Scott Morrison has tried to downplay a sensational split inside his party as five Coalition senators crossed the floor to oppose the government on a controversial vaccine bill.
The split is just the first taste of what is expected to be a chaotic week in the upper house, which could derail government plans to rush through controversial changes on religious discrimination and voter ID laws.
As the Prime Minister tries to run a new line attacking state government vaccine mandates, Labor is accusing him of “double speak” by resurfacing previous comments expressing his wish for COVID-19 jabs to be “as mandatory as you can possibly make it”.
“I don’t understand why it’s difficult for a Prime Minister to say that he supports state governments and the health orders,” Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said.
As Parliament’s final sitting fortnight kicked off on Monday, all eyes were on the Senate, where Coalition senators Gerard Rennick and Alex Antic threatened to withhold their votes from the government, in a dispute over state government rules restricting unvaccinated people from entering shops and hospitality venues.
The government gave Senate precedence to Pauline Hanson’s unpopular push for new “anti-discrimination” protections for the unvaccinated, following her threats to cause “mayhem” in Parliament’s final week if she didn’t get her way.
Senators Antic and Rennick backed Senator Hanson’s bill, as did fellow Coalition members Matt Canavan, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Sam McMahon.
The pitch was voted down 44-5, with all other government members opposing it.
Labor’s Kristina Keneally accused the government of “pandering to these extremist elements”, while independent senator Jacqui Lambie gave a blistering speech to say choosing not to have a COVID vaccine was not “discrimination”.
“Those choices have consequences. You cannot call the consequences of every choice ‘discrimination’,” Senator Lambie told Parliament.
At a press conference shortly after the Senate vote, Mr Morrison downplayed the significance of five Coalition senators splitting from the government, saying his party does not “run as an autocracy”.
“I respect the fact that individual members will express a view and vote accordingly for those what happened today. We can deal with any differences that occur from time to time,” he said.
Earlier, Finance Minister and government Senate leader Simon Birmingham urged colleagues not to “to hold one issue ransom to other unrelated issues”.
He called it a “time-honoured tradition” for Coalition MPs to cross the floor, but that it should be “used sparingly”.
But Labor seized on the Coalition chaos, in a week when the government may introduce long-awaited bills on religious discrimination and a federal integrity commission.
Opposition MP Tim Watts said the Coalition had “completely broken down”, describing the government as “a wrecking yard”.
Labor accuses Morrison of ‘double speak’
Mr Morrison told his press conference the government didn’t support Senator Hanson’s bill because it would “threaten funding for hospitals and schools to states”.
However, the Prime Minister has railed against vaccine mandates in Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Queensland specifically, saying unvaccinated people should be able to visit cafes.
Mr Albanese pointed out that New South Wales has the same rules, with Liberal Premier Dominic Perrottet also presiding over restrictions that would ban unvaccinated people from sitting at hospitality venues until at least mid-December.
“If you want to unite the country and lead the country, you can’t have a different thing to say about a state government in Queensland that happens to be led by a Labor Premier and something different to be said about NSW that’s led by a Liberal Premier,” Mr Albanese said.
He accused Mr Morrison of “double speak” on vaccines.
“In order to attend a Prime Minister’s press conference, you have to be fully vaccinated,” he told Sky News.
“I was in a pub on Thursday night [in Sydney] … Everyone had to show their vaccinations to be able to get in. No one was complaining.”
Mr Morrison told Parliament that the federal government backed mandatory vaccines for health and aged-care workers only.
He said businesses, venues and airlines have the “right under the law” to require their employees to be vaccinated.
“But it is not the Commonwealth government’s policy that they should be told to do that,” Mr Morrison said.
Morrison’s past quotes
Labor’s press team later circulated to journalists a list of previous quotes from Mr Morrison where he appeared to strongly support vaccine mandates.
In an August 2020 interview on 3AW, when asked if COVID-19 jabs would be “mandatory”, the PM said he “would expect it to be as mandatory as you can possibly make it”.
Mr Morrison went on to say that “medical grounds … should be the only basis” for a vaccine exemption.
Later in that interview, host Neil Mitchell raised the prospect of anti-vaxxers complaining about vaccine mandates.
Mr Morrison responded: “I’m used to that. I was the minister that established ‘no jab, no play’. So my view on this is pretty clear and not for turning.”
Labor also dug up previous quotes from Mr Morrison when, as social services minister, he instituted the ‘no jab, no play’ rules for parents receiving childcare benefits.
A 2015 joint press release from Mr Morrison and then-PM Tony Abbott said parents “should have confidence that they can take their children to child care without the fear that their children will be at risk of contracting a serious or potentially life-threatening illness because of the conscientious objections of others”.
The press release said the government was “extremely concerned at the risk” that conscientious objections to vaccination “poses to other young children and the broader community”.
“The choice made by families not to immunise their children is not supported by public policy or medical research, nor should such action be supported by taxpayers in the form of child care payments,” Mr Morrison and Mr Abbott’s statement read.