Canberra’s fly-in fly-out population of federal politicians leave town today as parliament draws to an unedifying close. They will all return in mid-February for what will be a cameo appearance. An embattled government has allocated just four sitting weeks before Scott Morrison plans to call a May election.
The year began with an upbeat Malcolm Turnbull putting energy and lower electricity prices on the agenda. Here was a grand vision of a Prime Minister determined to end the climate wars. The year ends with that vision and that Prime Minister consigned to the dust bin of history.
In Malcolm Turnbull’s wake is a government in disarray. The divisions and conflicts that led to his knifing in August have not healed but have festered. His successor, Scott Morrison, is gripped by fear. Gnawing at him is the realisation that he has inherited a powder keg.
The conservatives who fought so hard to stall marriage equality and who would not have a bar of the national energy guarantee – Turnbull’s last attempt at sensible policy – are not for compromising on anything. They are trying to retrieve much of their lost ground.
They put enormous pressure on Morrison to intervene in the pre-selection of Craig Kelly, the most strident and outspoken opponent to Turnbull’s policies. This triggered a fierce fightback from Turnbull who successfully lobbied the party’s state executive to ignore the Prime Minister and allow grassroots members decide Kelly’s fate.
On Monday, a frustrated Opposition introduced a private member’s bill to end the exemption allowing religious schools to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender kids. Scott Morrison promised to scrap it in the last days of the Wentworth by-election. He said he would do it within two weeks; a month later there is no government bill. Morrison is stalling because the conservatives are pushing back claiming it would inhibit religious schools developing their particular ethos. They are demanding a condition that maintains the exemption.
This is a minority view not shared by Catholic or a majority of mainstream church schools. Labor’s Bill Shorten told parliament, bishops and other church leaders he consulted did not want the exemption and have never used it. Last week we saw a year 12 student at one of Sydney’s leading Catholic schools get a standing ovation when he came out as gay during a speech at assembly.
Similar internal opposition to a national anti-corruption commission has seen the government paying lip service to something the public overwhelmingly supports. At the time of writing, the Prime Minister’s Office was briefing negotiations with the Opposition on both issues were ongoing.
Morrison is hoping his troubles will disappear in the summer haze. Turnbull thinks this is delusional and is urging he call a March election three weeks ahead of the NSW state poll to give premier Gladys Berejiklian a fighting chance. He thinks this would allow voters to get their anger with the Liberal Party out of their system.