Dr Nick Economou
Dr Economou

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to dissolve both houses of the Australian parliament and thus precipitate a full Senate election is coming back to haunt his government, writes Dr Nick Economou.

In addition to all his other self-inflicted wounds, the sense of crisis enveloping the composition of the Senate following the 2016 election is adding to the notion that Turnbull has lost control of the political debate.

Like its handling of the policy debate, its apparent inability to dominate the parliamentary process is re-enforcing the notion that the Turnbull government is a very poor performer indeed.

The Senate problem began with the declaration of an intention to resign by Family First senator from South Australia, Bob Day.

Day’s announcement coincided with the government’s decision to move ahead with legislation to re-institute the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) to act as a watchdog over the alleged malpractice of Australia’s construction unions.

Day’s resignation declaration, as it turned out, had something to do with the construction industry. Senator Day owned a home-building company that had apparently become insolvent and was now in the hands of administrators. With bankruptcy looming, Day clearly felt the need to resign his position ahead of being forced out of the Senate for being in breach of the Australian constitution.

So, Day declared he was going. The he declared that he would be going after the vote on the ABCC (a policy that the senator supports, for obvious reasons).

It was at this point that the government revealed that a legal opinion about the validity of Day’s candidature had been sought from the Solicitor General (the very same man who has been locked in a personal dispute with the Attorney General, Senator George Brandis).

Solicitor General opined that, because Day’s electorate office for which the Commonwealth pays the rent was located in a building that Day had business interests in, the senator might in fact be in breach of the constitution of the grounds that he was receiving an indirect benefit.

The Solicitor General had also been asked to look at the validity of the candidacy of One Nation’s Senator Rod Culleton who had been in a spot of legal trouble apropos the criminal law.

Once again there is a question as to whether Senator Culleton’s conviction on a criminal charge might render him ineligible to sit in the parliament. If nothing else, all of this shows that the Solicitor General managed to be quite busy notwithstanding his bitter argument with Senator Brandis.

What this means politically is that the re-convening of the parliament for the last session ahead of the Christmas break will be dominated by the legal fate of Senators Day and Culleton and endless speculation about the ability of the government to get its legislative program through the upper house.

And, of course, this will help obscure the other controversial matter relating to the composition of the Senate that the government might have preferred to have been talking about.

Since the last time it met, the Senate will be graced with the presence of the replacement for Victorian Labor senator Stephen Conroy.

In the plum position will be Ms Kimberley Kitching – and to say Ms Kitching is a controversial figure within the ALP is putting it mildly.

Ms Kitching is personal friend of Labor leader Bill Shorten and their friendship goes back to the days of Young Labor faction fights, the management of the Australian Workers Union and the days when Ms Kathy Jackson of the Health Services Union was also part of the Shorten sphere of influence.

In case anyone has forgotten, Jackson, Shorten and indeed Ms Kitching were all mentioned to various degrees in the Haydon Royal Commission on union corruption.

The Coalition ranks in the Senate would be licking their lips in anticipation of Ms Kitching’s arrival were it not for the intervening controversy about possible High Court intervention on the matter of the last Senate election and the awful stench that has been left behind.

Thanks to the business activities of Builder Bob, the former Family First senator who, it is now being relieved, was very good at getting Liberal leadership personnel to disregard public service departmental advice about not agreeing to some of his demands.

As for the One Nation senator – well, he just wouldn’t be there if the last election had been for half, rather than all of the Senate and that is something Mr Turnbull is culpable for.

The recent controversies in the Senate have been a metaphor for the Turnbull government’s awful post-election period.

Instead of setting the agenda and attacking Bill Shorten and the union movement, it has been the Turnbull government itself that has looked shifty and defensive.

The Senate is a recurring nightmare for the Coalition, and it has been interesting to not just how often George Brandis is caught up in these problems that emanate from the upper house.

Meanwhile, the only casualty attributable to Turnbull’s ABCC so far has been an apparently bankrupt builder who was also a government-supporting senator.

 (Dr Nick Economou teaches Politics at Monash University's Clayton campus and is a regular commentator on Australian Radio and Television)

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