By David Speers

As the mad circus of parliament whirled on this week, there was a brief reminder of a time when politics was stable, when serious reform was achievable and when parliament wasn’t a place for playing dress-ups.

Bob Hawke and John Howard shared a stage to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Old Parliament House, now the Museum of Australian Democracy. Hawke and Howard fought some bitter wars in that old building. They also cooperated when it mattered most - on economic reform.

Now, Australia’s second and third-longest serving Prime Ministers are an unrivaled double act. It’s hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia when you see these two discuss the state of modern politics.

They ooze leadership, wisdom and perspective. And they respect each other. 78-year-old Howard took care in helping 87-year-old Hawke down from the stage.

Meanwhile, the current crop of politicians were busy demonstrating precisely why so many Australians treat them as a joke or have switched off entirely.

There are now six who have been referred to the High Court to work out if they were eligible to be elected at all. 

Fiona Nash is the latest to join this unhappy list, revealing last night that she’s a British citizen, thanks to her Scottish-born father. Nash’s Dad left home when she was just 8 and there was little contact until he died 9 years ago. It’s a sad story, but doesn’t explain why she didn’t properly check her possible dual citizenship when nominating to stand for parliament.

The same can be said for Barnaby Joyce, who has presumably known for a while that his Dad was born in New Zealand.

Barnaby Joyce. Source: AAP.

As previously stated in this column, the Constitutional ban on dual citizens sitting in parliament is, in my view, outdated. No one can seriously suggest Nash, Joyce, Matt Canavan, Scott Ludlam, Larissa Waters or Malcolm Roberts have been secretly doing the bidding of a foreign power. But the rules are the rules and they, or their parties, should have done more to comply.

Make no mistake, the citizenship debacle made this the Turnbull Government’s worst week. Not just because it was book-ended by the Joyce and Nash revelations. The way the government handled this crisis was also appalling.

The Prime Minister’s insistence that the High Court “would so hold” that Joyce was in the clear, looked plain arrogant. The Foreign Minister’s attempt to blame Labor for uncovering the truth about Joyce was even worse, stirring up a diplomatic incident across the ditch.

Malcolm Turnbull may prove to be right about the High Court, but right now, we don’t know.

An all-clear for Joyce, Nash and Canavan would be the best-case scenario for the government. As one Cabinet Minister put it, “if we can stop punching ourselves in the chin, we still have two years to recover before the next election”.

The worst-case scenario is the High Court ruling none of the Ministers are eligible to sit in parliament. Nash and Canavan may be able to return to the Senate down the track. Joyce would have to fight a by-election in his lower house seat of New England. 

Senior figures in the National Party are confident Joyce would easily hold the seat. They expect Tony Windsor would have another crack and be defeated again.

But Tony Windsor isn’t the one they should worry about.

One Nation is hungry for the seat. The party reckons its support stands at around 25% in New England. It already has a candidate in mind. And it won’t do any preference deal with the Nationals. “We owe them nothing”, says a One Nation source.

To win a by-election, the government will need political skill and luck. Both have been in short supply.

As many despair at the state of politics in this wild parliamentary week, it is worth finally noting two stand-out exceptions. 

Tony Burke proved why he is easily Labor’s best parliamentary tactician and performer. He deployed a lethal combination of logic and sarcasm to repeatedly dismantle the Coalition’s arguments.

Attorney General George Brandis was the other star performer. His stunning response to Pauline Hanson’s appalling burqa stunt was both passionate and necessary. Religious tolerance and civility deserve to be defended. As does our national security.  

There are plenty of reasons not to like the burqa, but there’s little evidence banning them prevents terrorism. That certainly hasn’t been the experience in France.

The stunt did the trick and dominated the news cycle. But is this sort of “look-at-me” politics what all those voters disillusioned at the major parties are really seeking? I doubt it.

If given the choice, most would probably prefer to go back to the days of Hawke and Howard.