The loss of Wentworth to high profile independent Dr Kerryn Phelps, confirmed this week, has left the Prime Minister in a most precarious position. Think of Scott Morrison as a juggler on the high wire with no safety net.
In the House of Representatives, where governments are formed, there are 150 seats. The government now has 75 on the floor, one less than a majority, Labor has 69 and there are six independents. So, if one of the six side with the Government its bills will pass or Opposition motions will be defeated. If all six independents vote with the Opposition, the vote is tied but the Speaker has the casting vote. He is a Liberal and, by convention, would use that vote to maintain the status quo rather than support change. It means the Government is not as vulnerable as the term “hung parliament” suggests.
That presumes the Coalition of Liberals and Nationals maintains its cohesion, they all turn up to vote and nobody crosses the floor. And this is where it could get very messy. Before he goes into the ring and climbs the high wire, Morrison has to juggle the competing forces outside in his dressing room, as it were.
The assessment of one senior Labor MP is that for the Opposition to be able to refer Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, to the High Court over his eligibility issues, two Government Members would have to abstain or cross the floor. That is unlikely.
But on other issues like refugees, an independent corruption commission, and discrimination against gay kids in religious schools, the Government party room is bitterly divided. And already we are seeing Morrison in danger of dropping a ball or two, if not actually falling off the wire.
Kerryn Phelps has accused the Prime Minister of offering “false hope” in the desperate attempt to stave off defeat in the by-election. She nominates refugees where, before the poll, Morrison raised the prospect of dealing with Labor to get a stalled bill through the Senate; the so-called “close the back door” bill where any refugees going to New Zealand would never ever be allowed into Australia. But last week said he wasn’t prepared to “horse trade on border protection”. Here he runs the real risk of four of his own backing Labor and most of the crossbench in parliament unless he delivers on his campaign promise soon. Also spurring him on, no doubt, the Galaxy poll showing 80% support for the refugees on Nauru being sent to New Zealand.
Phelps is particularly critical of Morrison’s failure to legislate in the past fortnight as he said he would to protect gay kids in religious schools. Behind the scenes, Morrison backed by the conservatives, is now muddying the waters. One source says he is trying to throw a sop to the religious right.
And then there’s climate change, emissions reduction and electricity prices, but don’t mention the war. The juggling act has just begun.