The Politics    Wednesday, December 1, 2021

A law unto himself

By Nick Feik

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison leaving after Question Time yesterday. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison leaves after Question Time yesterday. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Instead of tackling the pressing issues facing the nation, Morrison homes in on unnecessary laws

The end of the parliamentary year couldn’t come soon enough for Prime Minister Scott Morrison. His government is descending into dereliction, he has little control over his own MPs, there are no principles guiding his political program and the bad news is racking up. The only thing that’s consistent about his leadership is that it’s consistently incoherent. Two weeks ago, Morrison laid out the closest approximation to a re-election strategy that we’ve seen: Australia was emerging from the pandemic, summer was coming and Australians wanted the government out of their lives. He promised, by implication, to be the guy who would deliver this promise of… not much at all. Today, we were reminded of the consequences of his past failures when it was revealed that over the past financial quarter the economy suffered its third-worst contraction on record, courtesy of the botched national vaccine rollout. It is clear, too, that the virus is a renewed threat, courtesy of the new COVID-19 variant. Yet Morrison, far from projecting calm assurance or keeping the government out of people’s lives, is pushing for new laws that are entirely unnecessary and would only result in public freedoms being diminished. These laws are irrelevant and uncalled for – and they are causing ructions across his own government. 

Morrison’s government is trying to pass voter ID laws that not even the Australian Electoral Commission believes are necessary (the risk was “vanishingly small”, according to its chief). Surely the greater threat to democracy is the vast number of people who’ll be disenfranchised under such laws. The Senate crossbench has signalled its intention to block the proposed laws for good reason.

The Coalition is also trying to pass new laws to dictate the activities of charities and other NGOs, to pressure them into not criticising the government under threat of deregistration. Remember, not even the Coalition-led Senate committee reviewing this legislation thought it was necessary or appropriate. For a party that believes in free speech, the desire to forcibly shut down dissent among non-government organisations is a dangerous overreach. 

Morrison is also seeking to pass laws banning anonymity on social media, which no one believes are workable. (What was that about free speech? LOL.) Not only that, his own ministers’ past behaviour, both online and offline, makes a mockery of such a bill, with many of them either being caught out creating false accounts to promote themselves (“Fantastic. Great move. Well done, Angus.”) or literally hiding behind others’ anonymity for their own benefit (hello, Mr Porter).

The final piece of unwanted business that Morrison is pushing is the Coalition’s religious discrimination bill. Again, there is very little public appetite to broaden religious exemptions to existing discrimination laws; there is no obvious or immediate problem to fix, and the net effect, if it is passed, would be to reduce the freedom of expression of many people, particularly from the LGBTIQ community. 

In contrast to these four irrelevant legislative pushes is the complete inaction from Morrison on the key threats actually facing Australia. The public is crying out for a national integrity commission; for a climate policy that’s more than hot air; for an energy policy that actually promotes renewable technologies; for substantive action on women’s safety both inside and outside the parliamentary precinct; for an end to the secrecy over ministerial decision-making, national cabinet documents and grants schemes; for manufacturing and R&D policies, and recovery plans for industries other than mining; and for national quarantine facilities and vaccine-manufacturing capabilities. Not to mention the growing public disquiet over sky-high house and petrol prices, stagnant wages, labour shortages and the neglect of entire sectors, such as higher education and the arts.

The scope of federal political disrepair is broadening as the year progresses, to the extent that the Coalition is itself fractured. Last week it was Liberal MP Bridget Archer crossing the floor and many others threatening to do the same. Today, Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells spoke about the need for a federal integrity commission and queried those “who resist the introduction of an effective federal integrity body … One has to ask the question: are they conflicted? Why are they resisting the implementation of such a body?”

Health Minister Greg Hunt is also expected to announce his retirement from politics very soon, and Christian Porter has just announced he will depart too. About time, you might say. Either way, there’s no sense that either will leave politics triumphant about their legacy, or the government they leave behind. It’d be like the crew leaving the Titanic, looking over their shoulders from the lifeboats to admire the ship’s engineering one last time.

On one hand, it’s too easy to point to the fact that after eight years in government the Coalition is out of steam, ideas and talent, and is now sinking. It’s definitely too soon to call time on it: Morrison’s inner circle thrives on cunning stunts and populist PR plans; and while the Murdoch press remains staunchly behind it, anything could happen. It’s at least three months until the next election, and the Labor Party hasn’t presented a convincing alternative yet.

Yet it’s increasingly obvious that Morrison is losing the public’s trust and has very little to offer Australia, even if he does get re-elected. His government projects little more than bravado and self-interest. What would people be voting for this time, apart from a chimera?

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.


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