The Politics    Thursday, November 25, 2021

A very broad church

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison after Liberal MP Bridget Archer crossed the floor during a vote for the integrity commission. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison after Liberal MP Bridget Archer crossed the floor during a vote for the integrity commission. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Morrison’s decision to prioritise religious freedom over integrity sees yet another defection

The Liberal Party is a “broad church”, as they say – especially when they are trying to downplay a chaotic parliamentary sitting week to come. Today that church looked so broad it might burst, with a seventh Coalition MP crossing the floor to vote against the government. This time it was Liberal MP Bridget Archer, who backed a motion to bring on a debate on Helen Haines’s federal integrity commission bill, after saying she was “offended” that the religious discrimination bill had taken precedence. Speaking to the motion, the member for Bass (a marginal Tasmanian seat that Jacqui Lambie has warned is “completely gone” for the government) said it was a “difficult decision”, adding that “time has gone on long enough” on the all-important integrity issue. The motion failed, despite the vote being won 66–64, because it wasn’t the absolute majority required to suspend standing orders. Archer – whom Haines has since labelled a “lioness” – has proved me wrong in claiming that the current batch of small-L Liberals wouldn’t actually cross the floor. Unfortunately, the rest of her “moderate” colleagues, including those facing independent challenges in Melbourne and Sydney (welcome to the club, Tim Wilson), proved me right: no others made the crossing to allow the debate, despite Haines’s earnest beseeching and Archer’s bold example.

This morning’s parliamentary upset was the most chaotic yet. Crossbencher Bob Katter, who voted for a debate on the bill, spoke for many afterwards when he proclaimed to be at a loss as to the procedure of the vote. (“I’m one of the dumber ones!” he added, before sitting back down.) Haines and Archer were backed by Labor and the entire crossbench, but potential government rebels George Christensen (who is currently “voting on his conscience”, and last night voted against the government on class action laws) and Llew O’Brien (who has previously said he would consider crossing the floor over an integrity commission, and is weighing up joining the anti-mandate rebellion) sided with their own team.

Attempts by Communications Minister Paul Fletcher to argue that Haines’s bill wasn’t necessary, because the government’s own bill was ready to be introduced, were shut down by independents Katter and Andrew Wilkie – and only raised further questions as to why the government still hasn’t introduced it. Ineffective speaker Andrew Wallace mismanaged announcing the winner of the vote, failing to say that it needed an absolute majority, leading Haines and Labor to argue they had actually won. Meanwhile, Wallace’s main opponent for speaker, Liberal Kevin Andrews, tried to tell him what to do. A clearly disappointed Haines left the chamber with her arm around Archer’s shoulder, later praising her in a press conference. “Bridget Archer today walked across the aisle for the single most important thing that any parliamentarian could do.” Haines said. “She walked across the aisle to vote for integrity.”

Speaking of broad churches, the prime minister also introduced the religious discrimination bill this morning, confirming once and for all that he intends to use it to stoke the culture wars by railing at length against “cancel culture”. “Australians shouldn’t have to worry about looking over their shoulder, fearful of offending an anonymous person on Twitter,” he claimed, in a statement apparently devoid of irony. (“Incredible,” wrote refugee activist Shane Bazzi, who was yesterday ordered to pay Defence Minister Peter Dutton $35,000 over something he said on Twitter.) Further concerns have been raised today about the fact that the bill will allow religious private schools to reject gay teachers on religious grounds, so long as they’re willing to put it in a policy, something that Assistant Attorney-General Amanda Stoker appeared to confirm on RN Breakfast. A growing group of conservative Liberals, meanwhile, is urging the PM not to buckle under pressure from moderates to “water down” the bill when it goes to a Senate committee, as he has promised it will. Except that’s not looking so certain now either: the government later lost a vote to send it to the government-controlled legal affairs committee (which it planned to have report back by February 1), with Labor and the crossbench teaming up to block the referral.

Themes of integrity and disunity, unsurprisingly, dominated Question Time, during which Labor hammered the government on both. “Hasn’t the prime minister lost control of the House, lost control of the senators and lost the control of his government?” asked Labor leader Anthony Albanese. “No,” was the only response Scott Morrison would offer. The second question, on why the government had failed to introduce an anti-corruption commission more than 1000 days after promising to do so, prompted a more verbose response from the PM, who claimed that his government had a bill ready to pass if the Opposition would agree to back it. He then launched an astounding attack on the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, implying that former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian had been taken down due to an unjust process that Labor supported. It was a noteworthy change of tack from Morrison, no doubt informed by a new poll showing that a significant portion of voters still like Berejiklian and think she should not have resigned, amid rumours that the Liberal Party still hopes to run her in the seat of Warringah.

The PM’s answers made one thing clear. There is no way the Morrison government will be delivering an integrity commission with teeth, the kind that experts say is needed, and which the electorates of those “moderate” inner-city Liberals reportedly want. Perhaps this is something for those MPs to consider next time the chance to vote on Haines’s bill arises.













Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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