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When you’re on the defensive, stepping backwards can send a bad signal

Christopher Pyne announces that the government will cancel next week’s House of Representatives sitting. Morgan Sette/AAP

When you’re on the defensive, stepping backwards can send a bad signal

Malcolm Turnbull’s tactic of cancelling the House of Representatives’ sitting next week – because his numbers are depleted and the government is nervous – is a short-sighted decision that smacks of lack of nerve.

Undoubtedly it would have been a rough week in the lower house. But refusing to face it looks panicky, just when Turnbull is trying to convince people that he and the government are in control.

The government is desperate to keep the lower house agenda narrow and as tightly managed as its unfortunate circumstances permit. It declares the rest of the parliamentary year will be confined to legislating for same-sex marriage and considering which citizenship cases should be referred to the High Court.

Monday’s cancellation wasn’t Turnbull’s only ploy to avoid being embarrassed in the lower house’s final sitting days of 2017. When he recently met Bill Shorten to discuss citizenship disclosure, he tried to win agreement to confine the coming period to non-controversial legislation. Labor naturally wouldn’t play ball.

The cancellation has nothing logically to do with the timetable for the same-sex marriage bill. Consideration of that legislation was always to continue in the Senate next week, moving to the House of Representatives for debate the week after. Meanwhile, the lower house next week would have dealt with other legislation.

Nor is Leader of the House Christopher Pyne convincing when he claims this is just a routine change, and that there was no need for the lower house to meet next week because there was nothing urgent for it to do.

In truth, the government fears what trouble Labor games and rebels in its own ranks might cause, and is desperate to limit the time available to them. The latter, spearheaded by Nationals Barry O'Sullivan in the Senate and George Christensen in the lower house, are planning to try to force the issue of a commission of inquiry into the banks and other financial institutions.

O'Sullivan is preparing a bill for the banking commission and claims up to four lower house members could cross the floor. The O'Sullivan commission would report to the parliament; it would be distinct from a royal commission, which only the government can set up.

This bill was never going to get to the lower house next week; it’s not even clear whether it will be debated there when the lower house does sit the week starting December 4. But Christensen says he will vote for a commission or the like “in whatever guise it comes up and I definitely expect it’s going to come up”. Something will certainly “come up” if Labor can make it do so.

One big question is why the government has let this bank issue fester. It has been very critical of the banks, slapped a hefty tax on them, and moved to impose a tough regimen on their executives. But it has fought trenchantly against the royal commission that Labor advocates.

Given the strength of anti-bank feeling in the community, and within some of its own ranks – based on the banks’ bad behaviour – the government should have long ago cut its losses and set up a broad-ranging inquiry.

An important aspect of the rebel Nationals’ push is that they are referencing the precedent of the Liberals rebels’ success on same-sex marriage.

O'Sullivan told the ABC the government’s facilitating Liberal backbencher Dean Smith’s private member’s bill (now a crossbench bill) provided “a new pathway for backbenchers to be able to pursue matters of importance to them, and I’m just simply following along in his footsteps”.

The Nationals remain deeply out of sorts about the marriage debate sucking oxygen, as they see it, from other issues for months.

Beyond that, the rebels have taken from the marriage story the lesson that what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. If a group of Liberal rebels – the “famous five” who put same sex-marriage back on the government agenda – can break ranks and end up getting what they want, why not a group of Nationals, with their issues?

And the win – and praise – scored by the Liberal rebels has meant the Nationals leadership and whips have reduced authority to keep their own rebels in line.

On Monday night Labor was seeking crossbench support for a proposed joint letter to put pressure on Turnbull to reverse his decision to cancel next week’s lower house sittings, but there’s no chance of his doing that.

Turnbull had raised the possibility of deferring the start of the House sitting at his meeting with Shorten. Shorten gave it short shrift at the time, and said so publicly, but Turnbull has rashly chosen to have the last word.

Turnbull told a business audience on Monday night: “In times of uncertainty, the nation needs calm and measured leadership, a steady hand at the helm”. His earlier action suggested a touch of the tremble.

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