A step Left as Libs limp to hols

The West Australian - - OPINION - MICHELLE GRAT­TAN Michelle Grat­tan is a pro­fes­so­rial fel­low at the Univer­sity of Can­berra. This ar­ti­cle first ap­peared on the­con­ver­sa­tion.com.

In the topsy-turvy Liberal uni­verse, just when the right is try­ing to tighten its grip on the throat of the party, the Gov­ern­ment is har­ing off to the left, with this week’s leg­is­la­tion to al­low it to break up re­cal­ci­trant en­ergy com­pa­nies.

As for­mer deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop — who as a back­bencher has be­come very forth­right — said in the coali­tion party room on Tues­day, “this is not ortho­dox Liberal pol­icy”. Bishop can­vassed the dan­ger of sovereign risk.

To find a ra­tio­nale for a frolic into what in other cir­cum­stances the Lib­er­als would no doubt de­nounce as “so­cial­ism”, one might see it as driven by the veto of the so-called con­ser­va­tives.

Those on the right (led by Tony Ab­bott and his band) have long stopped the Gov­ern­ment putting for­ward a sound en­ergy pol­icy, de­spite the strong pleas from stake­hold­ers across the board.

In­stead, try­ing to re­spond to the press­ing elec­toral is­sue of high elec­tric­ity prices, the Gov­ern­ment has reached for its “big stick”, in­clud­ing the threat of di­vesti­ture — a pol­icy that’s be­ing at­tacked by La­bor as well as busi­ness.

Shadow trea­surer Chris Bowen was cor­rect on Thurs­day when he said: “This is what we see when a gov­ern­ment’s pol­icy agenda falls apart.”

Hav­ing to de­fend this dra­co­nian pol­icy, first from crit­i­cal coali­tion back­benchers (who won some changes) and then in Par­lia­ment, the Gov­ern­ment found it­self tied in knots.

Given this is such a rad­i­cal pro­posal, it was also in an enor­mous rush with the leg­is­la­tion, in­tro­duc­ing it on Wed­nes­day and want­ing the House of Representatives to pass it by Thurs­day.

But that timetable was stymied by La­bor. Pas­sage through the House will have to wait un­til Fe­bru­ary. Mean­while, there will be a Se­nate in­quiry, re­port­ing in March. This puts off a Se­nate vote un­til Bud­get week in April — en­sur­ing a lot of noise about this con­tro­ver­sial mea­sure just when the Gov­ern­ment will want all the at­ten­tion on a Bud­get crafted to ap­peal to vot­ers for a May elec­tion.

Even if the di­vesti­ture leg­is­la­tion gets through the Se­nate next year, a likely La­bor elec­tion vic­tory would mean we’ll prob­a­bly never see this par­tic­u­lar “big stick” wielded. It’s highly doubt­ful the threat will have been worth the angst, or the trash­ing of Liberal prin­ci­ples.

The fi­nal par­lia­men­tary fort­night of 2018 co­in­cided with the first fort­night of the hung par­lia­ment.

For Scott Mor­ri­son, it has been an ex­cru­ci­at­ing two weeks, with the back­lash from the Lib­er­als’ trounc­ing in Vic­to­ria, Ju­lia Banks’ de­fec­tion to the cross­bench, Mal­colm Turn­bull’s provoca­tive in­ter­ven­tions, and an im­passe with La­bor over the plan to pro­tect LGBT stu­dents.

The Gov­ern­ment’s stress cul­mi­nated in Thurs­day’s ex­tra­or­di­nary bat­tle to pre­vent a de­feat on the floor of the House.

This test of strength was over amend­ments, based on a pro­posal orig­i­nally com­ing from new Went­worth mem­ber Ker­ryn Phelps, that would make it eas­ier to trans­fer peo­ple need­ing med­i­cal treat­ment from Nauru and Manus to Aus­tralia.

As both sides played the tac­tics, a re­mark­able thing hap­pened in the House of Representatives. Be­hav­iour im­proved 100 per cent, with none of the usual scream­ing and ex­changes of in­sults. This pleas­ing de­vel­op­ment was, un­sur­pris­ingly, driven by self-in­ter­est — nei­ther side could af­ford any­one be­ing thrown out ahead of the pos­si­ble cru­cial vote.

Ear­lier, Mor­ri­son had shown any­thing but re­straint when at his news con­fer­ence he de­scribed Bill Shorten as “a clear and present threat to Aus­tralia’s safety”. Once that would have been taken as a se­ri­ous claim, which a prime minister would have been called on to jus­tify. In these days, it’s seen as a pass­ing com­ment.

In what was a highly ag­gres­sive per­for­mance, Mor­ri­son gave us an­other fore­taste of what he’ll be like on the hus­tings.

In the end, by its de­lay­ing tac­tics in the Se­nate, the Gov­ern­ment pre­vented the amend­ments reach­ing the House be­fore it ad­journed, and so avoided a test of the num­bers.

De­feat in the House would not have equalled a no-con­fi­dence vote, but it would have been a se­ri­ous blow for Mor­ri­son. Look­ing for a prece­dent, the House clerks of­fice went back to votes lost in 1929 (which led to an elec­tion) and on the 1941 Bud­get (which brought down the Fad­den gov­ern­ment).

But the Gov­ern­ment may have just put off, rather than pre­vented, the reck­on­ing. Phelps said on Sky: “If we have to wait un­til Fe­bru­ary, at least I be­lieve that there is a light at the end of the tun­nel.”

Dodg­ing this vote meant leg­is­la­tion to give au­thor­i­ties bet­ter ac­cess to en­crypted mes­sages to help in the fight against ter­ror­ism looked like it would be de­layed. Once the House had ad­journed, any La­bor amend­ments the Se­nate might pass couldn’t go back there un­til Fe­bru­ary.

The Gov­ern­ment had de­clared the en­cryp­tion mea­sure was ur­gent, and the blame game started in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a hold-up.

Then, mid-de­bate in the Se­nate, La­bor aban­doned its at­tempt to amend the Bill, which glided through. In an agree­ment which may mean some­thing or noth­ing, the Gov­ern­ment un­der­took to con­sider the ALP amend­ments in the new year.

Shorten didn’t want to be open to the Gov­ern­ment’s ac­cu­sa­tions of im­ped­ing leg­is­la­tion the se­cu­rity agen­cies said would help pre­vent ter­ror­ist acts. “I couldn’t go home and leave Aus­tralians over Christ­mas with­out some of the pro­tec­tions which we all agree are nec­es­sary,” he said.

The events of this week show why the Gov­ern­ment de­cided to have the min­i­mum of sit­ting days be­fore the elec­tion next year. The new par­lia­men­tary ses­sion will open with a dead­lock on the pro­tec­tion of gay stu­dents, the di­vesti­ture plan up in the air, and the Nauru-Manus vote hang­ing over the Gov­ern­ment.

And by that time, Scott Mor­ri­son will have had his first and prob­a­bly his last Christ­mas at Kir­ri­billi.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Don Lindsay

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