Coalition civil war: So far, so depressingly normal for Aussie politics

Barnaby Joyce, left, and Malcolm Turnbull, right, are at loggerheads. Source: Getty

OK, so we’ve got a prime minister who’s practically told his deputy PM to resign over an “shocking” error of judgment and a deputy PM who’s said his prime minister is “inept”. So far, so normal for Australia’s political system, which is more riven with infighting and and more loaded with self-interested cliques than the juiciest episode of The Real Housewives of Melbourne.

The Australian reckons on its front page today that the coalition government is in “civil war” after Malcolm Turnbull bowed to days of relentless media coverage to finally twist the knife in Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce over Joyce’s admittedly dubious personal behaviour. Turnbull surprised reporters on Thursday by ripping into his coalition partner and deputy, saying that Joyce’s affair with a young staff member had brought a “world of woe” on to Joyce’s family and his new, pregnant partner Vikki Campion.

Of corse, what the PM didn’t say was that his lothario deputy had also brought a world of woe onto Turnbull himself, who should’ve been celebrating his best opinion poll results as leader of the coalition federal government in ages, when instead all eyes were on Joyce and his baby mama.

Turnbull strongly hinted at the same press conference that he expected the National Party, which partner with Turnbull’s Liberal Party to form government, to act by dumping its leader.

But yesterday Joyce hit back, calling Turnbull’s comments inept and insisting he had the backing of his party. He implied that by holding a gun to the head of the Nationals, Turnbull had effectively strengthened the party’s resolution not to be dictated to over who should lead it.

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“I would not be making comments or implied comments about the leadership of the Liberal Party and we don’t expect to get implied comments about the leadership of the National Party,” Joyce said. “In regards to the National Party, there is nothing we dislike more than implied intervention into the processes of the National Party,” he said.

In fact, instead of doing what some have said would be the decent thing and just resigning, if not because he believes he did anything wrong – Joyce is adamant he broke no part of the ministerial code of conduct (in getting two sweet government jobs for his mistress), nor the rules surrounding the pecuniary interests register (for taking rent-free accommodation from a millionaire mate) – than because the situation is now damaging for the whole country, Joyce has dug his heels in even further.

As a result, sources told The Australian that the current infighting had effectively paralysed the government, while the newspaper itself said the government was in a “political crisis” and that the working relationship between the PM and his deputy was beyond repair.

The ABC agreed that it was a crisis and added that it “it is not clear how this damage can be repaired, with the Prime Minister yesterday voicing such damning comments about the Nationals leader and today Mr Joyce hitting back in similarly angry terms”.

Opposition party Labor, needless to say, is loving the situation, with leader Bill Shorten happily fuelling the flames by saying yesterday that Turnbull and Joyce were “at war”.

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“If Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t have the courage to sack Barnaby Joyce, then Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t have the courage to be prime minister,” Shorten said. “Quite frankly, the way two men are behaving neither of them are fit for the high office they currently hold,” he said.

Shorten has no doubt forgotten the saga over former PM Julia Gillard’s mortgage and the length of time the government focused on that just five or so years ago, let alone the amount of political mileage Labour’s various leadership knifings and the infighting between Gillard and frenemy Kevin Rudd wasted.

But Shorten may well be right when he said that Aussies have every right to be angry that the country’s two most senior pollies were wasting time on a public spat (he kept his comments focused on the coalition but the very same could be said for Labor and its time-wasting infighting).

For every Starts at 60 reader who has said that Joyce’s behaviour deserves thorough examination because it says so much about his personal judgment as a public representative, not to mention the allegation of misuse of public funds, there is another one who doesn’t give a damn about politicians’ behaviour and just wants them to get on with governing.

But is it even possible for Australia to be governed by a political party that isn’t more concerned with internal battles than external wins for voters? In recent times, there’s been no sign that it is possible.

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That Shorten himself had a lot of trouble deciding whether to sack Sam Dastyari could be used to argue that it’s the nature of our party system, with both Labor and the coalition riven with internal factions that often give the leader little control over the behaviour of individual party members, that makes it certain whoever governs will be constantly attempting to quell internal fights. (Dastyari enjoyed the backing of a powerful faction within the Labor Party, which Shorten could ill afford to tangle with.)

It was the same when Turnbull was fighting predecessor Tony Abbott for control of the Liberal Party – Turnbull’s left-leaning supporters against Abbott’s harder right.

So, what’s the answer? Do we need to reform the nature of Australian political parties? Are you tired of being governed by politicians who seem more interested in party games than voters? Do you trust one party more than the other to govern with integrity? Or is this just par for the course in any government anywhere in the world, with internal party fights always likely to overshadow wins for voters?

Tell us what you think.