(Images: AAP)

Scott Morrison has a problem. The return of Parliament today, for the final sitting fortnight of the year (and possibly the term), takes the prime minister away from the comfort of the campaign trail. And it means the government might have to do something it’s been reluctant about doing over the past three years — legislation. Specifically, two controversial and complex election promises in religious discrimination laws and a National Integrity Commission.

Add in the Morrison government’s strange plan to introduce voter identification laws, and hints that legislation for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament could be imminent, and there’s a lot on the table for the last sitting fortnight. And yet, it could all be blown up by the Coalition’s own conservative fringe. Two senators — Gerard Rennick and Alex Antic — are threatening to withhold their vote on any legislation unless the government pushes back against “vaccine mandates,” making the government’s already slim chances of passing those election promises even slimmer.

The anti-mandate mob

Over the last month, Rennick, a relatively obscure first-term Queensland LNP senator has become one of the most popular Australian politicians on Facebook by crowdsourcing stories of supposed adverse reactions to vaccines, and supporting anti-vaccine mandate protests across the country. He’s also been using a taxpayer-funded website to gather instances of alleged side effects. 

From the Coalition’s right fringe, Rennick hasn’t held back from voicing dissatisfaction with the government this year over issues like the budget deficit. Last month, he told the party room he’d be withholding his vote over state border closures and vaccine mandates. Rennick has been joined by South Australia’s Alex Antic, another conservative first-term senator. Over the weekend, Antic addressed an anti-vax protest in Adelaide. 

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The two aren’t the only ones frustrating the government in the Senate. One Nation leader Pauline Hanson has promised to cause “so much mayhem” for the government unless it pushes states to get rid of vaccine mandates. Last month, she introduced a Private Senator’s Bill on vaccine discrimination, and along with Rennick and Antic, Nationals Senator Matt Canavan has promised to support it. 

Hanson’s bill has already caused chaos just hours into the sitting week. Northern Territory Country Liberal Party Senator Sam McMahon (who also opposes vaccine mandates) was reportedly considering withholding her vote if her own bill on voluntary euthanasia isn’t put up for debate. That was meant to happen in Private Senators’ Business this morning. Instead, spooked by One Nation’s threats, the government prioritised Hanson’s bill, pushing McMahon’s off the notice paper. McMahon is now accusing Hanson of “hijacking” the government’s legislative agenda, and everything is going extremely well. Canavan rose straight after Hanson to speak in favour of her bill in the Senate today. All up, five Coalition Senators voted for the unsuccessful bill — Rennick, Antic, Canavan, McMahon and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.

In the background to the backbench revolt in Canberra are the very vocal anti-mandate protests which have drawn thousands in capital cities, including far-right anti-vaccine figures. On mandates, Morrison appears to be trying to walk a tightrope. Along with senior ministers, he’s yet to call out Rennick and Antic. And despite the violent threats against politicians like Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, Morrison continues to wink at the sentiments held by many of the protesters.

“Of course, there are many people who are feeling frustrated. I mean, over the last couple of years, governments have been telling Australians what to do,” he said.

On Sunrise this morning, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce echoed similar justifications for the protests.

“Just because there’s a crazy person in the Carlton crowd at a football game that throws a rock doesn’t mean that every person in the Carlton crowd is crazy. We’ve got to understand the frustrations that are behind this,” he said.

The crossbench challenge

But even if the government can get its own recalcitrant senators on side, it’ll be a struggle to get any of its favoured pieces of legislation through. The religious discrimination bill, which will go to the Coalition joint partyroom tomorrow, is already alienating moderates in the government. Given the controversy around past versions of the bill, and historic opposition from key crossbench senators, it will most likely be kicked onto a Senate committee.

Religious discrimination was one of the Coalition’s 2019 election promises. Another one of those is plans for a national integrity commission. The government’s own proposed model has been widely criticised as weak and toothless, but the looming Senate chaos and the decision to prioritise religious discrimination means it’s unclear whether it’ll be introduced. This morning, government Senate Leader Simon Birmingham still wouldn’t say with certainty if or when either bill would be introduced.

On top of that, there’s voter identification laws, which are fiercely criticised by Labor and the Greens on the basis that they will disenfranchise vulnerable voters. Just three weeks ago, the government looked to have numbers for the laws. Now, it’s One Nation who could stop laws Hanson has herself tried to take credit for. Centre Alliance’s Stirling Griff has cooled on his initial support for the bill, and now wants to send it to an inquiry, making its passage this year also unlikely. 

All up, the Coalition could get none of this through Parliament. And if Morrison holds an election in March, the government won’t get another chance. Labor accuses the government of “twiddling its thumbs” on key election promises by delaying them to the last minute. The last minute has arrived. But the government’s reactionary fringe has tied its hands.