Today’s front pages, state by state (Image via @fitzhunter)

The explosive confrontation between PM Turnbull and his deputy, Joyce, is not entirely without precedent. But, as political editor Dr Martin Hirst writes, the comparison is not one Fizza or the Beetrooter will enjoy.

GET YOUR popcorn ready #auspol watchers; the next few days are going to be very interesting now that several National Party MPs have declared “Open Season” on Malcolm Turnbull. Many of us know that the Fizza cannot hang on for much longer: he will leave the country as PM next week, but will he still have the job when he gets home?

It is possible we are heading into a constitutional crisis to rival the sacking of Gough Whitlam in 1975. The “nuclear option” would be for Turnbull to ask Governor General Peter Cosgrove to revoke Joyce’ ministerial commission. That he hasn’t yet done so points to the political problems it would entail.

Turnbull is now widely seen as a bully who has been stared down across the playground. The Beetrooter’s “double dare you” call on Friday shows up the PM’s cowardice.

Having declared no confidence in Joyce and having described his behaviour as a “shocking error of judgment”, Turnbull was left looking like a cuckold himself when Joyce refused to go quietly.

However, things are not looking good for Joyce either, with senior Queensland LNP Senator Ian McDonald today (17 February 2018) calling on Joyce to resign as deputy PM.

It’s perhaps a good time to look to history in order to reflect on what might happen next.

THE 1975 EXPERIENCE

It’s 1975 and an unconventional “kind of love” brings a deputy undone

The hashtags #Bonkban, #Beetrooter, #Barngate#Bonkgate, #Rootgate and #Beetrootgate have been widely shared on Twitter this week, but it useful to remember that it is not the first – and likely not the last – affair of the heart to upstage the affairs of the nation.

As we ponder the next exciting instalment of this vastly entertaining soap opera, we should cast our minds back to the chaotic last year of the Whitlam Government, which, like the Coalition today, spent 1975 lurching from crisis to disaster on an almost hourly rotation. The “Morosi affair”, as it became known, of that year, has some remarkable parallels.

Dr Jim Cairns was deputy prime minister and, like Joyce, he was having a sexual relationship with a staffer. In this case it was his private secretary, Junie Morosi. The affair began in late 1974, and became a public embarrassment for the ALP in February 1975. When Cairns became embroiled in the disastrous attempts to secure dodgy loans for the government in early July 1975, Whitlam removed Cairns as his deputy.

Cairns did not admit to the sexual nature of his “kind of love” for Morosi until a 2002 radio interview. When ABC journalist John Cleary asked Cairns why he hadn’t mentioned it before – despite two successful defamation suits against a newspaper and a radio station in 1982 – Cairns’ answer was simply that “nobody had asked” directly if he had bedded Ms Morosi.

Cairns’ biographer, A/Prof Paul Strangio, says that the mess surrounding Cairns and Morosi was one of the disasters that finally helped shatter the Whitlam Government. However, it is worth noting that Cairns hung on as deputy for another six months after the affair became public knowledge. Paul Strangio says Cairns’ defiance of Whitlam was a contributing factor in the Labor Government’s instability in 1975.

Parallels with the media coverage are also hard to miss. Doctored photographs, innuendo and slighted spouses figured prominently. Both Morosi and Cairns were married to other people when the affair took place.

THE BLACK JACK - BILLY PARALLEL

On the conservative side of politics, Paul Strangio suggests the closest parallel might be when Country Party leader John “Black Jack” McEwen refused to work with William McMahon when the Liberals wanted to make him Prime Minister after the drowning death of Harold Holt in December 1967

Interestingly, the Governor-General, Baron Casey, had already intervened with Holt and McMahon in an attempt to cool the animosity between them and McEwen. Someone – the implication being it was probably McMahon – was leaking material damaging to McEwen to Canberra journalists.

According to the National Archives biography of McEwen, then – as now – the gossip was widely read:

'Their bitter rows had long been a source of material – and leaks – for political reporters. Publications like Don Whitingon’s Inside Canberra and Frank Browne’s column ‘Things I hear’ were as avidly read for the latest news by parliamentarians, as well as the public.'

The current culture of leaking inside the coalition also has historical precedents, it seems.

As Paul Strangio told IA, there is no shortage of bitter and poisonous relationships among ostensible allies on both sides of politics, including between coalition partners. In fact, he says, the Coalition was born in turmoil and crisis in the 1920s. When the Country Party and the Nationalists formed a united front in 1922, Nationalist Prime Minister Billy Hughes was forced out as a condition of the deal.

However, A/Prof Strangio can think of no readily available contemporary parallels and he says that the “potentially destructive” breakdown of the relationship between Turnbull and Joyce is undermining any sense of stability and progress on behalf of the Government at a time when Turnbull seemed to be gaining some momentum.

It could be a long wait before this crisis is resolved (Image via urbandictionary.com)

WHO'S IN THE WORSE PREDICAMENT?

In the current Mexican standoff, neither leader has covered himself in glory. In fact, the opposite is the case. Both Turnbull and Joyce look like idiots. Turnbull appears weak and indecisive (he is) and Joyce looks like an angry root vegetable that’s about to explode (he is).

The chances of both men surviving are slim and Paul Strangio acknowledges the situation is a very difficult one for Turnbull, given Joyce appears to have considered his options and decided to tough it out. It is a battle of wills now between the PM and his deputy.

If Turnbull really wants Joyce to step down, he may have no choice other than a visit to Yarralumla to seek the revocation of Joyce’s ministerial commission by the Governor-General.

 Constitutional law expert Professor Anne Twomey has told IA that Turnbull does “technically” have the power to ask the Governor General to revoke a Minister’s commission, but it only happens “very rarely” as, in most cases, the minister “chooses to resign” before it gets to that point.

The secrecy surrounding the coalition agreement between the Liberals and the Nationals is also a concern. We have no idea what deals have been done, but it is likely that if Turnbull does move formally against Joyce, the agreement will be in tatters.

This highlights Turnbull’s real problem. Its not so much a constitutional problem as it is political, Anne Twomey says.

“Presumably the coalition agreement between the Liberal Party and the National Party requires the leader of the Nationals to hold a senior ministerial portfolio. As his majority relies on the continuing existence of the coalition, this is a serious political limit on the Prime Minister's powers.”

It is a convention that the deputy Prime Minister role goes to the Nationals leader and, as Paul Strangio says, “Turnbull does not control the Nationals’ party room”. He adds that Turnbull’s extraordinary public spray against his deputy on Thursday was “brinkmanship” and an attempt to “force the Nationals’ hand” and pressure them into sacking Barnaby Joyce.

Well, that strategy was in tatters just 24 hours later. Joyce came out fighting on Friday, calling Turnbull’s comments “inept” and “unnecessary” and angrily telling Fizza to back-off from attempts to influence the Nationals’ party room. A/Prof Strangio says the coalition relationship is now “damaged almost beyond repair”.

On one hand, he says, if the Nationals are serious about the viability of the coalition – and therefore of the government itself – they might backdown. But it seems very unlikely at this point and also hard to see what form such a compromise might take.

Dr Strangio says it is hard to see how the “self-imploding” coalition can repair the relationship given the serious nature of the fractures and the high stakes on both sides.

The telling point though, for Paul Strangio, is just how badly Turnbull has “misfired, yet again” in his political judgment. The events of the last 48 hours, he says “reignite the angst about Turnbull’s political antennae” and are “once again raising a serious question mark” over his Prime Ministership.

Turnbull appears week and indecisive, despite his skills as a semantic contortionist. After demanding that Joyce take leave to consider his position (is that not code for “consider resigning”?), he appeared to backdown the following day:

“Well, Barnaby has been considering his position and I do not think there is any question about that, but I have not called on him to resign, I have not asked him to resign.”

And then this glowing endorsement:

“As Prime Minister, as Barnaby's friend and colleague, I support him to the hilt. He is an outstanding member of the Australian Parliament.”

This is a backflip worthy of the Olympic half-pipe bronze medallist. It’s also clear that Barnaby Joyce isn’t going anywhere and appears to have the support of most of his National Party colleagues. However, Turnbull may not be so secure. It’s not out of the question that someone will quietly tell him it’s time to “reconsider”.

I said last week that Turnbull is the real target of this ongoing drama and it’s an epic. At last count, 11 consecutive front pages on the Daily Telegraph up to today (Saturday) and with Turnbull out of the country next week (if he goes), we can expect it to remain hot and humid in the Canberra cauldron.

Nobody believes this war between once firm allies is over. For the conflict to be resolved, either Fizza or the Beetrooter has to be annihilated. At the moment, picking the victor and the vanquished is a 50/50 proposition.

Barnaby is well dug in to fortified trenches, but Turnbull has the high ground (for now). The great unknown is what role the fifth column of disaffected Liberals will play. If there’s a mutiny in Liberal ranks, both leaders could end up as political roadkill.

You can follow political editor Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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