Barnaby Joyce said the quiet part loud when he was asked why the government hadn’t taken stronger action on George Christensen’s dangerous COVID misinformation.
He admitted that, with the Member for Dawson holding no ministry position and already planning to quit, “there’s nothing you can threaten him with”.
Indeed, Mr Joyce admitted further criticising Mr Christensen could blow up in Scott Morrison’s face.
“If you start prodding the bear, you’re gonna make the situation worse for us as a government,” Mr Joyce, the deputy PM and Nationals leader, told the ABC.
“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.”
This week’s rare, unanimous condemnation of Mr Christensen, following false claims that “masks do not work” against COVID, was a long time coming.
As reported by The New Daily, he has been spreading debunked COVID claims for months, mostly on social media but incrementally in more prominent settings such as speeches in Parliament and anti-lockdown rallies.
Until this week, little had been done publicly to rein in Mr Christensen.
But Mr Joyce’s frank admission exposes a stark reality.
On a political level, there’s little the government can now do to stop Mr Christensen doing what he wants, and indeed the Prime Minister risks stepping on an electoral landmine if he goes much further in his criticism.
And Mr Christensen knows it.
To be clear, the action taken by the House of Representatives and government this week was no small thing.
It’s rare for the Parliament to officially “condemn” a sitting member, a step made all the more remarkable by the fact that Mr Christensen’s party had the numbers to stop the debate or vote it down.
They chose not to, which says a lot.
The government allowed the motion to pass ‘on the voices’ without a formal vote, meaning no official count was taken and no names of the motion’s supporters were immortalised in hansard.
NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean was the loudest Coalition voice against Mr Christensen’s rant, branding it “wacko views”.
Selected Coalition members including Warren Entsch, David Littleproud and Darren Chester voiced criticisms, but were more careful to say they simply didn’t agree with the speech.
Mr Morrison was also careful to say he disavowed the general concept of misinformation.
“My government will not support those statements where there is misinformation that is out and about in the community, whether it’s posted on Facebook or in social media or it’s written in articles or statements made in this chamber or anywhere else,” the PM said.
However, as pointed out by Labor MP Mike Freelander – a doctor who spoke passionately in opposition to Mr Christensen’s claims – Mr Morrison didn’t actually mention the Dawson MP in that speech.
On Thursday, Mr Morrison defended his response, calling Tuesday’s motion “a very clear signal on behalf of the entire Parliament” that misinformation was unacceptable.
However, Mr Christensen literally laughed it off, likening it to being “slapped with a wet lettuce leaf”.
Why it won’t stop
At this stage, it’s likely that’s all that will come.
It’s also likely Mr Christensen won’t stop doing what he’s doing. He’s got a thriving and growing social media following, and is about to launch his own news site.
Building his brand as (in his own words to Telegram supporters) “your voice in Canberra” is lucrative, in more ways than one, as he looks to launch a post-Parliament career as a political influencer.
In any case, he’s enjoyed the attention, posting multiple versions of his speech to social channels, and revelling in being “cancelled”.
That’s why Mr Christensen is unlikely to stop. The reason the Coalition likely won’t take much more action is exactly as Mr Joyce said: Numbers and timing.
Australia will hold a federal election within months, due by May.
At that poll, the Coalition wants to hold Mr Christensen’s seat. Further belittling the MP, popular in his home city of Mackay, won’t help.
But more broadly, as seen in recent elections, the Coalition is under pressure on its right flank from One Nation.
Senators Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts have lurched further to the fringe right in recent months by nodding to anti-vaxxer, COVID-sceptic and anti-lockdown sentiments.
A revived Liberal Democrats are tapping the same market.
It’s only a small segment of the population. But in Queensland, where recent vaccine sentiment surveys have found 30 per cent of people are hesitant, it could play a role.
There’s a reason that, when a similar condemnation motion came up in the Senate on Thursday, Senator Hanson gave a strident defence of Mr Christensen and slammed his Coalition colleagues for not doing so.
Anti-lockdown and COVID-sceptic sentiment is also building nationwide, as seen in huge rallies in Sydney and Melbourne.
It’s a small minority, but in a tight election – as this is likely to be – it’s unlikely the Coalition wants to risk losing votes on its right flank.
And as Mr Joyce spelled out, there is also a risk that Mr Christensen packs his bag and leaves before the election.
Fellow COVID sceptic Craig Kelly quit the Coalition for the cross bench under pressure over his thoughts on the pandemic, but when he left the government with the thinnest majority possible – 76 of the 151-seat Parliament – he promised to still support them.
Losing Mr Christensen, not just to the cross bench but potentially from the Parliament entirely, would hurt them more.
With a full election due within months, a sudden resignation could either see an unwanted distraction and diversion of limited resources ahead of an expensive election campaign, or indeed force the whole election to be held earlier than planned.
In any case, even with the bear hanging around the chamber and causing havoc, Mr Morrison likely has little desire to prod him more than strictly necessary.