The federal government is in chaos. And it has to be said this week’s chaos is a little different to the chaos that has been customary in Canberra for the past six and a half years.
In a single week, the eligibility of two cross-bench senators, critical to the government’s legislative agenda, is in serious doubt. The government has had to refer both cases to the High Court.
Family First Senator Bob Day was the first cab off the rank.
Two weeks ago he flagged his intention to resign following the collapse of his construction business. This was undesirable and inconvenient, to say the least, for the government because it had been counting on Day’s vote for key pieces of legislation it wants to pass. In a senate where the government must obtain nine votes from a possible 11 cross-benchers, one vote matters. A lot. Senator Day then decided he’d stick around a little longer.
Until Tuesday of this week when he resigned effective immediately. It then came to light that his election in July may not have been valid because of an arrangement whereby he was in line to receive rent, paid by the government, for his electoral office in a buidling in which he had a financial interest. This indirect pecuniary interest is unconstitutional.
Fairfax Media reported that this arrangement had initially been approved by the Abbott government in 2014, against departmental advice.
On Wednesday, the day after the government confirmed it would refer Day’s eligibility to the High Court, it emerged that the validity of another cross-bench senator’s election was also in doubt.
One Nation Senator Rod Culleton had a criminal conviction recorded against him at the time of the election, which may deem him ineligible to stand.
While this was news to lots of Australians yesterday, it wasn’t entirely new news to the government. In mid-October, the since-resigned Solicitor General, Justin Gleeson, referred to the fact the government was seeking legal advice on the composition of the senate.
— Bevan Shields (@BevanShields) November 2, 2016
Both Day and Culleton will face the High Court and depending on the findings, recounts may be triggered in both South Australia and Western Australia.
To lose one senator in a week may be bad luck, but to potentially lose two looks like carelessness. At the very best.
At worst, it calls into question the judgement and competency of this government.
Last night the Attorney-General George Brandis could not adequately respond to the question of why Senator Day’s office arrangements were approved against the advice contained in a letter from the Department of Finance dated February 2014.
“I’ve got no knowledge at all of what the Finance Department may have done in 2014,” Senator Brandis told ABC’s 730 host Leigh Sales. He maintained he first became aware of the breach on Thursday of last week.
When Sales asked why it took until August for the special minister of state to check the constitutional status of the arrangement when the Commonwealth signed a lease on this property in question in December of last year, he responded that the change of ministers may have been a factor.
According to The Australian’s political correspondent David Crowe, the validity of this arrangement has been under active consideration since at least August of this year. And yet the government only responded this week.
Regardless of the outcome from the High Court, Crowe maintains there are questions about how the arrangement was approved in the first place, and why, if the government knew of the potential conflict, the Australian public was left in the dark before the election?
Last night Leigh Sales put this question to Senator Brandis:
“This Government has fallen out with its Solicitor-General, the past head of the Agriculture Department and the head of the Human Rights Commission, all when those public servants expressed views with which the Government disagreed. Is there a pattern here that this government doesn’t welcome frank and fearless advice?”
“This Government does welcomes frank and fearless advice. You’ve cited three instances of the hundreds, upon hundreds of senior officials who advise government.
Each of those instances have their own peculiar facts. I doubt either Professor Triggs or Mr Gleeson the former Solicitor-General would appreciate being described as public servants by the way. But nevertheless I think it would be a bit of a stretch, in fact a very permissibly large stretch to derive some kind of pattern from three very different specific instances.”