February 13, 2019 09:57:32
“I’m going to ignore it.”
Those were the words of Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week, as he performed before the friendly audience of Alan Jones and Peta Credlin on Sky News.
The prospect of losing a vote on the contentious medical transfers bill was a matter of annoyance for the Liberal leader, but one he suggested he was prepared to dismiss.
While Mr Morrison might have been indifferent, his senior lieutenants were anything but when the matter came to a head on the first parliamentary sitting day for 2019 — a mere seven days later.
The Prime Minister’s legal eagle Christian Porter took to the stage, armed with 14 pages of constitutional commentary saying the Senate should not be allowed to approve spending of public money.
In demanding the legislation be dismissed, he alleged a vote on the matter would tear at the very fabric of the nation.
“You would be voting against 109 years of House of Representatives practice,” he bellowed at Labor and the crossbench in the House of Representatives.
“You would be voting against maintaining the central feature of responsible government, being that the power to manage public finances is the prerogative of the government formed in the House and not the Senate.
“You would be voting against a motion and putting us as a parliament, and every one of us as parliamentarians, in contempt of the Australian constitution.”
Hardly something to “ignore”, to borrow the Prime Minister’s language.
Despite the vigour with which he delivered his attack, he did not want to even have that fight. The legal advice Mr Porter was relying on, drafted by Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue QC, was meant for Speaker Tony Smith’s eyes only — but he decided to release it publicly.
Mr Donaghue’s advice also included one hell of a caveat — the bill may be unconstitutional, but the usual constitutional cop — the High Court — would likely be reluctant to get involved. So it was up to Parliament to decide how to vote.
After that initial motion was defeated, Leader of the House and newly revealed Narnia enthusiast Christopher Pyne took to his feet.
Normally not one to shy away from the theatrics of parliament, the South Australian took the chamber on a further journey of rhetorical flourishes.
“What the Opposition and the crossbenchers have done today … is decided that they don’t care about the Australian constitution,” he argued, almost losing his voice in the process.
“That they don’t care about the Westminster traditions that form the basis of our constitution and our parliamentary system.
“And I would remind the House that the English fought a civil war over this matter.”
Citing the English Civil War, which led to the execution of a king, the brief establishment of a republic, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, gives an insight into the hyperbole the nation can expect as we crawl towards an election.
It is undeniable previous border protection arrangements led to people smuggling boats making the treacherous voyage to Australia. But the bluster displayed by senior ministers during the vote, in stark contrast to the Prime Minister, shows just how fiery the hyperbole will be during the looming election campaign.
After the vote, Mr Morrison appeared in the Blue Room of Parliament House to attack Labor, but also state such votes “will come and they will go”.
So was it a constitutional crisis or not? The Prime Minister did not suggest it was, but we will find out as the final days of the 45th Parliament play out.
February 13, 2019 06:14:29