The Politics    Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Moderate failings

By Rachel Withers

Image of Liberal senator Gerard Rennick during Senate estimates last month. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Liberal senator Gerard Rennick during Senate estimates last month. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

With the right extracting another concession, why is it that Liberal “moderates” never play hardball?

Senator Gerard Rennick has secured at least one of his anti-vax demands for the government’s vaccine injury compensation scheme, proving once again that the Coalition is more than happy to negotiate with extremists. Health Minister Greg Hunt has released a statement confirming changes to the scheme, lowering the threshold on lost income from $5000 to $1000 (so much for fiscal discipline), and lending credence to Rennick’s unverified and “dangerous” scaremongering over side effects. The senator, in return, has agreed to support the government on procedural votes – though this likely wouldn’t have avoided last night’s ABC inquiry suspension chaos, with a pairing debacle leaving everyone confused well into today. Hunt has insisted, unsurprisingly, that the change wasn’t a part of a deal, saying that “the government has been considering this policy change for a number of weeks”. But the rebels are claiming a win, since the lowering of the threshold was one of Rennick’s very public demands. Yet again, the Coalition’s right flank has got what it wanted by rattling cages, and the government has made concessions to keep this minority group in the tent. (The minority grows, however: Liberal MP Russell Broadbent today joined with George Christensen to rail against “criminal” vaccine mandates.) So why is it that the so-called moderates aren’t willing or able to challenge the government on principles that they supposedly believe in?

They are, claims a sympathetic Phil Coorey at the AFR, who reports that “moderates” uncomfortable with the newly released religious discrimination bill (which equality advocates warn may legalise some forms of discrimination) are “threatening privately” to “play hardball” on it. The report echoed Nine’s recent account of how the same group secretly pushed for stronger climate action, threatening to cross the floor, despite the Nationals ultimately steamrolling the government out of a more ambitious 2030 emissions-reduction target. Such Liberals have been out and about in the media, talking up their concerns with the bill. “Leading Liberal moderate” Trent Zimmerman told RN Breakfast he’s worried it could open the door to the discrimination of minorities, while Higgins MP Katie Allen insisted that she had worked “extremely hard” to secure concessions from the attorney-general. But despite their proclaimed discomfort, there seems to be little chance of them ever actually crossing the floor. Many reportedly expressed concern in yesterday’s partyroom meeting, before nevertheless agreeing to support the bill, sight unseen.

As newly announced independent Wentworth candidate Allegra Spender noted on RN Breakfast this morning (echoing a stream of independent challengers before her), the moderate Liberals never do actually cross the floor, whether on integrity, climate or religious discrimination, voting consistently with the likes of Barnaby Joyce and Matt Canavan. (Dave Sharma, the incumbent whom Spender hopes to knock off, has of course made his concerns for gay children widely known across the media.) In Question Time today, Indi MP Helen Haines asked Morrison how Australians could honestly believe he wanted a robust federal integrity commission when he keeps shutting down debate on her bill. The question could just as easily be asked of the moderate Liberals like Sharma and Allen, who profess to want one but nonetheless vote with the government to silence her whenever they get the chance.

Labor, meanwhile, used Question Time to zero in on Morrison’s capitulation to Rennick, and to his ongoing failure to condemn the conspiratorial elements of his government. Shadow health minister Mark Butler opened by asking why the PM had “allowed himself to become hostage” to figures like Rennick, and what other policy changes the government might be willing to negotiate on. Morrison, in traditional fashion, accused Labor of “playing politics” and undermining the vaccine rollout, arguing that it was things like the indemnity scheme that had led to Australia’s impressively high vaccination rates (then why suddenly make changes to it?). Morrison used a blatant Dorothy Dixer to brag about the Coalition’s record on keeping Australians safe, with the government having earlier announced plans to designate two groups – Hezbollah and the far-right group known as the Base – as terrorist organisations, and basically set himself up for the next question from the Opposition leader, who returned to the PM’s failure to rein in the far-right within his party. (It took several points of order for the ineffective new speaker to direct the PM back to the question.)

But it was Labor’s attempts to have Morrison “unequivocally condemn” Christensen for the statement he made prior to QT – comparing mandates to a medical apartheid and calling for “civil disobedience” – that completely broke Question Time. The PM did not condemn Christensen’s incitement to violence, instead trying – repeatedly and irrelevantly – to share an unrelated quote from ACTU secretary Sally McManus. Speaker Andrew Wallace eventually forced Morrison to sit down, before independent Bob Katter used another question to ask the PM to quote “great union member” Sally McManus. Wallace, sadly, allowed it to stand.

The “moderate” Liberals will no doubt go on insisting – on the ABC and in Guardian Australia, where their “moderate” voters will hear them – that this constituted an appropriate prime ministerial condemnation.













Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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