Since returning from abroad, Scott Morrison has been where he feels best: on the campaign trail, in hi-vis equipment where possible.
To make up for lost time due to lockdown and quarantine, the prime minister last week occupied about 10 seats in NSW and Victoria, including Labor seats that were targeted and liberal voters defended.
This week he was out in NSW. He cannot enter Western Australia and Queensland, both crucial to the coalition.
Morrison dropped various pieces of politics along the way, and road-tested intimidation against Labor, conjuring up the ghost of higher gasoline prices, interest rates and electricity taxes.
Whether he can make anti-Labor “scares” credible remains to be seen. Labor’s strategy for small goals and Morrison’s own credibility issues raise the bar for him. Newspoll this week brought some bad news in what has become the public debate over the prime minister’s character.
His assessments of various properties have declined sharply since April. On credibility, he dropped from 57 percent to 42 percent and lost his lead over Anthony Albanese, who scored 44 percent.
After his revitalizing time on hustings, Morrison is about to go into a special kind of “lockdown”. Parliament is returning for its last two weeks of the year and it’s likely to be a pressure cooker.
Back from the dead
Two important pieces of legislation have been in the framework of these fourteen days: the bill on religious discrimination and a bill to the long-awaited Integrity Commission, both under Advocate General Michaelia Cash.
The government prioritizes the legislation on religious discrimination, a strange choice when the integrity resonates with many voters. And it now leaves the timing of the Integrity Act open.
Action against religious discrimination has its origins in Malcolm Turnbull’s gesture to the Conservatives who lost in the vote on equality between marriage. It has persecuted the government ever since, with previous repetitions of the legislation being unacceptable to various stakeholders.
In the last days of Christian Porter’s Advocate General, the bill probably seemed dead. There is no obvious need for it, and conservative and small liberal critics have, for various reasons, been concerned about unintended consequences.
But Morrison has revived the pressure, the perpetrators have been briefed, and a bill is due for the joint party meeting next week.
Legislation that has not yet been released has been significantly diluted.
Following the firing of rugby player Israel Folau for his biblical attacks on homosexuals, adulterers, drunkards, liars and others, the earlier version would have restricted the right of large corporations to take such actions. This has now been dropped. Like a provision that would have allowed doctors to refuse to provide services because of their religion.
The bill will preserve and strengthen the right of religious schools, when hired, to prefer staff who are in line with their religious beliefs and principles.
For Morrison, making this legislation is about fulfilling an election promise. But he would also see it as a possible wedge against Labor.
Although this issue for many voters would neither be here nor there, it could be a different story in Western Sydney with its ethnic community.
Labor’s Chris Bowen, who holds McMahon’s western seat in Sydney, warned after his last election his party “how often it has been raised with me that believers no longer feel that progressive politics cares about them”.
Labor is also under pressure from the National Catholic Education Commission, whose executive director is former ALP senator Jacinta Collins.
Collins would like to see the federal bill through on a bipartisan basis before Christmas. The Commission wants the federal law (which will override state laws) in place quickly because of its concern about proposed changes to the Victorian Gender Equality Act, which it says “could slow down the ability of Catholic schools to act in accordance with their ethos”.
Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge, who also refers to the Victorian move, says the goal is to get the bill through this year.
Labor does not commit to the bill without seeing it, but Albanese will be extremely eager to avoid a wedge.
For its part, the government’s challenge is to avoid getting stuck. Both moderates and conservatives in their own ranks have had trouble with the legislation and must be reassured.
The government had consistently said it intended to introduce the Integrity Commission bill before Christmas until a red flag went up when Cash evaded at the Senate’s discretion last month. Asked by Labor, “shall we see the legislation this year?”, Cash said, “it will be a decision for the Cabinet”.
On Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Employment Minister Stuart Robert left the timing in doubt in interviews on Sky. If the introduction is delayed, the government will hand over ammunition to the opposition and other critics.
Whenever it comes, the legislation will be under fire from many, who will argue that despite the changes the government has made to its original model, it does not go far enough. Its fate would be problematic.
Back in hi-vis
A bill that is already in the Folketing, and which the government will do everything to have dealt with before Christmas, would require people to present ID when they vote.
Although the Christmas schedule is not crucial if the election is not until May, the government will not take chances. In any case, the Australian Electoral Commission would probably want plenty of leeway to sort out the practicalities of such a change.
This bill is highly controversial, and Labor claims it would deter votes from vulnerable people – including some in indigenous communities and the homeless.
Labor will oppose the bill, which would therefore need cross-cutting support to get through.
The situation is further complicated by a few rebel coalition senators, Gerard Rennick and Alex Antic, who are threatening to withhold their vote on government legislation due to a dispute over vaccine mandates and Pauline Hanson’s threat to disrupt the same issue.
For the Morrison Government, Parliament is more often to endure than to be enjoyed. Parliament usually plays better for the opposition. The Prime Minister will be relieved when he can get out of the place and back in his hi-vis uniform.
Michelle Grattan is a professor at the University of Canberra and political correspondent at The Conversation, where this article first appeared.