By Katina Curtis
The Coalition is a broad church, and as Parliament dealt with the problems of religious freedom, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s congregation felt free to speak their minds.
It’s lucky for him he said he doesn’t want mere “drones and warm bodies” in his pews because his faith might have been tested.
Traditionally, the final sitting weeks of the year can be dangerous times for political leaders. People are tired, tempers are frayed and there’s an impetus to clear the legislative decks ahead of the long summer parliamentary break so the new year can start afresh.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has endured a messy week in Parliament.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Even by those low expectations from watchers of politics, the past week has been a messy one for Morrison.
It started with headlines highlighting threats from senators unhappy with state vaccine mandates that they would withhold their support until someone did something (possibly unconstitutional) to stop the premiers.
The issue had dragged on Morrison during his mini-campaign fortnight ahead of the sittings, with persistent protests in Melbourne and larger marches around the country at the weekend.
Labor was already prepared to accuse him of having an each-way bet after he’d condemned protesters calling for violence against Victorian leader Daniel Andrews but went on to say he understood people’s frustrations with ongoing coronavirus restrictions.
The government agreed to give time in the Senate for debate on a bill from Pauline Hanson intended to end vaccine mandates after she threatened to withhold One Nation’s two crucial crossbench votes on all legislation.
Hanson had told a rally in central Queensland town Yeppoon the week before Parliament’s return the issue was so important that she was “personally going down [to Canberra] this time” to push it. Instead, she attended Parliament via videoconference all week.
Without the physical presence of Hanson or her offsider Malcolm Roberts, their votes on their own bill weren’t recorded.
“You need to rock up to vote,” Nationals frontbencher Bridget McKenzie called out to Hanson, who complained that her number wasn’t formally counted among the supporters.
But those of former resources minister Matt Canavan, South Australian Liberal Alex Antic, Queensland maverick Gerard Rennick, Liberal backbencher Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Northern Territory senator Sam McMahon – whose bill on territory rights was bumped off the program to make way for Hanson’s – were recorded as they broke ranks.
The bill was defeated overwhelmingly.
Hanson still wasn’t happy. She had her bill put back on the agenda for further debate later on. Asked for the party’s position on voter ID laws – which the government hopes to push through next week – a One Nation spokesman told this masthead the party was still opposing all government legislation.
Rennick and Antic have also formally asked to be paired against Coalition colleagues for procedural votes and indicated publicly they can’t be relied on until the mandate issue is dealt with.
Morrison on Friday declared he was content to “let my party breathe” when there were issues colleagues were passionate about.
“In the Liberal Party, we encourage our members to be themselves. I don’t lead a team of drones and warm bodies that I just move around in the Parliament,” he said. “I want people in my team who speak their mind. I’m not afraid of that. ”
There’s been a lot of breathing.
At the regular Tuesday meeting of Coalition MPs, Morrison made pointed remarks about “the choices you make over the next two weeks” and the need for discipline and unity to win elections.
“If you surrender that, you surrender government,” he told them – although not all who needed to hear that message were in the room.
The meeting was dominated by divisions over the long-promised religious discrimination bill. The changes have been four years in the making and seek to fix a problem many advocates are hard-pressed to explain.
Morrison told Parliament it addressed “an important weakness” in discrimination laws, which cover sex and sexuality, race, disability and age, but not faith.
He’s made a virtue of keeping an election promise by delivering the legislation. That has inevitably raised questions about what’s happened to the promises to provide greater protections for gay students and teachers as religious schools (which may be dealt with in 2023 on the current timeframe) and to establish a Commonwealth integrity agency.
Inside the Coalition meeting, Melissa McIntosh, Matt O’Sullivan, Ben Small, Lucy Wicks and Canavan spoke up in favour of the changes on religious discrimination.
Northern Queensland MP Warren Entsch said he did not see the need for the bill and questioned provisions including the defence for statements of faith. Others who expressed concerns were Bridget Archer, Angie Bell, Andrew Bragg, Fiona Martin, Dave Sharma and Trent Zimmerman.
During Wednesday’s question time, out of those who had spoken out against the religious discrimination bill, only Bell was included on the list to quiz a minister. It’s the kind of slight not obvious to most but remembered by the party’s ranks.
In the lower house, the government got its way overall but lost a series of skirmishes.
The old spectre of Morrison’s family holiday to Hawaii two years ago when bushfires were burning along the east coast returned amid Labor’s efforts to brand the Prime Minister a liar.
Why had his office denied to journalists he was in the island paradise, asked Labor’s MP for Gilmore Fiona Phillips.
Morrison’s reply boiled down to, it didn’t matter what the media were told because he had personally informed Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese: “He was fully aware of where I was travelling with my family.”
Albanese searched through his phone while question time continued, later standing up to say, yes, he had received a text from Morrison at the time but it said only that the Prime Minister was going on leave, not where.
It took Morrison two further statements in Parliament to clear that up.
The latest Resolve survey showed that trust is becoming a toxic issue for Morrison.
The set pieces of question time through the week were the rowdiest for a long time as Labor tested the limits of new Speaker Andrew Wallace – who has been in Parliament for less time than his predecessor Tony Smith occupied the Speaker’s chair. Albanese and manager of opposition business Tony Burke, armed with a well-thumbed copy of the parliamentary rule book, are confident in their mastery of tactics after years of experience.
It was conservative Queensland Nationals MP George Christensen who caused headaches on Wednesday afternoon. He invoked the totalitarian regimes of Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot, warned the premiers were “racing down that familiar path, trying to out-tyrant each other” with pandemic restrictions, and said the solution was civil disobedience.
Albanese asked Morrison to condemn this. Morrison sought to quote union leader Sally McManus, who in March 2017 said she believed in the rule of law when it was fair but didn’t see a problem in breaking laws that were unjust. Maverick independent Bob Katter handed Morrison a much-needed moment of levity when he shot to his feet and asked: “Would you quote [McManus] in this House, please?”
Later that evening, Christensen finally made good on a threat to cross the floor, siding with Labor to oppose tightening rules around class action litigation. Fortunately for the government, independent Zali Steggall agreed with its position and the vote was won.
It was not so fortunate the next morning when the full crossbench – including Katter and renegade Craig Kelly, now aligned with Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party – lined up to call for an anti-corruption watchdog now.
Liberal MP Bridget Archer, from the ultra-marginal Tasmanian seat of Bass, had flagged that morning she was considering crossing the floor to support the version of the integrity commission put up by independent Helen Haines. She seconded Haines’ motion to bring on debate.
Member for Indi Helen Haines, left, Haines praised Liberal MP Bridget Archer as “the absolute lioness of the 46th Parliament”.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer
“This is one of the most important things that we come to this place to do,” Archer said. “The problem is that the politics has wrapped it up so tightly that we’re not progressing a bill.”
They won the vote on the procedural motion to start debate 66-64. However, a technicality in the chamber’s rules meant there had to be an absolute majority of 76 MPs in favour to proceed – a near impossibility amid the pandemic rules, with about 10 politicians from each side absent from Parliament this week.
Haines praised Archer as “the absolute lioness of the 46th Parliament”, although the Tasmanian viewed her actions not as bravery or rebellion but just doing her job.
Afterwards, Morrison called Archer to his office for a meeting, with deputy Liberal leader Josh Frydenberg and Minister for Women Marise Payne also there. While the Prime Minister characterised it as “a very warm and friendly and supportive meeting”, others say it was a frank discussion that canvassed a wide range of concerns – neither a dressing down nor entirely pastoral care.
Several MPs also chatted with Archer on the floor of Parliament, offering shows of support in full view of watching cameras. It was a stark contrast to the way Archer was treated a year ago when she also spoke up in the interests of her community to oppose the expansion of cashless welfare cards.
Morrison escaped Canberra for Adelaide on Friday, relishing in the newly reopened South Australian borders to continue his pre-election campaigning. He patted a dog clad in surf lifesaving gear, declared how much he loved the state, and introduced his candidate to a community event.
“Members of my team come from our communities … Their heads are not, frankly, in Canberra, and their hearts, they’re not in Canberra, and the political shenanigans and games,” he said.
But on Monday, he must return to Canberra for another week dealing with colleagues who are neither drones nor mere warm bodies, but are anxious to make a mark ahead of an election year.
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