Barnaby Joyce has warned colleagues that applying too much pressure to a rogue MP spreading coronavirus misinformation could risk the government’s wafer-thin margin.
The Nationals leader has voiced his disagreement to Queenslander George Christensen after he used parliament to claim lockdowns and masks don’t work.
But Mr Joyce said there is no threat he can issue to the backbencher that would stop him from contradicting official health advice.
“I know how George’s mind works. If you start prodding the bear, you’re going to make the situation worse for us as a government, not better,” Mr Joyce told the ABC on Thursday.
“I’ll say that to my colleagues, I can assure you that when you’ve got a thin margin, don’t start giving reasons for a by-election.”
The Morrison government holds a one-seat majority in the lower house.
Mr Christensen has announced he will retire at the next federal election but a decision to quit early would trigger a by-election in his LNP seat of Dawson.
In a rare move, Liberal, Nationals and Labor MPs condemned Mr Christensen’s parliamentary outburst through a motion in the lower house earlier in the week.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison accused Labor of playing political games after being asked about Mr Joyce raising the dangers of a by-election.
“We, as a group of elected officials, I thought sent a very clear message against misinformation in this parliament,” Mr Morrison said in Question Time.
“But what we see today, not even 48 hours later, the Labor Party comes in here and even seeks to undermine the bipartisanship it sought to promote two days ago.”
Labor on Thursday attempted to condemn Mr Christensen along with anti-lockdown government senators Matt Canavan and Gerard Rennick in the upper house.
But the government narrowly succeeded in having the two upper house members’ names deleted from the motion.
Government Senate leader Simon Birmingham argued Queensland Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and federal candidate Michelle Ananda-Rajah had undermined the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“Why on earth don’t we see the equivalence in approach taken from those opposite in relation to all of those?” Mr Birmingham told parliament.
Greens senator Larissa Waters said the Prime Minister’s failure to pull up “dangerous fools” in the coalition could threaten lives.
Senator Canavan said Labor wanted to turn all politicians into “noddies” who mindlessly agree with governments.
“This motion seeks to turn this house of review into a house of censorship.”
Labor Senate leader Penny Wong accused the Prime Minister of weakness in refusing to directly rebuke the government members.
The amended motion, which condemned Mr Christensen and called on all politicians to stop making ill-informed comments during the pandemic, passed 33 votes to four.
Senator Canavan, fellow Nationals’ representative Sam McMahon, One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts and independent Jacqui Lambie voted against it.
One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson has publicly supported Mr Christensen’s “right to speak out”.