Cracks and cranks
It is well past time the government gave up on accommodating its fringe
The cracks within the Coalition are deepening, as the prime minister continues to try to distance himself from the extreme elements of his party without alienating them, while they only grow more emboldened. Yesterday’s unexpected bipartisan censuring of Queensland MP George Christensen in the House of Representatives (which the government voted for, though without referring to Christensen by name) has had little effect, with the man himself telling 2GB this morning that the motion was like being “slapped with a wet lettuce leaf”, and continuing to demand an end to lockdowns – the measure that PM Scott Morrison now insists is the only option. Nationals senator Matt Canavan, the Coalition’s other problem child, continued his own anti-lockdown tour this morning, telling Nine he backed Christensen. But it’s not just on lockdowns where the fissures within the Coalition are growing. Morrison is now painfully wedged on multiple fronts, from vaccine mandates to climate change – both of which his business base would like him to act upon. Until now, the government has decided these extreme MPs were worth the cost, with their appeal to a small but important subsection of voters. But with Byron Bay in lockdown thanks to a Sydney man who “didn’t believe in COVID”, and the government at risk of undermining its own politically necessary Christmas vaccination targets, why is the government still entertaining these views? And are its desperate attempts to accommodate figures like Christensen inside the tent in vain?
While a number of senior Nationals have denounced Christensen, there’s seemingly little they can do. Party leader Barnaby Joyce toldRNBreakfast this morning that he’d had a conversation with the rogue MP but that Christensen wasn’t “the slave of anybody”, while deputy leader David Littleproud toldNewsBreakfast that the government didn’t agree with Christensen but respected his right to “free speech”.
As for Morrison, he has long been afraid of alienating his conspiracy-theorising, health-undermining, climate-denying MPs and their supporters. Yesterday’s censuring of Christensen was no exception, with Morrison and his ministers careful not to go too far. (Communications Minister Paul Fletcher repeatedly refused to outright condemn Christensen on Afternoon Briefing.) It’s an issue the Opposition was keen to use to wedge the PM in Question Time today, with Labor MP Chris Hayes pushing Morrison on his tacit acceptance of misinformation. “I refer to the report in The Daily Telegraph, which reported how QAnon became a killer COVID-19 conspiracy in Australia,” Hayes said. “What is the Morrison–Joyce government doing to combat the dangerous spread of this information by QAnon during this pandemic?” Morrison claimed that “crazy rubbish conspiracies have no place when it comes to public health”, and that his government was taking “all steps we can to deal with misinformation”. He then handed over to Health Minister Greg Hunt, who chose to “deal with misinformation” by turning the question back on Labor’s candidate for Higgins, Dr Michelle Ananda-Raja, an infectious diseases expert who raised questions about the AstraZeneca vaccine at the same time the government did, as though this was equivalent to the kind of stuff the Coalition endorses.
Labor also did its best to hammer Morrison on the absent Joyce, who in this morning’s RN interview offered a range of bizarre comments on climate, insisting that he couldn’t support a net-zero emissions target without knowing what the plan was, but that it wasn’t his job to come up with a plan. (Morrison was keen to wedge Labor right back, quoting the outspoken and coal-loving Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon, before being called out yet again on relevance by the speaker.)
The current debate has echoes of February, during which Morrison was negligently slow to censure then-Liberal MP Craig Kelly, who ultimately left the party over his views, leaving the government with a perilously thin majority. It’s easy to see why the government doesn’t want to go too far in condemning these figures, with the Coalition desperate not to lose them or their voters to One Nation and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party. But are they gone anyway? Kelly ultimately quit the government, and has been courted by Palmer, while One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, herself a former Liberal candidate, offered her full-throated support to Christensen today. Christensen, for his part, is reportedly planning to launch a “patriotic” news site modelled on the Drudge Report upon his upcoming retirement, with already published stories linking to blogs that actively undermine the government’s health policies on masks and vaccinations. Is it not worth condemning him properly now before it’s too late?
The Morrison government’s tolerance for its fringe members isn’t just damaging to public health and the environment, it may be damaging its own electoral prospects, which rely so heavily on getting COVID-19 back under control. The government is counting on NSW’s lockdown working, on the economy recovering, and on the population reaching that 80 per cent vaccination rate before the next election. It’s figures such as Christensen – and the man in Byron Bay – who are going to be what holds the nation and the government back. It was short-sighted of Morrison, many noted, to dismiss Labor’s “carrot” cash incentive for vaccinations, but it was especially so when there is a vocal minority in his ranks that rail against lockdowns and the “stick” incentives upon which he is trying to rely. The government also doesn’t appear to have grasped that winning the next election may now hinge on it taking serious action on climate change – whether or not the fringe will support it.
“You do need to turn up and face the tough questions and answer it the best possible way that you can. I mean, running and hiding and coming up with a range of excuses is not the sign of a good leader.”
It’s almost a good opinion from Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews, except she’s talking about how Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has voided answering “tough questions”. Andrews may want to take a look at her PM’s recent form.
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The cracks within the Coalition are deepening, as the prime minister continues to try to distance himself from the extreme elements of his party without alienating them, while they only grow more emboldened. Yesterday’s unexpected bipartisan censuring of Queensland MP George Christensen in the House of Representatives (which the government voted for, though without referring to Christensen by name) has had little effect, with the man himself telling 2GB this morning that the motion was like being “slapped with a wet lettuce leaf”, and continuing to demand an end to lockdowns – the measure that PM Scott Morrison now insists is the only option. Nationals senator Matt Canavan, the Coalition’s other...
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