Briefing | opinion

The Australian Parliament's final question time for 2018 was strangely quiet and polite - here's why

Sean Davey/AFP/Getty ImagesPrime Minister Scott Morrison.
  • Two key pieces of legislation are being debated in the Australian parliament today, the final sitting day for 2018.
  • One bill, giving law enforcement access to encrypted messaging – a world-first piece of legislation – is central to the Morrison government’s national security measures, and looks set to pass with some minor amendments
  • The other bill allows the medical evacuation of refugee children on Nauru to Australia – legislation opposed by the government, but it may pass because the Coalition has lost its majority in the lower house.
  • The government is frantically manoeuvering to try and save its encrypted messaging bill while fending off an embarrassing defeat on the medivac legislation, with the stakes extremely high for both the Coalition and Labor.

Christmas can’t come soon enough for the Morrison government as the parliament rises for the summer break.

Having lost its one-seat majority in the House of Representatives after losing the Wentworth by-election to independent Dr Kerryn Phelps, then falling into minority government after Liberal MP Julia Banks moved to the crossbench as an independent last week, every piece of legislation sits on a knife edge.

Today the stakes are particularly high, with the government keen to get its message encryption legislation through, which would allow police and security services investigating terrorism plots and other crimes to access encrypted messaging services, compelling service providers to let them in the back door in the world-first laws.

But it could face an embarrassing defeat over a bill which amends the Migration Act so that medical evacuations for refugee children currently on Nauru can take place and they can be brought to Australia for treatment if two doctors confirm it is necessary.

The medical evacuation legislation was put forward by Dr Phelps – another reminder of the self-inflicted wounds the Liberal Party gave themselves in rolling Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister.

The matter is currently being debated in the Senate, where government leader there, Mathias Corman, has been attempting to bat away the legislation without success, and despite a series of delaying tactics, it looks set to pass in the Senate.

If it comes the lower house, it also looks like it will pass in a humiliating defeat for the government.

The problem for the government is that it’s wedged on the two bills.

The parliament’s Intelligence and Security committee handed down a report on the encryption legislation, known as the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill, overnight and the government put through more than 170 amendments this morning.

This afternoon, Labor said “it is clear that they do not fully reflect the recommendations put forward by the committee” and will be making its own amendments in the Senate. That means it then goes back to the lower house, which either agrees to the changes or rejects them, leaving the bill in limbo. The question becomes how badly does the government want its bill passed before Christmas?

If it wants to get the encryption legislation passed, then it needs to deal with the medivac bill first.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison called Bill Shorten a “clear and present danger” to national security earlier today. The government is railing against Labor.

Yet there’s something very strange about Question Time today, which normally has a pantomime-like quality of shouting across the chamber and raised voices. Today it’s surprisingly subdued.

The government is rounding once again on Labor as being soft on border protection and people smuggling, with defence minister Christopher Pyne accusing them on “cheap political stunts” over the medical evacuation bill.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says people smugglers are lining up with boats and thousands of asylum seekers the moment Bill Shorten becomes PM.

Normally this would provoke uproar from the Labor side of the House, but not today.

There’s a simple explanation.

Normally interjections lead to the Speaker removing MPs from the chamber — and they’re nearly always from the Opposition benches — under the standing orders. They’re sin-binned for the rest of the day.

That’s happened to Labor MPs dozens of times in 2018, but it won’t be happening today because every vote will be crucial if the medical evacuation bill comes to the lower house.

There’s talk that when Parliament traditionally adjourns at 4.30 pm today, that will be it, without the usual extension that comes on every other sitting day. The clock is ticking on the medivac bill – it basically needs to pass the Senate by about 3.3 0pm in order to make it to the lower house on time if the government decides to not extend parliament.

But that means a vital and supposedly urgent piece of the Coalition’s national security agenda sits in limbo too.

Either way, it’s not looking like a good Christmas present for Scott Morrison’s government.

UPDATE: The House of Representatives rose for the Christmas break at 5pm today, without the government seeking an extension. It won’t sit again until February 12, 2019. Amendments to the encryption bill are still being debated in the Senate, which means it won’t be passed this year.

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