Scott Morrison has an ever-growing to do list but he’s running out of time to get it done before the election
Scott Morrison’s week wasn’t as bad as it may have looked to those casually observing the filibustering and fury of the 2018 parliamentary year drawing to its close. Amid the chaos, the Prime Minister secured important changes to the Liberal Party’s leadership rules, making it much harder to turf out an elected Prime Minister. He won the passage of laws giving police and security agencies the power to access encrypted messages sent by terrorists and paedophiles. And perhaps most important of all, he was gifted an opening on his favourite issue: border protection.
Labor’s policy shift aimed at making it easier to medically transfer refugees to Australia from Manus Island and Nauru may be wellintentioned, but it’s politically dangerous. This is precisely the ground Morrison wants to fight on.
Bill Shorten hopes voters will see his stance as an act of courage and conviction. Over the years Labor has caved in on border protection, eventually supporting offshore processing and then boat turn-backs. Shorten insists he won’t buckle on this. He is confident most Australians are ready to welcome those refugees who have spent five years offshore and are legitimately in need of medical care here.
The government sees it very differently. Even Liberal moderates who quietly and successfully pushed for the removal of children from Nauru think the Labor-Greens-crossbench plan for easier medical transfers is a bad idea. They point out this isn’t about sick kids. 100 children have been removed from Nauru over the past three months. Only 10 remain with six about to be transferred to the US and four part of families who have chosen to stay. This is about the adults. More than 1000 remain on Nauru and Manus Island. The government argues these adults could easily “doctor shop” to find the required two registered medicos to approve their transfer on the grounds of depression. If there is no security reason to deny them entry, the minister would have to follow the medical advice and let them in. If the Labor-Greens-crossbench combination passes this change through the hung parliament when it returns in the new year, the government believes people smugglers will be able to fill their boats again. This could be an election-eve gamechanger akin to the arrival of the Tampa in 2001. Senior Labor figures suspect that’s exactly what this struggling government wants: a resumption of boat arrivals for purely political reasons. They even point to reports of cutbacks in offshore border patrols as evidence the government is hoping some boats slip through. It’s worth noting some 700 refu- gees and asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus Island are now in Australia, having been brought here on medical grounds. Hundreds more have been resettled in the United States.
None of this has led to an influx of asylum seeker boats, although it’s impossible to know what might happen if people smugglers are able to market the fact Australia has adopted a more “compassionate” approach.
Shorten says he won’t allow the boats to resume, but he’s weighed down in this fight by Labor’s record of failure on this front when last in government.
The Opposition Leader has a good nose for reading the public mood and responding to it.
He’s outplayed the Coalition on company tax cuts, banks, gay marriage and so on. We’ll soon see if he’s also in tune with the electorate on refugees, or whether he’s struck the wrong chord.
Morrison will try to keep the focus on border protection and national security as often as he can between now and the election. It sure beats Liberal infighting.
The internal wars haven’t exactly gone away, but there was an encouraging sign this week. Malcolm Turnbull’s sideline interventions on energy policy and election timing met little more than a collective shoulder shrug from his former colleagues. Even Turnbull’s mates agree he needs to settle down.
Parliament may have risen for the year, but no one is putting their thongs on just yet. The Prime Minister still has some difficult hurdles to clear before he clocks off.
Morrison has promised a decision before Christmas on whether to shift the Australian Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which will be difficult to spin into a positive whichever way he goes. He’ll upset Indonesia and others if he moves the Embassy. He’ll upset conservatives in his ranks if he backs away.
The Prime Minister has also promised to finally release the government’s response to the Ruddock review into protecting religious freedoms, which it’s been sitting on since May. If the debate over gay kids at religious schools is any guide, a broader plan to legislate the rights of Christians, Jews and Muslims will open quite a can of worms.
Then there’s a mid-year Budget update to be delivered amid signs of weaker economic growth.
Despite some success this week, Morrison still has a lot to do and not enough time to do it.
Shorten has outplayed Morrison on company tax cuts, banks, gay marriage and so on.