Furious winds sweep through parliament

Unexpected political and natural calamities have added challenges to what was already going to be a big week for Malcolm Turnbull.


The final week of parliament before the May budget was set to be a showdown over changes to racial discrimination law changes, penalty rates for the low-paid and corporate tax cuts.

But Cyclone Debbie swept across the political landscape as it wreaked havoc in north Queensland.

A commercial dispute between sugar miller Wilmar and marketer QSL also made its way into and out of Turnbull’s in-tray.

And a long-dormant extradition treaty with China ended up being the political equivalent of juggling a steamed dumpling.

Despite its massive damage, the cyclone received relatively little attention in parliament.

Turnbull was asked one question about it, on Tuesday, before attention turned to issues of the day and on Wednesday it was off the question time radar altogether – apart from a Greens question linking the disaster to the coal industry.

However by the end of the week Turnbull and Bill Shorten flew to Bowen to see the damage first-hand and reassure residents of federal support.

The sugar growers’ dispute has been a simmering issue in north Queensland for some years.

But it has failed to register in Canberra until the Nationals started to fear One Nation was taking the lead on the issue.

On Wednesday night – just hours before Turnbull headed to the sugar-rich region of north Queensland where canegrowers were fretting about their cyclone-hit crops – Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce and Treasurer Scott Morrison revealed the industry would be covered by a mandatory code of conduct.

While it is a form of re-regulation of the industry, Turnbull and Morrison have copped it on the chin in order to keep the Nationals on side, north Queensland voters happy and One Nation at bay.

It also gave Turnbull a sweetener to talk about on Thursday’s trip.

The extradition treaty with China has sat on the shelf since John Howard signed it 10 years ago but didn’t ratify it.

The treaty regulations were tabled just ahead of a visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Chinese leaders have raised its ratification with the Australian government at every available opportunity, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was keen for it to happen.

But a few minutes before she was due to talk to the government’s leadership group, Shorten phoned Turnbull to say the shadow cabinet had decided not to back the ratification.

A short time later Turnbull confirmed to Shorten the treaty would be pulled from the parliament’s agenda.

The prime minister was already under pressure from within coalition ranks and faced the possibility of the treaty being “disallowed” in the Senate, with the support of Labor, the Greens, crossbenchers including former Liberal Cory Bernardi, and potentially several coalition senators.

To make things worse, Tony Abbott wrote a newspaper article condemning the treaty he once spruiked as vital to Australia-China relations.

Embarrassingly, ministers were still talking up the treaty as Turnbull was telling Shorten it was off.

On Thursday, the government was seeking to return to its two priorities: watering down race-hate laws in the name of free speech and passing at least part of its plan to cut company taxes.

However, compromise was expected before MPs headed out of Canberra for the pre-budget break.

A deal on small business tax cuts, temporarily shelving breaks for big business, looked the most likely scenario.

Changes to the Racial Discrimination Act appeared almost certain to fail, despite there being unanimous support for reform of the way the Human Rights Commission handles complaints.

A messy week for the government can only feed into voter perceptions Turnbull is floundering – shown in weak personal approval ratings and Labor’s solid two-party preferred lead in the polls.

The prime minister will now have a five-week parliamentary break ahead of the May 9 budget to show he hasn’t been blown off course.