PRESS GALLERY SKETCH: The last wretched days of a dying Government

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons)

The last day of chaos in Federal Parliament shows this is a Government out of control, writes Canberra correspondent John Passant.

WHAT A DAY in Parliament! The last sitting day, yesterday, showed, once again but in full high definition, that this is a government in name only. It is government running from crisis to crisis, unable to control itself, let alone manage the economy.

What happened? The Government had an uncontroversial immigration bill before the Senate. The majority of the crossbenchers, plus Labor and the Greens, supported amendments that would have seen doctors in Australia able to ensure speedy transfer of sick children, and other ill people, from Manus Island and Nauru to Australia for urgent and needed medical treatment.

The relevant minister would have had 24 hours to overturn the doctors’ decision but that itself would then have been subject to an appeal to a special panel. If the minister’s decision was on national security grounds, there would be no right of appeal.

Amendments made in the Senate to Bills that have already passed the House of Representatives have then to be approved by the House. Obviously, the Government was opposed to these amendments and, if the matter did come back to the House, it is almost certain the amendments would have been passed. It would have been the first time since 1929 a government had suffered such a defeat.  

The plan of the backbenchers and Labor was to force the bill through the Senate before Question Time, and then debate and pass it in the House before it rose at 4.30pm on its last day of the year.

Senators Cory Bernardi and Pauline Hanson came to the Government’s rescue. 

Supported by the government they moved, as Katherine Murphy in the Guardian put it,

‘... multiple suspensions of standing orders and other procedural tactics to slow the voting on amendments.’

Eventually, once the magic 4.30pm deadline had passed, the Senate voted on the legislation and it passed at 5 pm with 31 in favour and 28 opposed.  The Government could have extended the 4.30pm time to allow further debate, but did not. It prefers that kids suffer on Nauru for another few months than lose a vote in Parliament. The Government, in the words of newly elected Independent MP Kerryn Phelps, has failed the people.

The amended bill will now not be considered by the House until February next year. The Government avoided a defeat on the floor of the House, at least until February.   However, the stalling in the Senate had an impact on other legislation the Government had deemed vital. One of those two other key pieces of legislation was the Government’s "big stick" energy Bill.  

It would have given the Government the power to divest energy companies of some of their assets if their conduct was, to quote the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg,

‘… fraudulent, dishonest or in bad faith, for the purpose of distorting or manipulating prices, and the divestiture order is proportionate and targeted to the conduct.’

Not only that, but late Government amendments would have given the Australian Energy Regulator the power to regulate energy prices. You read that right. The free market warriors in this Liberal and National Party Government want the power to set prices.

Labor used go slow tactics on this, forcing the Government to debate the Bill clause by clause. This meant that, with the Government’s strictly enforced 4.30pm House of Representatives end, all to avoid defeat on the floor over the medical transfer bill, the Government also, in effect, combined with Labor’s clause by clause approach, postponed consideration of the legislation until February.

The other key piece of legislation was the encryption Bill. This legislation would

‘… give security and police agencies powers to access encrypted communications on applications like WhatsApp.’  

Labor wanted to amend it in the Senate.

However, any amendments, which because of stalling by the government and friends over the medical transfer amendments, would have been made after 4.30 pm when the House had risen, could then only be considered by the House at its next sittings in February.

This potential delay saw the government go on the front foot. Prime Minister Scott Morrison called Bill Shorten "a clear and present danger to Australia’s safety"

Defence Minister Christopher Pyne tweeted, then deleted, that the Labor Party

‘… has chosen to allow terrorists and paedophiles to continue their evil work in order to engage in point scoring.’

Faced with this barrage of bullshit, Labor capitulated and passed the Government’s encryption laws in the Senate without moving its amendment. This means the bill does not have to go back to the House to pass. It has already in its unamended form been passed by them. It now merely awaits the Governor-General’s signature to become law.

This last day of chaos shows this is a Government out of control. It cannot even get all of its so-called key legislation through when it wants. It has only postponed, not avoided, a defeat on the medical transfer legislation.

The Government’s strategy, as Question Time made clear, is fear — especially around national security. Every single backbench Dorothy Dixer on Thursday was on national security and the threat Labor posed to that.

The other part of their fear campaign is of the dog whistle "invasion of brown skinned people", disguised as "protecting our borders". For example, Labor, according to the Government, is undermining the offshore detention regime by supporting getting sick kids off Nauru.

It shows you the depths Australian politics has plumbed when this sort of racist jingoistic fear is all a government has to offer. 2019 is going to be a very ugly election year.

Managing editor Dave Donovan and senior editor Michelle Pini joined Canberra correspondent John Passant in Parliament House on Thursday to witness the chaos, confusion and conflict that passes from government in Australia.

You can follow Canberra correspondent John Passant on Twitter @JohnPassantSigned copies of John's first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016), are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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