Put under the spotlight this week, there was nowhere for the divisions in the Morrison government to hide. From moderates concerned about religious discrimination laws and a federal integrity commission, to the goofy fringe conservatives fulminating about vaccine mandates — those divisions have been a huge gift for Labor.
But credit where it’s due: the opposition, along with the Senate crossbench, did well to exploit them. Through a display of discipline and parliamentary tactical nous, Labor were able to stultify the government’s legislative agenda, and give Prime Minister Scott Morrison no breathing space.
Morrison’s highly contentious proposed religious discrimination bill, finally introduced to Parliament yesterday, was a case in point. Morrison’s rush to introduce this bill in the final weeks of the year is as much about meeting an election promise and satisfying religious conservative elements in the Liberal base as it is about trying to wedge the opposition ahead of the next poll.
Senior Labor figures like Chris Bowen warn the party is losing ground among the faithful and, like the Coalition, the opposition too has a range of views on the matter. Morrison’s speech introducing the bill yesterday was a direct pitch to socially conservative religious voters in suburban Sydney who he hopes will carry him to victory.
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But on religious discrimination, it was Labor demonstrating unity, with MPs and Senators sticking to the script of “wait and see,” pushing for a Joint Select Committee containing both members and Senators to review the bill, as Morrison tried to ram it through Parliament.
Yesterday, government Senators tried to push for a Senate inquiry into the bill reporting back by February 1, much to the fury of Labor and the Greens, meaning the proposed legislation would be scrutinised during a short timeframe, when the nation’s attention was elsewhere.
While Labor and the Greens both lost motions to push back the reporting deadline, the government also couldn’t get support for its early reporting date. That means Labor can still negotiate for a full Joint Select Committee to look at the bill properly, putting a dent in Morrison’s attempts to quietly hammer it through before the election.
Key crossbench Senators Rex Patrick, Stirling Griff and Jacqui Lambie all voted with the Opposition to stop the government’s fast-tracked inquiry, a reflection both of their mood on the bill, and the government’s failure to win them over.
As all this went down quietly in the Senate, the government’s own division over whether the bill does enough to protect LGBTIQ children remained in the public eye. No swift resolution for Morrison, whose own side are the ones wedged here.
Over in the House, Labor took advantage of new Speaker Andrew Wallace’s training wheels to put more pressure on the government. Wallace struggled to rein in MPs from both sides during several feral sessions of question time.
Labor made a point of testing the Speaker’s mettle with a series of interjections and points of order, and honing in on issues around Morrison’s character. A question about the prime minister’s ill-fated Hawaiian holiday on Monday left him visibly rattled.
Yesterday, when Liberal backbencher Bridget Archer twice crossed the floor to support independent MP Helen Haines’ federal integrity commission, the government technically lost two votes. Because an absolute majority is required to suspend standing orders, however, Haines was unable to force a debate. Wallace wasn’t up to speed on this, causing more chaos.
Of course, this is all deeply insiderish stuff which could have no bearing on the next election. The final weeks of 2018, when Morrison was dismissed as a nightwatchman prime minister, were equally chaotic — and we know what happened after that. Normal people don’t care about question time or procedural motions.
It’s why Morrison returned again to the old Canberra bubble narrative in question time yesterday, as much to reassure his own side that despite the wretched week, the people who mattered aren’t watching.
“The leader of the opposition is obsessed with the games that go on in Canberra,” he said.
“He’s so focused on what’s going on down here in Canberra that what he can’t hear, what he fails to hear, is what is going on around the rest of this country and where their focus is.”
But if Labor can maintain that discipline on the campaign trail and in the policy space, and if the narrative of Morrison’s deceitfulness starts to trickle down from the Hill, the prime minister will face a challenging campaign season.