Parliament House bushfire smoke
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Australia’s fires have created a literal smokescreen for politics, with the crisis rightfully dominating our attention and headlines.

While the country queued for face masks, here are some of the bills and policies the federal government tried (and occasionally failed) to push through.

✖ Drug testing welfare recipients: As the first fires sparked up in September, the government’s plan to drug test welfare recipients was put on hold after Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie refused to back it until greater resources are given to rehab facilities.

✔ Big Stick Energy Bill: On November 12, the “big stick” energy bill passed the upper house. The bill aims to foster competition between energy companies and make them pass price savings on to consumers. It’s been criticised as helping keep coal-fired power stations up and running.

By this point, more than 60 fires had flared up in Queensland, while a state of emergency was declared in NSW as a mega-fire formed. 

✖ Cashless welfare card: On November 27, a vote on the bill to extend the cashless welfare card flopped with the House of Representatives divided. That same day, robo-debt was ruled unlawful, potentially opening the door for hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients to be repaid. It was a bad day for the Coalition — and insurance companies.

By now, the damage bill for NSW and Queensland had climbed to more than $145 million

✖ Ensuring Integrity Bill: On November 29, the Ensuring Integrity Bill — a bill which would give the Federal Court the power to cancel and fine unions and their leaders — was rejected by the Senate after One Nation made a last-minute switch to oppose it.

✔ Medivac repeal: On December 3, the medivac law was repealed after a tearful Lambie made a secret deal and sided with the Coalition and One Nation senators. People were teary eyed in Sydney, too, although that was probably because of the smoke haze.

✔ Public Service shakeup: Just two days after the Coalition’s medivac victory, Scott Morrison announced the number of government departments will shrink from 18 to 14, effectively getting rid of the arts department. (Arts will now be managed by the same people who take care of our airports, in a move sure to be as seamless and punctual as our airports themselves).

Meanwhile, injured firefighters were airlifted out of fires in Sydney’s south-west, with multiple fires burning at emergency level. 

✔ Religious Discrimination Bill (second draft): On December 10, the second draft of the religious discrimination bill was announced in a press conference by Morrison. In his speech, he made no reference to the fires.  

When prompted by journalists, he said volunteer firefighters “want to be out there”, which sparked heavy criticism from the public.

✔ $2 billion relief funding: Morrison announced $2 billion for a national bushfire recovery fund in the first week of the new year.