Nothing to show after Scott Morrison’s week of self defeat

The Prime Minister has used Parliament's dying days to turn two key pieces of policy into political defeat.

The Prime Minister has used Parliament's dying days to turn two key pieces of policy into political defeat.

It has been more than 3000 days since the Coalition government first took power.

And in the dying days of the 46th Parliament this week, we saw a government that had not so much gotten lost along the way, but no longer seemed like it ever had a reason for being in the first place.

Scott Morrison has been promising to achieve two concrete policy objectives since he attained the Prime Ministership more than three years ago.

The first was a law clarifying the boundaries between religious and personal freedoms in Australia and the second was to create a federal agency to crack down on government corruption.

But at the death of his first full term as Prime Minister, Mr Morrison was able to combine two signature policy proposals into a singular blunder and end the week farther behind than he began.

Government’s moral gulf exposed

After dedicating more than 48 hours of its dwindling political stage time to its religious discrimination legislation, the government was left with less than nothing to show for it.

Many had anticipated the legislation would pose a most difficult question for Labor which, during a previous term in government, had amended federal law such that religious schools could expel gay and transgender students.

The public had been aware of this state of affairs since late 2018, when the government promised to legislate to protect the rights of gay students.

And, yet, despite not being responsible for creating it, the Coalition was made to bear all responsibility for the legal status quo – and then some.

Its religious discrimination act was intended to balance the freedom to practise religious views with the rights of children to attend school without being discriminated against for their sexuality or gender.

In the spirit of compromise to the party’s moderate faction, the government began the week by offering to insert protections into the law that would prevent children from being discriminated against for being gay.

But the law was silent on the question of what would happen to children who were transgender.

Instead of offering protections on this score, too, the Coalition party room sought to achieve compromise through debate and the promise that the laws would be subject to independent review.

That was far from enough.

As one senior Liberal said at the end of a second, lengthy party room debate: “We opened up a philosophical divide that could never be bridged.”

Despite notionally achieving a majority consensus on the laws, the party could not contain the moral gulf it had exposed between the party’s moderate and conservative wings.

Five Liberal moderates crossed the floor to vote against parts of the legislation they viewed as exposing vulnerable children to discrimination, voting for Labor-backed amendments to the laws and handing the Opposition a victory on legislation of which it had, until this week, been profoundly wary.

The party’s right wing then delivered the final blow before the bill could reach a vote in the Senate.

Amid complaints from the religious lobby and conservative Liberals that the legislation had been watered down to the point that it afforded no additional freedom to the faith groups it had promised to serve, it was pulled from the Senate.

Wedged between his party’s left and right, Mr Morrison attempted to pin blame on Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie.

Ms Sharkie was accused of botching amendments to the law moved in the upper house, turning the law into something that could be misused.

But it was unclear how the government could protest that it had been caught unawares over the finer points of legislation it should have spent more than three years preparing.

“Do you know what happens when you rush something and don’t consider the consequences?” Attorney-General Michaelia Cash asked without any sense of irony.

“You can make mistakes.”

Morrison fails to deliver second key election promise

Somehow, the government managed to underscore its failure on religious discrimination reform by twinning it with its inability to deliver the Commonwealth Integrity Commission, which it announced in December 2018.

The government had not delivered on a promise to legislate to create a federal integrity commission.

Its failure to introduce legislation was widely assumed to reflect its reluctance to expose its proposal to criticism, amid accusations it would only back a regulator without the teeth needed to get the job done.

By Parliament’s final week before the election, it was assumed the anti-corruption law had fallen by the wayside.

But another reported cabinet leak suggested that the Prime Minister had unsuccessfully sought to twin the two ideas in a political gambit that ended in self defeat.

Mr Morrison allegedly proposed allowing debate on his watchdog proposal in exchange for support for the religion bill; a desire to have the former introduced would serve as a lure for party moderates uneasy about the latter.

Journalist Peter van Onselen – who last week reported that a member of Mr Morrison’s front bench had called him a “complete psycho” – said the proposal was rejected in a stunning cabinet rebuke of the Prime Minister’s judgment and authority.

Mr Morrison’s closest allies were declining to comment on reports the Prime Minister had failed to execute a sneaky gambit involving two key planks of his political platform.

But if he had not, as reported, been “too clever by half” few would be taking solace at the possibility of the PM being guilty of the alternative.

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