“I’ve always stood in the same place on this issue,” Morrison declared. “I will never move.”
It’s also an obvious public appeal to emphasise what the government still considers is a political strength for it and a vulnerability for Labor. It suits the Coalition to remind voters of its own credentials in stopping the boats while warning Labor’s approach will immediately mean people smugglers will restart their business among “the 12,000 people” waiting in Indonesia.
Just as damning
Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen was just as damning about the Prime Minister.
“There has been a lot of intemperate language in the House and in the building today from the Prime Minister,” he said. “We have a clear and present danger. He has swallowed one too many Tom Clancy novels.
“What we see here is what happens when the government policy agenda falls apart before our very eyes and nowhere is it more evident than in energy policy.”
But the first casualty seems to have been the urgent passage of the government’s encryption bills aimed at making it easier to thwart terrorist plots by allowing law enforcement agencies greater access to encrypted communications.
After considerable arguments over months, Labor and the Coalition had finally agreed on the bill’s provisions with some amendments. This was on the basis the changes should pass ahead of the Christmas season and the heightened risk of attacks over that period.
Instead, after hours of deliberate procedural delays in the Senate, time in the House ran out after the government refused to extend its hours beyond 5pm. This was in order to avoid losing the vote on medical transfers after it passed the Senate.
“Shame, shame, shame!” Shorten denounced the government in the House. “You used national security as a stick to try to score a political angle.
“They are more keen to protect their political pride than protect Australians or get kids off Nauru.”
For its part, the Coalition said Labor was willing to weaken border security to frustrate and embarrass the government while breaching its agreement to get the encryption laws through this week.
“This bill was used as part of a tactical ploy,” Attorney-General Christian Porter said. “It became a pawn in a larger game to try to embarrass the government. It’s a sad day for the Australian people.”
The Australian people will no doubt agree with that assessment, for rather different reasons.
Politicians will head back home, inevitably looking even further diminished in the public’s eyes.
Labor will be pointing its finger at the government for a condition of chaos and lack of control. The government will be focused on reviving community concern over national security by blaming Labor for the impasse over the encryption laws as well its willingness to up-end five years of effort to stop people smuggling.
For a government in such dire straits, it certainly needs something to use as a weapon against the Labor onslaught. Morrison will be keen to use his own history and beliefs on this issue to persuade lost Liberal voters to reconsider – even if his aggressive stance further alienates others.
The amendments, for example, would have made it easier to transfer children and adult asylum seekers from Manus and Nauru on the basis of medical recommendations from two doctors that they needed treatment in Australia. The federal minister would have 24 hours to disagree but would only be able to block someone on national security grounds.
The numbers directly involved are about 1000 adults, mostly single males, and 10 children. The government’s numbers will be on the basis of repeatedly arguing this will open the way to many, many thousands more coming on more boats.
Kerryn Phelps, Malcolm Turnbull’s replacement in the seat of Wentworth, had tried to initiate her own bill but eventually amendments were tacked on to another bill in the Senate making it easier to pass in the House.
Both Labor and crossbencher insist this is not a backdoor attempt to end offshore processing but to respond to urgent medical needs where proper treatment is currently being blocked. The issue will inevitably come up again when Parliament returns in February.
The Prime Minister knows his Christmas will be spent trying to undermine Bill Shorten’s credibility on this and everything else.
Let’s all hope the argument doesn’t convert into one over who bears more responsibility for allowing a terror attack to go ahead.