On Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party suffered a humiliating defeat on the floor of parliament, when the controversial medical evacuation bill was passed that gives more power to doctors to decide when refugees held on Manus Island or Nauru should be transferred to Australia for medical treatment. The controversial Senate bill was passed in the House of Representatives against the wishes of the government. This is a rare event in Australia with the most significant previous incident having occurred in 1929.
Such a defeat would traditionally be treated as a loss of confidence in the government of the day and would likely trigger an election, but not this time. Although the cross bench voted for the medivac bill on this occasion, the Morrison government is still assured of support in supply and no-confidence motions by a sufficient number of independents to remain in power. But what sort of power is it?
The events of this week have shown that the government, which has ruled in minority after the loss of Wentworth, can neither control the legislative agenda nor the parliament. It is a lame duck government, simply occupying benches so that the Labor Party can’t. We are constitutionally required to have an election by May 2019 and the government has cut the number of sitting days in parliament so drastically (in another ploy to prevent these sorts of humiliating defeats) that there is little time to pass any legislation before then. The government plans to present an early budget in April and then go to the polls. Every indication suggests that they will suffer a crushing defeat.
Many in the Opposition and the cross bench are eager to start legislating some of the recommendations of the banking Royal Commission following the startling revelations of malfeasance in that industry. Three days isn’t sufficient time to debate and pass such reforms and there is a considerable push to extend the number of parliamentary sitting days to allow more debate. The numbers are there to do this and it is possible that the government may lose this vote too. This would surely crush any remaining doubt that the Morrison government has really lost the confidence of the parliament.
Scott Morrison is the third prime minister to lead this government which has been plagued with factionalism and infighting. They have few achievements to show for their six years in office; some cuts to the public sector, some anti-union legislation, a few minor tax reductions and a drop in penalty rates for hospitality workers. They fought tooth and nail to prevent the banking Royal Commission but had their hand forced when their National Party coalition partners turned. Climate change policy is almost non-existent and there is paralysis around energy security. Few in the business community, whom the Liberal Party is supposed to support, would be impressed with this meagre record, let alone the broader public.
Given all of this, I really do believe that the best course of action is for the Prime Minister to visit the Governor-General and ask for an election. The people can then decide the fate of the nation. I cannot see the point of a near-powerless government passing an early budget simply to be thrown out of office a month later and have another party change it anyway.
When the independent cross-benchers’ pledge support to the Morrison government on matters of supply and confidence, you have to ask what it is that they have confidence in?
As far as the government is concerned, there is an honourable course that could be taken here, if honourable people were in charge.