DAVID SPEERS

Scott Mor­ri­son has an ever-grow­ing to do list but he’s run­ning out of time to get it done be­fore the elec­tion

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - Extra Saturday - DAVID SPEERS

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.

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