The MP citizenship debacle that was swept the ranks of political parties in federal parliament throughout much of 2017 and stirred a frenzy of speculation around the leadership qualities of both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten has brought little Christmas joy for either following by-elections in New England and Bennelong.
The modern presidential style campaigning that swamped those two electorates with scare and smear deployed to discredit the left and the right the Australian political spectrum only served to further discredit the standing of Parliament and those elected to sit in the green chamber in the eyes of the voter.
Despite countless opinion polls and copious coverage in the media dissecting pre-poll trends, these mid-term tests to a wafer-thin Coalition majority in reality had little to do with the performance of either leader.
Neither were they about the dramas and traumas faced by country or metropolitan electorates on a daily basis while politicians are pre-occupied with squabbling and bickering.
They represented the biggest test available for High Court ruling back on 26 October that Barnaby Joyce had fallen of Section 44 of the constitution because his father was born in another country, albeit New Zealand that could one day still become the seventh state of Australia having participated in early Federation conventions in the 1890s, and was therefore a dual citizen at the time of his election in New England.
The court of public opinion clearly ruled in New England and Bennelong, where John Alexander was forced to quite parliament because of his English-born father who moved to Australia as a child, that the High Court got it wrong and returned sitting members. There could be justifiable conjecture such sentiment extended to former senators who suffered a similar fate.
The “citizen jury” saw through the hilarity of a court ruling so divorced from reality that it betrayed the spirit of the constitution drafted more a than century ago by sage jurists including Sir John Quick, Sir Edmond Barton and Samuel Griffith who would become the first chief justice of the High Court when it was established soon after federation in 1901.
Conveniently overlooked by the High Court in 2017 was that Australians born before 1949 were British subjects, as were those in New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and other Empire (Commonwealth countries). We were in the same pod.
Electors, I believe, saw through the court-fabricated farce that has been the costly New England and Bennelong by-elections. Their voting intentions were not swayed by lavish promises from the Coalition or Labor nor by muck-encased grenades being tossed from the trenches.
They decided in the final weeks of October and early November to re-elect court-ousted local members of Parliament.
The New England result, while convincing for Joyce, was made all the more possible by the absence of retired Canberra kingmaker Tony Windsor.
The two-party swing against Alexander in Bennelong is factoring towards being sub-five per cent, rating at the lower end mid-term rebuttals for governments struggling in opinion polls. And considering Labor trotted out “star candidate” Kristina Keneally, the result is better compared to an Alexander tennis victory than boosting either leader.
All that can be drawn from these by-elections is that the High Court ruling did not pass the community “barbecue test”. All it achieved was a diversion from a stronger focus on governance and policy.
But while the Coalition may be breathing a little easier over the Christmas break, neither side of Parliament can afford to ignore the message from voters calling for the citizenship fiasco to be resolved not by the courts but by those elected to enhance the legacy of fathers of federation.
That surely means for a comprehensive review of our constitution and how citizenship is defined. In contemporary, multicultural society, we cannot accept other countries making laws that strip eligibility from Australians because of some ancestral quirk or by modern marriage.
Parliament must return in 2018, reclaiming the agenda of genuine reform and ending this tit-for-tat charade that has consumed Canberra for months. The greatest body of public opinion, the voters, may just acknowledge with applause.
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