And indeed, not the outcome Turnbull had so unequivocally predicted when, in August, he told parliament that Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce “is qualified to sit in the house and the High Court will so hold”.
As the weeks have gone by the government has become less and less confident that the position of Joyce and his deputy, senator Fiona Nash, would be upheld. At the same time, the betting on the survival of the third National, Matt Canavan, firmed, as the complexities of Italian law were examined.
Joyce himself says he wasn’t surprised he was disqualified. “In my gut I thought this is the way it was going to go,” he told reporters on Friday. As things have turned out, Joyce’s gut was a better predictor than Turnbull’s barrister background.
In a not-so-subtle dig, Joyce told the ABC’s 7.30 that tactically, it would have been better to have gone to a byelection immediately when he became aware he was a New Zealand citizen by descent, but he had deferred to the solicitor-general’s advice – which played up the prospect of a court victory.
Of the seven current and ex-MPs before the court in the dual citizenship cases, only Canavan and Nick Xenophon have had their eligibility upheld. Not that Xenophon is staying around in federal politics – he made his farewells on Friday and after clearing some odds and ends he will be off to create a storm in South Australian politics.
As well as kiboshing the two Nationals, the court knocked out One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts, who is now pitching for Queensland politics; it also rejected the eligibility of the two Greens, Larissa Waters and Scott Ludlam, who’d already resigned from the Senate.
The December 2 New England byelection that Joyce will now contest is a huge distraction for the government. As it battles with the states to get its energy policy in place, and deals with other issues in coming weeks, a mini judgement day is the last thing it needs.
The government has moved to get the byelection over as quickly as possible, with writs issued immediately.
In the only good news Joyce received on Friday, Tony Windsor, the one-time independent member for New England, announced he won’t contest the byelection.
Windsor had tormented Joyce by a submission to the High Court arguing against his eligibility, and by keeping open the option of entering the race if there was a vote.
But, apart from any other considerations, he probably judges that his chances of taking the seat would be poor. Even though he is not a candidate, the Nationals expect he will be running interference in the campaign.
It is nearly unthinkable that Joyce won’t win, whomever he now faces. Labor polls poorly in the seat. A protest vote could go to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, One Nation, and independents. But recent polling, which was done assuming Windsor ran, has shown Joyce in a comfortable position.
The court decision leaves the cabinet something of a mess. A temporary patch-up has had to be done until after the byelection, with Turnbull taking Joyce’s ministerial duties – he was sworn into agriculture and water resources on Friday – and other ministers acting in Nash’s roles. This obviously means there will be some limbo in the affected portfolios.
A permanent reshuffle has to wait. When it comes the Nationals are expected to lose a frontbench position, because in a recount for Nash’s seat a Liberal is set to replace her.
After the dust settles the Nationals will also have to elect a new deputy.
With Joyce and Nash out, the Nationals’ voice will be more muted in cabinet for a time, although at least Canavan is back, returned on Friday to his resources ministry.
The Nationals have been preparing for this court outcome (if only they had been as diligent in checking their MPs’ constitutional eligibility). Joyce has been paying a noticeable amount of attention to his seat in recent weeks. On Friday night the Nationals were setting up their Tamworth campaign office, and people were appearing in Barney Army t-shirts.
Leadership arrangements were also smoothly put in place, by the Nationals’ parliamentary party and the party’s organisation. Joyce is staying overall party leader while the party’s Senate leader, Nigel Scullion, becomes the interim leader of the parliamentary party.
But, in a sign of the immediate disruption the High Court fallout is causing the government, Turnbull has delayed his trip to Israel – he was due to leave Saturday to join the commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba.
And late Friday, the government couldn’t say who will be acting prime minister when Turnbull undertakes the Israel trip or goes to APEC soon. While Nationals might accept that Julie Bishop would be more obvious than Scullion for that role, they were not pleased to see the Bishop name in the media. They will be wanting Turnbull to observe the niceties of proper consultation.
The opposition will use the coming weeks to cause what mischief it can. Joyce being disqualified means the government has lost its majority on the floor of the house, although Turnbull told the media “we have a majority of members in the House of Representatives, even in the absence of Barnaby Joyce”. This is, if you count in the casting vote of Speaker Tony Smith.
The government has a buffer, thanks to the crossbench and the Speaker, against any no confidence vote. But prepare for coming Labor shenanigans in parliament. It won’t try a no-confidence motion that would look bad and be lost. But it could, for example, join with crossbenchers to push for a motion for a royal commission on banking, and something on penalty rates, trying to lure Queensland National George Christensen across.
Labor is also questioning the ministerial decisions Joyce and Nash made. Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek said: “Every decision made by both Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash since October last year is under a legal cloud. Labor will now take some time to work carefully through the implications of the [High Court] decision.”
Just to complicate the situation further, there is a general anticipation of an imminent announcement of a Queensland state election, with neither side of politics confident in predicting the likely outcome but both anticipating that One Nation could hold the balance of power.
How the Liberal National Party polls in Queensland will have Canberra fallout, because it will be read as a pointer to the general mood there – and Queensland will be critical to the federal Coalition at the next election.
As for New England, while no-one anticipates Joyce will fail to retain the seat, the sort of result he gets will be important to how the government ends a difficult year.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra