Turbulence ahead for Fizza Turnbull in 45th Parliament

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New Members of the 45th Parliament (image via aph.gov.au).

What an exciting time to be a fly-on-the-wall in Parliament House. This week the 45th Parliament sits for the first time and it’s going to be a lot more interesting than the last one.

The July 2016 election saw the Coalition’s comfortable majority eroded and Malcolm Turnbull’s authority weakened almost to the point of no return.

The PM can hold the line in the House of Representatives if none of his restive backbenchers play up — but the signs are not good.

There are already cracks over the Government’s proposed superannuation reforms. Loose cannon George Christensen from Queensland has already threatened to vote with the Opposition to prevent rich superannuants from having their savings cut.

The super changes are only one hangover from the 2016 budget and getting it through the House won’t be easy. Turnbull is already indicating some concessions to ensure that mavericks like Christensen stay inside the tent.

Question time

Question Time in this Parliament is likely to be a pretty good stoush. It will be the "Fizza" versus a rejuvenated Bill Shorten; their fortunes almost reversed from the 44th Parliament, even though Turnbull is still prime minister and Shorten *only* opposition leader.

There will be some pretty good questions from Labor and some pretty lame Dorothy Dixers from the Government benches.

Some lowly Coalition backbencher will have a moment of fame when they get to ask the prime minister to explain how losing a bucket load of seats and hanging on by a skinny thread amounts to a "mandate".

Dear old "Jobson Grothe" might even get a mention as will (no doubt) "budget repair", Labor’s "Mediscare", the "taxed" and the "taxed nots" and (heaven forbid) "stopping the boats".

The PM will get some well-crafted questions about the bad trade unions — in particular the Victorian Firefighters Union and the Employment Minister Michaelia Cash's particular bogeymen — the CMFEU.

What won’t get a mention from Malcolm’s hand-picked questioners:

  • the failed NBN;
  • the AFP raids in Parliament House;
  • the PNG government decision to close Manus and insist on repatriation of refugees;
  • the creeping bigotry of the LNP ranks;
  • why we need a royal commission into the blood-sucking banks; and
  • crippling cuts to Newstart and other welfare payments that will sink many more Australians below the poverty line.

We can be pretty certain this is how it will go because what else has Fizza got?

He can’t boast about the achievements of the last parliament or the great things the Coalition is going to do this time … for one simple reason. There’s nothing in the bin.

Turnbull has been cleverly wedged by Labor on how to deal with the rapacious banks. Fizza is proposing a friendly once-a-year chat with the bankers, while Shorten has harnessed public anger and is demanding a royal commission.

Turnbull has already pleaded with Shorten to drop the idea but Labor tacticians know they’re on a winner and will no doubt bring it up via a suspension of standing orders or some other tactic to disrupt the Government’s plans for parliamentary business.

Turnbull is holding on but his grip on power is weak. That’s OK, though, because, as we knew months ago, Malcolm’s heart isn’t in the top job.

As he mockingly and audaciously told Insiders this week, Turnbull feels he’s only *volunteering* for his half-a-million bucks a year gig as our prime minister.

Does the Fizza mean anything he says?

Sometimes Turnbull’s mouth is moving but his body language says he’s not comfortable with the words being formed by his lips.

I am struggling to think of one positive thing that the Coalition said it would do if it won. I won’t be surprised if most backbench questions to ministers this week fall back on the "blame Labor" meme, even though that joke is as stale as grandpa’s socks.

The first few days, if not weeks, of this Parliament are going to be absorbed with cleaning up the left-overs. That’s what is supposed to happen after a double dissolution election.

Turnbull wants to put up to 25 bills before the House, including the "omnibus" savings bill which Labor will only support in part. Of the top 10 or so issues, the Government can only be confident of getting its way on a handful. The rest are up for grabs depending on deals and bluff.

44th Parliament hangovers

The key legislation pending from the 44th Parliament is a series of bills to establish the Australian Building and Constructions Commission (ABCC) to police the building industry unions.

Now Turnbull's added to this an almost impossible to keep promise to use Federal legislation to overturn a state enterprise agreement. It’s not a forgone conclusion that this will go through either.

These union-busting exercises are a centrepiece of the Government’s claimed "mandate" from the election. But it’s not looking good. Labor doesn’t support either bill and the independents are shaky. It won’t be easy for Minister Michaelia Cash to win over Bob Katter, the Xenophon bloc, or even the One Nation senators. The Greens may support the ABCC bill, but they want concessions too.

Included in Turnbull’s "battle plan" is this and other overhanging legislation that wasn’t passed last time. The bills now go to a joint sitting of the House and the Senate.

This will be the testing moment for Turnbull and the aftermath may well determine his future. 

Unfortunately for Fizza, his grand plan to rid the Senate of the allegedly unrepresentative swill we elected in 2013 failed to launch. Instead, Turnbull is stuck with even more crossbenchers — and some of them are cross, if not just totally delusional.

The one thing none of us saw coming was the explosion of support for Pauline Hanson’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. One Nation has four senators and at least two of them are probably further along the lunatic fringe than Hanson herself.

One Nation Senators

Of course, this week, we’ll have more brave mavericks of the mainstream, like The Australian’s Chris Kenny, burping away about how Hanson represents the disaffected majority who have been "cowed into silence" for too long by the cultural Marxists. Such a proposition would be laughable if people like Kenny and his ilk didn’t take it so seriously (at least in public).

But such is Turnbull’s bed and so he must lie in it, rough mattress, bed bugs, dirty sheets and all.

The feral crossbenchers will most likely refuse to support passing the ABCC legislation and the other double dissolution trigger bills also look DOA at the Senate door.

There are 20 senators from outside the cosy Lib-Lab duopoly and they are not there to play nice with Malcolm. He needs the votes of at least nine of them to get any legislation through at all. It is unlikely all nine Greens will vote his way on anything, so the rest of them will be on the receiving end of much largesse in an attempt to secure their support.

The new senators have been schooled on protocol and they’ve even had morning tea with Turnbull, but none of them has shown the least inclination to do the Government’s bidding.

Hanson and her cronies are likely to resist all blandishments until they get their Royal Commission into Halal certification, or the evils of vaccination, or the faked moon landing, or global warming, or whatever chemtrail idiocy they’re fixated on this week.

But that’s only one of the Fizza’s problems — his former leader Tony Abbott is also out and about, doing what he does best. And what he does best is conniving backroom politics that resembles bare knuckle brawling more than it does rational thinking. Besides his own pugilistic prowess, Tony’s got mates. Lots of mates, and they’re big and they’re ugly, and they’re itching for a bitching.

Not only does Turnbull have to contend with a razor-thin majority in the Reps and a hostile Senate, his own right wing wants to bring down the plane and crash land into a field of crazy.

If this is common sense, give me chaos every time

The sticking points for the nutjob brigades are the plebiscite on same sex marriage and the euthanising of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act — both of which are giving Malcolm the worst political wedgie of his life.

The marriage equality "plebiscite" was supposed to be one of Turnbull’s "get out of gaol" pledges to the right-wingers. His public failure to deliver on this is one reason the "common sense" people would prefer Tony Abbott or even Scott Morrison as leader.

Given the numbers, the plebiscite is most likely to fail almost ensuring a conscience vote won’t take place this term, which will further outrage both Fizza’s opponents and his frenemies on the right.

Do you remember the laughs when Turnbull told the NSW Liberals their broad church was faction-free. It was a lie before it even left his lips and this week the chasm between the sensible (it’s all relative) pews and the downright extreme in the vestry is as wide as this brown land.

No amount of innovation or fibre to the node is going to save the Fizza from his worst enemies — people who should (under the circumstances) be among his best friends.

But what can we expect from Labor?

Well, I’m not holding my breath that they will close the torture camps on Manus and Nauru.

If they hold the line on the worst of the cuts threatened in the so-called omnibus savings bill, I’ll be reasonably happy.

Hopefully, Labor will also kill off the same sex marriage plebiscite and force Parliament to a conscience vote quickly.

Shorten must stick to his guns and the fighting stance he’s adopted since the virtual victory in the 2016 election.

If the Fizza can claim a mandate on his slim House of Reps majority, Labor can claim a similar mandate for their role as oppositionists.

They should oppose, oppose, oppose and then Sam Dastyari’s wild prediction that Turnbull will be gone in 18 months could become a reality. Then we’d really have something to celebrate.

One thing Labor’s likely to make some noise about is perhaps the media legislation. Or maybe not. There’s a long history of bipartisan support for giving Rupert Murdoch what he wants.

Watch this space.

Read more by Dr Martin Hirst on his blog Ethical Martini and follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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