The minority Morrison government has bought itself six weeks’ breathing space by shutting down the federal parliament until the Budget in early April. To say it is running scared of the scrutiny and the uncertainty of its numbers on any single piece of legislation is to state the obvious.
Last week it suffered a historic defeat on the floor of the House of Representatives when the Parliament amended one of its Bills to allow doctors to have a real say in the transfer of sick asylum seekers and refugees to Australia for treatment. And despite the Ipsos Poll showing a remarkable surge in support for the government, it did not want to risk more humiliation this week.
So, on three issues that it had opposed in the Senate, Morrison decided discretion was the better part of valour and caved in. Labor, the Greens and the crossbench had clearly wrested control of the Parliament from a government unwilling or unable to negotiate its preferred legislation through both houses.
What made Morrison vulnerable to his political opponents was the issues that they raised were clearly in line with community expectations. On Monday, the first issue to be dealt with was the call led by the Greens Senator Jordan Steele-John for a Royal Commission into disability abuse. The wheelchair-bound Senator – he suffers from mild cerebral palsy – is passionate in his advocacy for Australians like himself and their families.
Government Senators voted against the Steele-John motion so it went to the House for acceptance or rejection. So discombobulated was the government, it filibustered question time for a record two-and-a-half hours to run down the clock so no vote could be taken. The about-face five days later undermined Prime Minister Morrison’s claims that he was never opposed to such an inquiry.
The acid test now is how quickly will he put in train arrangements to give force to the Parliament’s will. Steele-John rejects objections that it will take months. He wants it at the very least announced before the May election.
One other issue was what’s called access to justice for small business taking on big business in the courts. This time the Nationals read the wind more quickly than Morrison and, to avoid some coalition MPs crossing the floor, there was another surrender. It does raise questions of judgement that the Liberals, so called champions of small business, could not see how helping David take on Goliath in the courts was anything other than obvious for them to do.
The other issue was withdrawing the so called “big stick” legislation on dealing with energy companies because the Parliament looked like stopping Morrison from underwriting new coal fired power stations at taxpayers’ expense.
The fact that Morrison is happy to limp on till May is a sure indication that he is not completely convinced that his attempts to make border security and “boat people” the defining issue of the election will really work for him.