For a leader with something of a fetish about having things under control, Scott Morrison is in a painful place. Just now, it seems, very little is controllable.
He’s beset from the right and the left of his party, which was quiescent for so long. The Senate is in gridlock, as far as contested government legislation is concerned.
And all that is apart from the assault on his own character and credibility, which Labor prosecutes daily.
Used to getting his own way, and wanting to clear the decks ahead of election year, Morrison this week has been up against a couple of virtually unknown Liberal senators, Gerard Rennick, from Queensland, and Alex Antic, from South Australia, who have proved hard to move.
They have been withholding their vote on government legislation in a quest to extract action from Morrison to override state vaccine mandates, something he doesn’t want to do, and probably couldn’t anyway.
Pauline Hanson and her One Nation colleague Malcolm Roberts, more often than not the government’s allies in Senate votes, are also kicking up over this issue, using their votes as weapons.
Morrison had a session with Rennick and Antic on Monday night, and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has been heavily involved.
Rennick indicates he will go back into the fold on procedural votes in return for concessions, particularly in relation to the threshold for compensation after adverse vaccination events. But so far he isn’t shifting on his refusal to vote on legislation.
Nationals MP George Christensen added his two bobs’ worth late Monday with a statement declaring, “Until federal action is taken against vaccine discrimination, I will be voting according to my conscience (or abstaining from votes) on bills and substantive motions rather than just voting with the government as MPs usually do”.
That could be anything or nothing. Christensen doesn’t necessarily follow through on threats. But it’s unsettling for a government on a knife edge in the lower house. Furthermore, the government now has a new and inexperienced speaker, Andrew Wallace, who, while more pliable than the formidable Tony Smith, would be tested if the opposition managed to engineer some chaos there.
In the Senate, it is perpetual chaos. Apart from Antic and Rennick, other rebel Coalition senators flexed their muscle on Monday, crossing the floor over Hanson’s (unsuccessful) bill aimed at quashing vaccine mandates.
Coming from a different direction, the opposition and crossbenchers had the numbers on Tuesday for the senate to suspend the plan by Liberal senator Andrew Bragg to run a committee inquiry into the ABC’s complaints procedure.
Bragg was deeply frustrated at the stymying of his move, which had angered ABC chair Ita Buttrose. “Motions considered by the Senate to silence Australians are very troubling,” he grumbled in a statement after the vote. The government is now set to try to recommit this for another vote on Wednesday.
Amid the government’s troubles, although separate from them, there has been fury within the crossbench between Jacqui Lambie and One Nation over vaccine mandates, and especially the release of Lambie’s mobile phone number. The latter is an extremely touchy issue given parliamentarians are increasingly worried about threats they are receiving and their safety.
On Tuesday the government’s legislation on religious discrimination finally reached the Coalition party room. A number of the Liberal moderates, including Trent Zimmerman, Warren Entsch, Andrew Bragg, Dave Sharma and Bridget Archer, expressed various concerns.
As the election approaches, the moderates have been willing to be more assertive. They exerted some pressure on climate change before the Glasgow conference. With high profile independent candidates emerging, there is an extra incentive for them to speak up.
Morrison will introduce the religious discrimination legislation this week; it will go off to a senate inquiry, where the contentious issues will get another airing. Its fate next year is uncertain, partly dependent on the election’s timing. So much for education minister Alan Tudge saying recently the aim was to get the bill through this year.
There is no sign of the integrity commission legislation, and backbenchers don’t expect it before parliament adjourns next week for the year. The bill for voter ID, still in the lower house, is likely to go to an inquiry even though the government wanted it through by Christmas.
At the regular Coalition parties meeting, Morrison often emphasises the need for unity. On Tuesday he had an especially pointed message about the current fortnight.
“How are you going to leave the scene over the next two weeks?” he asked his troops. “That’s up to you and the choices you make over the next two weeks.
"Look at each other – are we going to leave here at the end of these two weeks stronger and in a stronger position? Supporting those who put us here to ensure that we can stay here and be doing what we pledged for them to do.
"Or we going to leave here having given our political opponents in the Labor Party great courage? Will you put a smile on Labor’s face or a smile on those who want to see us reelected?”
It was the appeal of a leader under pressure, deeply anxious to get back a sense of control.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra