It is likely to be a torrid week in federal parliament
Updated: Aug 2, 2021
Parliament resumes this week with two ministers missing from the front bench because they are on sick leave and another still suffering from an infection that hospitalised him.
Out of action ministers for defence, Linda Reynolds, and the attorney-general, Christian Porter, are both on sick leave and health minister, Greg Hunt, is recovering from infectious cellulitis.
The Prime Minister needs to get on the front foot. At the moment, Labor leader Anthony Albanese is cock-a-hoop after the landslide McGowan victory in Western Australia and the damage Scott Morrison has suffered over the Brittany Higgins and Christian Porter sexual assault allegations.
Labor believes there is a grassroots female groundswell that is going to swamp the PM. They see the women’s justice marches that are scheduled for Monday as a political turning point that will destabilise the government between now and the election. They think the government’s choice to avoid meeting with the women will rebound against the Coalition.
This may not be true. Women may not be as anti-government as they think. The Australia Institute conducted a poll of 1000 voters last week to find out the level of support for an independent inquiry into the Porter allegations. 54% of respondents favoured an inquiry and a large number were undecided. The interesting thing was that many more men than women thought an inquiry was a good idea.
The reality is that in the present political environment there is no way that the government can satisfy the female activists and their political supporters.
Women are already criticising the Kate Jenkins review into the culture in parliament house. Although the terms of reference and procedures were determined by Ms Jenkins after discussions with women in the house and the opposition, they are being criticised on the basis that they will discourage women from testifying. There has also been a suggestion that the Solicitor-General should be asked for an opinion on the allegations against Christian Porter. However, when shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, was asked on ABC Radio National breakfast whether he would accept an opinion that favoured Porter he declined to answer. If the government makes concessions its opponents will shift the goalposts.
There are three ways that the government can get on the front foot: dominate the legislative agenda; push back over Christian Porter and finally threaten to call an election.
The industrial relations legislation is due to return to the senate this week. Some crossbenchers have said they will refuse to negotiate on it until the future of the industrial relations minister (Porter) is resolved. The government should put the bill up and tell the crossbench that if they vote against it, they will treat it as a failure to pass. It can then be represented in 3 months and if rejected again form the basis of a double dissolution, which would force crossbenchers like Jacqui Lambie and Rex Patrick to defend their senate spots.
As far as inquiries go, the prime minister should emphasise that the South Australian coroner is that appropriate investigatory agency for the moment. In the event that there is a coronial inquest, it would be imprudent for an administrative inquiry, set up by the government, to canvass the same issues. In the meantime, he should appoint one of his women lawyers as acting Attorney-General. The acting AG is the appropriate person to request an opinion from the Solicitor General. The solicitor general’s opinion should advise on the constitutionality of an inquiry that reviewed matters that would in normal circumstances be decided by a court; and, if appropriate, whether the material provided was of sufficient weight for the PM to ask the AG to show cause why he was a fit and proper person to occupy that role.
The as-yet unrevealed evidence by the complainant’s former boyfriend, James Hooke, would probably not be relevant to this opinion but could be part of the coronial inquiry and should be provided to the South Australian police.
Whatever happens, Christian Porter will have to remain in parliament. His seat is about to be abolished by the electoral commission. If he quits, the government will be another member down because a by-election can’t be held as the seat won’t exist at the next full election.
Peter Dutton will take over as leader of the house. He will be a tougher proposition than Porter has been. The government should use this to ensure that Labor cannot make ground in the current sittings. This is likely to engender a furious response from the opposition and the next two weeks will be increasingly acrimonious.