There were dozens of barbs thrown across the Parliament this week but the one that hurt Anthony Albanese the most was the suggestion that he had made the pandemic worse.
Scott Morrison made the claim at the start of question time on Wednesday when Labor asked why the Prime Minister did not stand up to rebel Liberals and Nationals who were withholding their votes over vaccine mandates.
“I’m so pleased that we didn’t have to rely on the opposition during the pandemic, because we wouldn’t have got the results,” the Prime Minister said.
“You did!” Albanese shot back. And the Labor leader was right. The government relied on Labor support for big measures from the launch of JobKeeper to the increase in JobSeeker. Some things did not require a vote – closing the international border only needed a ministerial decree – but the Parliament’s response was mostly bipartisan.
Any reminder of that unity will be buried as the election nears. There may be a brief mention of it next week, when Parliament will end for the year with the traditional “hypocrisies” in which everyone speaks well of each other, but the togetherness will not last for long.
This can be an angry Parliament. Albanese can taste victory and Morrison is desperate to avoid defeat. Their mutual derision radiates from the House of Representatives with a heat that television cannot capture.
Albanese has even taken to waving the Prime Minister back to his seat. He began doing it on Monday by standing in the middle of one of Morrison’s answers, making a point of order and indicating the Prime Minister should sit down. And that is exactly what Morrison had to do.
The next day the Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, started doing the same to Albanese. It is just a small example of the clash of egos. Albanese is trying to assert a sort of imperious ascendancy over Morrison, even if the opinion polls show no such lead.
It is personal and political. Labor is shouting from its side of the chamber every time it catches Morrison telling a lie, while he lowers his voice in response. Reminded on Tuesday he had denied using the label “Shanghai Sam” to describe former Labor senator Sam Dastyari when he had clearly used the phrase, the Prime Minister was barely audible in the chamber.
Even small barbs raise the temperature. Morrison ridiculed Albanese for once telling the Labor caucus to be ready for a December 11 election. Albanese yelled at Morrison for starting the election campaign already and ended with a challenge. “Call it.”
Morrison is not ready, of course. That was the other message from this week. Labor has accused the Prime Minister of telling lies, the government has accused Labor of being sneaky, but neither side has clashed on the floor of Parliament on a single big idea. Why not? Because the government has not put a big idea to a vote.
The closest the Parliament came to a significant dispute was a chaotic vote on Thursday on a bid to have a debate on a national integrity commission to investigate corruption. While Liberal backbencher Bridget Archer crossed the floor to support independent MP Helen Haines, the vote was procedural. The government blocked the bid to vote on Haines’ private member’s bill to set up a commission.
While the government lost a vote on the floor of Parliament, most voters will not care. Morrison lost a substantive vote on refugee medical evacuations in early 2019 and was written off because of this humiliating defeat. Then he won the election.
The Haines vote mattered for one simple reason: it highlighted a government vacuum. Morrison promised an integrity commission three years ago but has missed every chance to make it happen. A law to allow greater scrutiny of politicians is just too sensitive.
The government is likely to introduce its Commonwealth Integrity Commission Bill next week but the plan will be underwhelming. Voters want accountability but the government hates the idea of someone having broad powers to investigate its own. So the bill will go into limbo, waiting on the election result.
Morrison is trying to clean up old promises in time for the election. He has finally introduced a Religious Discrimination Act after promising it at the end of 2018, while also getting ready to claim he is delivering an integrity commission.
He has ducked and weaved, however, on a pledge to protect gay and lesbian school students from being expelled. That promise from 2018 will have to wait until 2023 under Morrison’s timetable. This is a real pressure point for the Liberals in city electorates when independent candidates can easily use an issue to add to climate change.
Meanwhile, out in suburban electorates, Morrison’s personal message about religious freedom will resonate with some voters and possibly tip the balance in some contests. He may end up going to the election promising the same thing he promised at the last election, rather than delivering anything concrete, but his message will be heard by people of faith.
Australian politics is caught in an episode of Renovation Rescue, where contestants had two days to repair a home. The government is racing to fix up the place but there is not even the pretence of a major reform that might qualify as serious construction. Most of the work this week was a quick paint job to make the place look presentable.
Labor, meanwhile, has locked the door to the public while it thinks about what to do inside. It is not giving away too much about its stance on religious discrimination, waiting to decide its climate change targets and avoiding a fight on tax and the economy. It has policies like a $15 billion manufacturing fund and a $6.2 billion childcare plan but is yet to make some of the tougher calls.
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( Information from smh.com.au was used in this report. To Read More, click here )