It’s the final parliamentary sitting fortnight before politicians go back home to escape the bleakest of the Canberra winter, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison won’t even be in the building. He’s away on an extended G7 trip until Thursday, before going into isolation.
In the meantime, the fortnight ahead could be a quiet one: there’s scant legislative and policy agenda on the table and so far most of the action is going down outside parliament.
In an agenda that includes bills on information on car repairs, hazardous waste and fuel security, two pieces of legislation stand out this week.
Today the Online Safety Bill is up for debate in the Senate. As Crikey previously reported, the bill would beef up the powers of the eSafety Commissioner, and has drawn the ire of privacy advocates and the sex industry.
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Already diluted before even passing the House, the government’s My Future, My Super package, which seeks to overhaul the superannuation sector, will be debated in the Senate tomorrow.
But the crossbench is also making things tough for the government. Independent Senator Rex Patrick has proposed a suite of amendments including around workers in dangerous jobs, and a one-year delay before the changes kick in. Those amendments essentially have the support of Labor and the Greens, with discussions ongoing between the government and the rest of the crossbench.
But parliament was largely an afterthought as this week kicked off. The big story of recent days has been the Murugappan family, Tamil asylum seekers whose nearly two years on Christmas Island will end after Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s intervention this morning. Support for the family’s release had gathered momentum among the Coalition last week after four-year-old Tharnicaa was hospitalised in Perth.
Hawke’s decision is a stopgap. The family will be in community detention in Perth pending future court battles. Hawke says it doesn’t necessarily create a pathway to a visa, and has kicked other decisions about their long-term residence in Australia down the can. But it has allowed the government to duck some of the political heat.
Morrison, meanwhile, is on the other side of the world. After addressing the G7 nations and failing to land a one-on-one with US President Joe Biden, Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly reached agreement over dinner on a long-awaited free trade agreement, with a formal joint announcement expected Tuesday morning UK time. The deal, Britain’s first since Brexit, will allow more Australians to live and work in the UK and was held up by concerns among British farmers about beef exports.
A good week for Albo-mentum?
Morrison’s trip keeps him away from parliament in the final sitting fortnight. His absence could be an opportunity for Labor. Gaffe-ridden Nationals leader Michael McCormack will be acting prime minister until Thursday. He’s already made one divisive comment — as he often does when Morrison is out of the picture — responding to a question about the G7’s position on coal with the following anti-urban dog-whistle:
It pays for a lot of barista machines that produces the coffee that inner-city types sit around and drink and talk about the death of coal.
Morrison’s exit from centre stage comes at a time when frustration with the vaccine rollout could give Labor room to finally make some inroads. New polling conducted for the Nine papers found the prime minister’s net performance rating fell from 15 to 8%, with Labor favoured as the best party to handle health and aged care.
Last week’s Newspoll gave Morrison his lowest approval rating since the start of the pandemic. If ever there was a time for Labor to come out of its shell and ram home its credentials as an alternative government, it’s now, with the government leaderless, and its vulnerabilities starting to emerge.
A quiet fortnight in Canberra could be its best shot.