Coalition in chaos: Government faces Senate drama in final sitting week

Prime Minister Scott Morrison faces trouble inside his own party – let alone from his opponents.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison faces trouble inside his own party – let alone from his opponents. Photo: AAP

Parliamentary sitting weeks are a chance for Labor to knock paint off the Coalition, and cause some procedural embarrassment or chaos along the way.

It’s often said that oppositions loves Parliamentary sitting weeks, while governments merely endure them and count down the clock.

That mantra rings even more true in Parliament’s final sitting fortnight of 2021, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison facing chaos from all sides, and bombs lobbed from friends and foes alike.

It’s a unique maelstrom of Mr Morrison’s own making, as the government looks to make progress on controversial legislative changes delayed by years that are causing fractures inside the Coalition, while several of its senators flatly refuse to vote for any government bills.

With Parliament House even banning most end-of-year events due to COVID-19, it promises to be a less-than-festive affair to end 2021.

It has been nearly three years since Mr Morrison and then-attorney general Christian Porter announced plans for a federal integrity commission and a religious freedoms bill at the very same press conference.

Christian Porter and Mr Morrison announced the bills in 2018. Photo: AAP

December 13, 2018, is the day we should look back to as this final parliamentary sitting fortnight begins.

Because 1075 days later, despite Mr Morrison heralding both proposals at the time as “absolutely central … to the proper functioning of the successful modern democracy in which we live”, the government has still introduced neither bill into Parliament.

That is likely to finally change some time this fortnight.

The religious discrimination bill reportedly still hasn’t been seen by anyone outside a tight-knit group of senior ministers, and may not be sighted until it goes to the Coalition party room this week.

Australians have only seen two drafts of the bill at various stages in the past three years, and it has left nearly everyone unsatisfied; from religious groups and social conservatives, to human rights or equality groups and progressive voices.

Those on the right flank say the various iterations don’t do enough to protect, for instance, faith-based schools or organisations from hiring based on personal belief; those on the left say the provisions would hurt the LGBTQI community and minority groups, as well as raising human rights concerns.

It’ll be a busy week for Michaelia Cash. Photo: AAP

Even inside the Coalition, those on the moderate and conservative wings are split along the same lines.

It’s still unclear what will happen with the bill, when it will be introduced, which house of Parliament it will be seen in, if it will be sent off to a Senate inquiry – and that’s before we even start thinking about how MPs will vote on it.

Current Attorney-General Michaelia Cash has made little public comment on the bill, but that’s partially understandable; she’s got her hands full at the moment.

The West Australian senator is not only running the political tightrope on the religious discrimination bill, but also shepherding the government’s much-maligned federal integrity commission plan.

The Coalition’s model for a so-called ‘federal ICAC’ – slammed by public integrity experts as the weakest proposal in the country – faces an even murkier immediate future than the religious discrimination bill.

Assistant Attorney-General Amanda Stoker said in October the government “expect to have it introduced before the year is through”, but stressed she was “not going to promise anything”.

It’s unclear when the integrity commission would be introduced to Parliament – and it may not even see the light of day this fortnight.

With Labor, the Greens and much of the crossbench against the government’s latest plan, the Coalition has little chance of pushing it through anyway.

In a tight Senate, the numbers game is tricky enough at the best of times.

But it will be even more dire this week, as the government faces up to three of its Senators – plus two of its most reliable votes – potentially abstaining in various protests.

Much of the government’s troubles are coming from Queensland.

Senator Gerard Rennick has promised to withhold his vote from all government legislation until Mr Morrison does more to oppose state premiers imposing vaccine mandates and travel restrictions – powers that, thanks to the constitution, the Prime Minister doesn’t really have.

Pauline Hanson has threatened that she and fellow One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts will vote against all government legislation, citing the same vaccine concerns as Senator Rennick.

Another Liberal, South Australia’s Alex Antic, also pledged to follow Senator Rennick’s lead, meaning the government could potentially lose four upper house votes.

Meanwhile, Nationals senator Matt Canavan has also threatened to vote against government legislation to put millions of dollars into the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

The Queensland backbencher has said he will oppose the move, part of his threat to vote against any legislation related to the government’s net-zero plan, which he vehemently opposed.

Ironically, the government’s play on the CEFC is to wedge Labor and cause a political headache by expanding the corporation’s remit to include carbon capture and storage – a cause Senator Canavan has previously championed, for its potential use in sucking up emissions caused by burning fossil fuels.

Mr Morrison has been trying to get the Queensland senators onside by picking a fight with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk on her vaccine mandates, saying unvaccinated people “should be able to go and get a cup of coffee in Brisbane when you’re over 80 per cent”.

But Senator Rennick told The New Daily he still planned to withhold his vote when Parliament resumes on Monday.

Parliament’s final week for 2021 is here. Photo: AAP

“It’s only words. He’s got to walk the walk,” he said of the Prime Minister.

Instead, Senator Rennick called on the government to support a push from Senator Hanson to outlaw what she calls “discrimination” against people who haven’t been vaccinated.

The next sitting fortnight is the last before the summer break and the start of an election year.

Mr Morrison said the government will hand down a federal budget in 2022 before the election.

But if he decides on a March poll, there might be no time for further parliamentary sitting weeks before then, which would make this the final sitting period for this Parliament.

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