As parliament wrapped its final sitting week of the year on Thursday, three key pieces of legislation were left looming over the lead-up to the federal election in early 2022.
Long-awaited proposals for a federal anti-corruption commission and religious discrimination laws dominated debate, but neither came to a vote. Meanwhile, the government’s contentious voter identification proposal – only recently heralded as essential by the Coalition – failed to get up, after Mr Morrison was met with ferocious opposition from Labor and the crossbench.
With Mr Morrison hinting at a May election, and with a maximum of just 10 sitting days left in this parliament, there is barely any time to look at these bills before the election – if parliament returns at all in 2022, which some believe is not certain.
Federal anti-corruption commission
A long-awaited federal integrity body is no closer to becoming a reality, with the Morrison government yet to introduce its bill while stonewalling attempts to debate a more popular crossbench proposal.
Mr Morrison blamed the delay on a lack of support from the Opposition – despite the government holding a majority in the House of Representatives (unless their own members cross the floor against it).
Labor argues the government’s proposed commission is not strong enough, complaining it would have no power to investigate scandals such as the ‘sports rorts’ funding controversy or the Leppington Triangle airport land deal.
The Prime Minister tabled the Coalition’s draft bill on Wednesday, but MPs won’t be able to debate or make changes until it is formally introduced to parliament, which the government has so far declined to do.
“We have done the work to ensure that an effective Integrity Commission can be implemented,” Mr Morrison told parliament on Wednesday.
“There is only one obstacle to that being passed in this parliament –the Labor Party.”
However, there is growing unrest within Coalition ranks over the government’s appetite to introduce the legislation.
Last week, Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer twice crossed the floor to back an independent MP’s federal integrity bill that the Morrison government opposes.
On Tuesday night, Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells questioned Mr Morrison’s delay introducing the government’s bill.
“Those who resist the introduction of an effective federal integrity body raise people’s curiosity,” she told the Senate.
“One has to ask the question: are they conflicted? Why are they resisting the implementation of such a body? What conflicts are preventing the Prime Minister establishing an effective anti-corruption commission?”
The Morrison government is still negotiating support for its contentious religious discrimination bill, after brokering a deal with moderate Liberal MPs to protect gay students from being expelled from religious schools on the basis of their sexuality.
The bill was first proposed three years ago and is designed to extend more freedoms and protections from discrimination for people to exercise their religious beliefs.
While the Coalition negotiates concessions to appease party factions and religious groups, Labor has reserved its position until after a committee inquiry.
“Our preference is for the committee process to run its course and then for us to finalise our position,” Labor’s shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers told reporters on Thursday.
“If there are other proposals that the government is putting to us through the course of the day, then obviously we’ll engage constructively.”
Mr Morrison referred the bill to a joint human rights committee inquiry on Friday. Public hearings are scheduled for December 21, and January 13 and 14. The committee is due to report back to the government on February 4, before the first sitting weeks of 2022.
A separate Senate committee will also probe the bill.
The government’s hot-button push to force Australians to provide official identification documents at the ballot box was quietly dumped after Labor brokered a deal with the Coalition.
Morrison hoped the bill would pass in the final sitting fortnight of the year, but it was strongly opposed by Labor, the Greens and some crossbenchers, who argued it would suppress votes among marginalised or vulnerable communities.
Under the Coalition proposal, Australians would have had to provide official identification documents, like drivers licences or passports, before casting a ballot. People unable to immediately provide ID would be able to cast a “declaration vote”, which would have allowed another voter with the appropriate identification to attest to someone else’s identity.
The government argued the laws were necessary to prevent voter impersonation and fraudulent voting. But with only One Nation supporting the bill and rebel Coalition Senators Gerard Rennick and Alex Antic abstaining from voting with the government, hopes of it passing were bleak.
By Wednesday, the decision rested with key crossbench senators Stirling Griff and Jacqui Lambie.
Senator Griff said he would not support the bill until it was scrutinised by a parliamentary committee. Senator Lambie didn’t declare her position until Wednesday afternoon, announcing she would not support the bill due to concerns it could discourage voters.
The final blow came when Labor entered into a deal with the Coalition late on Wednesday afternoon to dump the voter ID proposals in exchange for supporting a proposal to crack down on charities’ advocacy work.
Labor previously said that scrapping the legislation would be the first thing it would do if it won government.
– with AAP