Morrison may not have lost the vote, but his prime ministerial authority is waning
Scott Morrison made it clear when he walked into the Blue Room mid-morning on the last sitting day of the parliament, and hung a lantern over his own political crisis, that there was one thing that had to be avoided at all costs, and that was losing a vote on the floor of the House.
A hierarchy of needs had been asserted.
Morrison, in the grip of fight or flight, told the assembled reporters: “I will do everything in my power to ensure that these suggested changes, that would undermine our border protection laws, never see the light of day.”
Just in case we missed it. “I will do whatever I can, whatever I can. I’ll fight them using whatever tool or tactic I have available to me.”
The only tool or tactic in the prime ministerial arsenal, as it turned out, given the numbers were against him in both chambers, and not for turning, was running down the clock.
Not very dignified perhaps, this grim, last-day-of-school attrition; the spectre of Cory Bernardi, the Liberal defector, helming your filibuster for you in the Senate. But any port in a storm, and Thursday was a typhoon.
Parliament House is full of clocks, and they tick relentlessly, measuring out your political mortality in unforgiving increments. Tick. Tick. Tick.
The House was set to adjourn for the summer at 4.30pm, and Cory just had to keep talking. Talk. Talk. Talk.
At 4.27pm Bernardi rose in the Senate chamber, his filibustering mischief managed, calmly wished everyone a very merry Christmas, and then left the chamber.
The House then rose, and Morrison’s humiliation was deferred until next February, assuming the parliament sits again before the next federal election, which, honestly? You’d really have to wonder. When the political contest is this visceral, how long can appearances be preserved?
How long will voters look at you, and think of you as a prime minister, when you have to resort to a Bernardi-led filibuster to fend off a de facto motion of no confidence in your government – which is what that vote most assuredly was.
At what point does insisting you will stay, regardless of the difficulties, most of them entirely self-inflicted, become not an act of admirable persistence, but an act of inexplicable selfharm?
Let’s ask the question in the most straight forward, practical terms: how often can you use the adjournment as a management tool to shepherd a non-consenting parliament, and still credibly occupy the prime ministerial office?
Not very often is the answer. Never is a better one.
Morrison avoided losing the vote, but the desperation of the day, the vulnerability of the government and its ebbing authority both inside the parliament and outside it, wasn’t airbrushed away, it was beamed live, to the nation, moment by moment.
The prime minister declared at one point that politics wasn’t reality television, which is a nonsense, when this generation of parliamentarians has made it one, with their hothouse intrigues, and their petty sagas, and self-indulgences – the grimmest reality television in the franchise, full of attentionseekers and desperados, looking for a plot twist to propel the battered enterprise into the next season.
Morrison had hoped to emerge by close of business minus the humiliating defeat and plus a political fight with Labor on national security.
That was the precise plot twist sought.
A national security fight is a handy fight to have, when fights are all that’s left, when your only pitch is that your opponent is a brigand.
But Bill Shorten knows the fight he’s in, and can see the finish line before him, near and yet so far.
Getting to that finish line trumps everything. On Thursday night, it trumped face saving. It trumped dignity.
After going toe-to-toe with Morrison all day, Shorten waited until after the television news bulletins, then promptly surrendered unconditionally on national security, waving through the encryption laws he’d earlier demanded be amended.
The alternative to abject surrender was giving Morrison some political grip, and as close observers of the human condition know – the grip of a drowning man can be lethal.
‘How long will voters look at you, and think of you as a prime minister, when you have to resort to a Bernardi-led filibuster to fend off a de factomotion of no confidence in your government?’ Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian