The ongoing dual citizenship saga is the latest in a series of crises which have imperilled Malcolm Turnbull’s position as Australian Prime Minister.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull once again finds himself in a crisis situation. This time around, as opposed to many previous situations, it is not entirely of his own making.
The dual citizenship situation has engulfed federal parliament and already ruled several sitting Senators and MPs from both ruling and opposition parties ineligible. Significantly, former Deputy Prime Minister and National Party leader Barnaby Joyce was forced to resign after it was revealed he held New Zealand citizenship.
It appears that more members of the ruling Liberal/National Party coalition government may have issues regarding dual citizenship. In recent days, Liberal MP John Alexander has found himself having to check whether he holds British citizenship. If so, he would have to resign from parliament, triggering a by-election and possibly even an early election.
The dual citizenship issue relates to section 44 of the Australian constitution, which bars Australians with dual citizenship from holding federal office. Many Australians have a migrant background and hold dual passports as a result. Prior to taking political office, this must be renounced.
Apart from narrowing an already slim majority, the dual citizenship issue has also alienated the Turnbull government with the electorate. The Coalition government has often been derided as entitled and out of touch with ordinary Australians. The dual citizenship issue has made the Coalition look even more inept in the eyes of Australians.
An early election?
Reports have emerged in recent days that Turnbull is considering an early election as a way out of the crisis. Trailing badly in opinion polls and facing almost certain defeat in a hypothetical election barring a remarkable turnaround in political fortunes, a second consecutive early election is looking increasingly likely. One of the likely triggers for this election would be a favourable result in the same-sex marriage postal vote.
The postal vote is one of the few issues Turnbull has consistently championed during his time as Prime Minister. To fully understand how Turnbull has managed to find himself in such a compromised position, however, it is necessary to look back over his two years as Prime Minister. Several factors have contributed to his now-tenuous grip on the top job.
A Divided Liberal Party
The latest crisis exacerbates an already difficult situation for Malcolm Turnbull. Almost from the day he took over the role, Turnbull has found himself on the back foot. He has had to contend with party disunity, legislative setbacks and increasingly poor approval ratings. In terms of party disunity, there have been several instances in which the socially conservative wing of the party has openly defied the more moderate Turnbull.
The most overt of these moments was when outspoken senator Cory Bernardi sensationally quit the party and formed his own party, the Australian Conservatives. The Australian Conservatives, merging with another socially conservative party, Family First, have pressured the Turnbull government on social issues. These issues have been marriage equality as well as the Safe Schools Program. More recently, Kevin Andrews, another member of the Liberal Party’s conservative faction and a staunch supporter of former PM Tony Abbott, has warned Turnbull about his ongoing tenure as Prime Minister.
‘There is a deep frustration in the community about what people see as inadequate leadership at the present time’, Andrews said, when asked about Turnbull’s leadership.
Apart from intra-party tensions, the struggles have also come through a lack of victories in terms of a legislative agenda.
Policy inertia and a lack of vision
A defining feature of Malcolm Turnbull’s time as Prime Minister has been his lack of policy agenda or vision. As a former Goldman Sachs investment broker, he came into the job with a proven record of business acumen. He positioned himself as a wise economic manager who would kick-start the Australian economy. However, while economic downturns have been avoided, unlike many other Western nations, his economic track record is far from exemplary.
Unemployment rates have not been reduced significantly and growth has been anaemic. He has struggled to pass many of the reforms he has wanted to. Going into the 2016 election, Turnbull campaigned on reducing the company tax rate and encouraging innovation. The Coalition have also attempted to reform the higher education sector and de-regulate Australia’s universities. A majority of these measures, however, have been blocked in the Senate.
Two years in, there has been minor tinkering to the economy. There have been previous few significant reforms, however, that Turnbull can claim as major economic reforms. On some key economic issues, such as housing affordability, the Coalition have made no significant moves. This inaction, coupled with increasing voter anxiety on housing affordability, have led to an increasingly disgruntled electorate.
The disgruntled electorate
Turnbull’s tentative approach to policy issues has resulted in him putting much of the Australian public offside. Voters who are liberal on social issues have been angered by his capitulation to the conservative faction of his party on issues such as marriage equality and energy policy. Many voters across the political spectrum believe Turnbull to be a poor negotiator, unable to broker deals with the Senate cross bench. A majority of voters also view Turnbull as lacking conviction and flipping on issues consistently. Given his record in the last two years, it is hard to argue with this characterisation. It is also difficult to see how any moderate or centrist voters who may have voted for him in 2016 should vote for him again over Labor’s Bill Shorten, given his inconsistency and continual breaking of promises.
Will Turnbull last a full term?
At this point, it is not certain that Malcolm Turnbull will make it to the next election, much less win an election. After all, he attained the position of Prime Minister in similar circumstances in 2015 when Tony Abbott was deeply disliked by the electorate and going through political crises of his own. Labor leader Bill Shorten is currently the clear favourite to win the next election. Polling shows that Malcolm Turnbull is slightly favoured as preferred Prime Minister to Bill Shorten. However, Labor has a commanding lead over the Coalition on a two-party basis and has done so for many months now.
To his credit, the oft-maligned Bill Shorten has positioned himself and Labor well in contrast to the Coalition. Labor have staked out clear positions on issues such as housing affordability, education and energy policy. These issues have been vulnerable points for Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition. Shorten has been prudent in the battles he has picked with the Coalition by focusing on these key issues. Shorten is not as purely progressive in his positions on some issues as some on the Left would like. He has, however, thus far done a reasonable job of appealing to progressives and moderates alike. If Shorten keeps his current course, combined with the continued failures and shortcomings of the Coalition, it is hard to see an outcome other than a Labor victory come the next election.