View from The Hill

Involve Brandis and Bishop, not just Dutton, in decisions on dual citizens

‘When you’re in the gun sights yourself, target Bill Shorten’ is a core tactic in the government’s toolkit. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

It’s more than a touch hilarious how the Liberals are determined to claim eventual ownership of what seems the likely endorsement of same-sex marriage by parliament later this year.

If a change is made, will Tony Abbott have as part of his record of achievement when he faces the electorate: “My government brought you marriage equality”?

Perhaps not quite, since it was only last term when Abbott was staving off a conscience vote for his party. And some of his right-wing supporters are now appalled at the prospect of a new definition of marriage.

On the other hand, who knows, now the parliamentary wind is blowing in the “yes” direction.

“When you’re in the gun sights yourself, target Bill” is a core tactic in the toolkit of Abbott and his government.

Shorten is not as good a leader as Labor might wish for, and Labor’s performance is frequently sub-optimal. But the government is getting away with more than it should in these attacks.

Take gay marriage. Shorten has been under fire on the grounds that he dragged in party politics with the private member’s bill he introduces on Monday.

Yes he did, but the effect has been to advance the issue.

If the Liberals had earlier been so anxious for bipartisanship, one of them could have seconded deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek’s draft bill some time in the past year, or negotiated some other arrangement with Labor figures.

Abbott played dead until his hand was forced in the wake of the Irish referendum – partly by some on his own side but much more strongly by Shorten.

Now the Liberals are saying: “OK, we will take over now – get back into your place”. No Liberal will be accepting Labor’s call to second the Shorten bill which, after the set piece introduction, will be shunted off into limbo.

Eventually Labor will probably agree to play second fiddle in another bill, at least if it wants to get a result.

In the meantime, Shorten will try to get as much limelight and credit as he can, so he too can extract value if there is an eventual yes vote.

On another front, the Liberals are targeting Shorten intensively over the government plan to strip some people of their citizenship who have been engaged, or are suspected of being engaged, in terrorist activity. This is a defensive as well as offensive tactic.

Last week, a major leak revealed serious cabinet divisions about a proposal to remove citizenship from Australians involved with terrorism who are eligible to be citizens of another country, but not so already.

Cabinet agreed that dual citizens should be subject to having their citizenship taken away and there will be early legislation on this, while the more radical proposal – later strongly backed by a letter signed by many backbenchers – will go to community consultations.

On the back foot over the cabinet leak, Abbott on Sunday kept repeating that the government would strip citizenship from terrorists who were dual nationals, and demanded to know “where Mr Shorten stands on this … because no-one can be happy about anything which appears to be giving encouragement to those who would do us harm”.

In a weak performance on Sky News, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton invoked Labor and Shorten’s name whenever he could.

Dutton was pressed to say how many people could fall under the proposal in relation to dual citizens.

The government regularly throws about numbers of Australians fighting Islamic State and how many are supporting IS from Australia.

But Dutton said it was “impossible to speculate”.

“I’m just not going to speculate on numbers because I just don’t think it adds to the debate at the moment. The debate is about whether this legislation can get through the parliament. It can only get through the parliament if it has the support of the government and the opposition.

"We still haven’t yet heard form Bill Shorten about whether he supports this very important national security measure.”

Indeed, “I still can’t believe that Bill Shorten has not declared a position in relation to one of the most important issues that faces our nation today and into the future and frankly, I think he should be dragged out kicking and screaming to make a comment”.

On the ABC, Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus expressed concern about the government’s plans and said the opposition wanted more information.

This is reasonable. The government hasn’t yet produced its legislation on dual citizens.

If anything, Dutton’s resort to the target-Bill lines as well as his general performance just raise serious questions about the wisdom of giving him, as immigration minister, sole discretionary power, even when there would be a review process, about which we still have few details.

At the very least, maybe cabinet should have another talk – or argument – and put such power in the hands of, say, a ministerial troika – including the attorney-general and the foreign minister, as well as the immigration minister.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with guest, Greens leader Richard Di Natale, here.