Briefing | opinion

The Morrison government just walked away from crucial legislation to avoid losing a vote

Tracey Nearmy/Getty ImagesAttorney-General Christian Porter (L) speaks to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Leader of the House Christopher Pyne during the final question time of 2018
  • Faced with the prospect of being the first government to lose a vote in the lower house for the first time in 90 years, the Coalition effectively shut down parliament early today.
  • The bill would allow the medical evacuation of refugees in offshore processing centres to Australia. But it also meant a bill to allow law enforcement agencies access to encrypted messaging also failed to be passed.
  • The government blames Labor for the stalemate, but the ignominious end to the parliamentary year is symbolic of the ongoing dysfunction plaguing Australian politics.

The Australian parliament upped stumps at 5pm today for the summer break. It won’t sit again until February 12, 2019.

In doing so, the Morrison government’s plan to pass what it argued was critical legislation so law enforcement agencies can access encrypted messages in the fight against terrorism evaporated as MPs got an early start to the Christmas holidays.

The government made access to encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger its top priority to end 2018 and the legislation, which had support from Labor, would force tech companies to grant access to the apps for law enforcement to monitor communications.

Last month, the Prime Minister said: “Our police, our agencies need these powers now. I would like to see them passed, in fact I would insist on seeing them passed before the end of the next sitting fortnight.”

That instance could have seen the government extend the sitting day on Thursday until amendments currently being debated in the Senate were finalised, but it didn’t want to because of another piece of legislation – a bill from independent MP Dr Kerryn Phelps that would allow seriously ill detainees at offshore refugee processing centres on Manus Island and Nauru to be medically evacuated to Australia – was also likely to be passed by the lower house in a humiliating defeat for the Morrison government.

The Phelps bill spent much of Thursday afternoon stalled in the Senate as the government and conservative members of the crossbench filibustered to wind down the clock until it was too late for the legislation to reach the House of Representatives before it rose.

In the end – on the same day Australia’s bowlers had success against the Indian batsman in the opening day of the first Test in Adelaide – it was the political equivalent of playing the match to a draw. If you count the crossbench as the third party involved, then it was more Mexican standoff.

Phelps told Sky News that she was sad it didn’t reach the chamber “because I think we would have had the numbers” – as the government feared – but it will be considered in February, so the Coalition has bought time in the hope it can win across sufficient members of the crossbench to its view, rather than lose a lower house vote for the first time since the 1920s.

Tracey Nearmy/Getty ImagesIndependent MPs Rebekha Sharkie, Julia Banks, Dr Kerryn Phelps and Cathy McGowan during the final Question Time in the House of Representatives on December 6.

In an already chaotic year, it would have been the ultimate humiliation for Morrison’s team, six months from an election, and the Prime Minister was true to his word earlier today that it would not happen, even if he paid a heavy price in terms of other legislation.

The Senate continues to sit on Thursday evening and is now debating amendments to the encryption bill, known as the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill, in the wake of the parliament’s Intelligence and Security committee recommendations on the legislation, released last night.

Labor’s shadow minister for national security, Mark Dreyfus, said earlier today that the Opposition “will move some minor but important amendments in the Senate to make the amended bill conform with the recommendations of the committee”.

The government railed against Labor today, but Opposition leader Bill Shorten was keen to remind Morrison and the Australian public that no matter how bellicose Coalition MPs are, they no longer control the numbers to ram through legislation.

The bitter level of frustration in government ranks was obvious with defence minister Christopher Pyne sending out a tweet that said “Labor has chosen to allow terrorists and paedophiles to continue their evil work in order to engage in point scoring” just as his leader, Scott Morrison, and Shorten rose to give Christmas thanks and wish goodwill to all around the parliament.

He subsequently deleted it.

Minister Christopher Pyne’s deleted tweet

Pyne is also the Leader of the House and thus responsible for the management of government business and tactics.

Morrison’s plan to force the energy sector to keep power prices down or be made to sell of parts of their companies also fell by the wayside in today’s game of chicken.

In the wake of the stalemate and retreat by the government, Attorney-General Christian Porter issued statement accusing Shorten of choosing “political game-playing over the safety of the Australian people”.

“Labor has ignored the advice and evidence to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security from organisations like ASIO, which told the Committee the legislation was urgent in order to keep Australians safe from terrorists, particularly over the Christmas period when the risk is higher,” he said.

“And Labor’s done this to try to create a procedural disadvantage for the Government that would have completely undermined our borders and risk re-opening Australia to people smugglers and a repeat of the tragic deaths at sea that we saw under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era.”

Porter’s statement did not hold back, saying in part:

Labor chose politics over giving our police and security agencies the tools they need to prevent terrorist attacks.

Labor chose politics over giving our police and security agencies the tools they need to break up paedophile rings.

Labor chose politics over giving our police and security agencies the tools they need to prevent murders.

Labor chose politics over giving our police and security agencies the tools they need to disrupt the drug rings that finance terrorism.

He labelled the argument by his opposition counterpart Mark Dreyfus that the bill didn’t comply with the committee’s recommendations “a fig leaf” being used to embarrass the government using the border protection bill.

Australian voters now have a 10-week break from Canberra’s dysfunction. It’s needed.

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