The Politics    Monday, November 22, 2021

Mandated mayhem

By Rachel Withers

Pauline Hanson and Jacqui Lambie. © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

The anti-vaccine elements on the right grow more emboldened by the day

Pauline Hanson had promised to cause “so much mayhem” for the government this sitting period, and today she delivered with not one, not two, but five Coalition senators crossing the floor to support her anti-vaccine mandate bill. The COVID-19 Vaccination Status Bill 2021 – which would ban governments and businesses from “discriminating” on the basis of vaccination status – was moved up the agenda by the Coalition, despite its opposition to it, displacing the well-advanced Northern Territory rights bill and rightly pissing off Country Liberal senator Sam McMahon (who then, confusingly, crossed the floor in support of Hanson’s bill). Government leaders saw the chaos coming and hoped to get it out of the way quickly, with several spending their morning talking to the media about the “broad church” that is the Liberal Party and the “time honoured tradition” that is Coalition MPs crossing the floor. Senate leader Simon Birmingham, however, urged rogue MPs not to withhold their votes on other matters, and to consider individual legislation on its merit. Liberal senator Gerard Rennick, who has been using a taxpayer-funded website to claim a government “cover up” of vaccine side effects, has since confirmed that he still wants his vaccine indemnity scheme, and will, in fact, be withholding his vote over it. The government, Birmingham claimed, won’t be held to ransom over vaccine gripes. Good thing it didn’t leave several complex, contentious bills until the final sitting period of the year, then.

Unsurprisingly, Hanson’s anti-mandate bill failed miserably, at 44 to 5, with all five votes coming from the Coalition (Rennick and McMahon were joined by Alex Antic, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Matt Canavan, with others hinting at their support; One Nation senators were unable to vote because they were attending remotely, and Hanson’s request that leave be granted to record their support was denied). Debate was heated nonetheless – Hanson and her government supporters were no doubt stocking up on rousing footage to advertise to the freedom fighters. Canavan, who seconded the bill (though he did seek an exception for mandates in the aged-care sector), questioned the efficacy of vaccines, while claiming, ironically, that the bill would end the “politics of fear”. Labor deputy Senate leader Kristina Keneally turned the debate back onto the dog-whistling PM, whom she accused of pandering to extremists by allowing the bill at all. But it was independent senator Jacqui Lambie who truly decimated the “anti-discrimination” bill, with a fiery speech that is well worth a watch. “It’s not discrimination,” Lambie said of mandated vaccination. “It’s called being a goddamn bloody adult.” As Guardian Australia’s Paul Karp noted, there was something especially ominous about the giant, smirking Hanson head being beamed over the chamber as Lambie spoke.

In the lower house, Labor used Question Time to wedge the Coalition over its internal division on mandates, while highlighting the PM’s shocking inconsistency as he works desperately to appease anti-vaxxers both inside and outside parliament (Labor’s press team helpfully distributed a list of Morrison’s previous stances to the media). Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, fresh from ripping Scott Morrison yet another one over his failure to adequately condemn extremists, opened by asking how the PM could be opposed to vaccine mandates for aged-care workers, Australians returning home, quarantine workers and journalists attending his press conferences. Albanese asked Morrison how he could now oppose mandates in these areas – ones for which the PM has previously given support. Shadow treasurer and Queenslander Jim Chalmers wanted to know why Morrison was railing against restrictions on who could get coffee in Brisbane but not in Liberal-run NSW – a worthwhile question Morrison rambled his way out of, insisting he was against mandates. “How much clearer do I have to be?” he repeated, which now appears to be a sure-fire tell for when he is being intentionally obtuse. Questions as to why the PM had deleted the part of his press conference where he condemned extremists before posting it to Facebook prompted allegations that it was Labor that was not on a bipartisan ticket in denouncing violence.

Chalmers also attempted to prosecute the hypocrisy of the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, insisting that the Coalition stands for lower taxes “when the two highest-taxing governments of the last 30 years have both been Liberal governments”. Frydenberg reverted to name-calling, trying out the label “sneaky Jim” for size (far from the most childish nickname the Coalition has used on the shadow treasurer), an adjective with which Morrison then attempted to tar all of Labor.

“Sneaky” is surely not a word Morrison wants to be throwing around right now, amid his own flailing trust ratings. Labor brought up as many examples of the PM’s “sneakiness” as they could today, with no shortage of material to work with, from his changed stance on electric vehicles to his changed support for Clive Palmer’s High Court border challenge. But it was on Hawaii (that trip just keeps on giving) that Morrison kicked an own goal. Asked why his office had lied to journalists about Hawaii, Morrison viciously attacked the Opposition leader, insisting he had texted him and that “he was fully aware of where I was travelling with my family”. It was an irrelevant claim, and one Albanese objected to, noting that the text – which he had hitherto kept private, “as you do with private text messages between private phones” – had only said the PM was going on leave. Morrison furiously tried to undo his claim, changing what he had said. “Where I was going was on leave, Mr Speaker, and that was the important thing. I sent to the leader of the Opposition. He knew I was taking leave, Mr Speaker. I told him I was taking leave.”

He can spin all he likes, Hansard has the receipts. Hanson, meanwhile, is probably still smiling.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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