Rogue government backbencher George Christensen may be stripped of a lucrative parliamentary role after repeatedly pushing baseless anti-vax claims.
But Prime Minister Scott Morrison has refused to take stronger action on the controversial Queensland MP, pleading with Australians instead to ignore his discredited views.
“As a free country, people are allowed to say what they think but we don’t have to listen to them. They wouldn’t have to amplify their views. And I am certainly not seeking to do that,” Mr Morrison said when quizzed about Mr Christensen’s latest inflammatory statements on Wednesday.
“You can’t go around locking people up for what they say as Australians.
“He is allowed to speak his mind, but Australians should not be listening to him.”
And Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, the leader of the Nationals – to which Mr Christensen belongs – has blasted critics of the maverick MP in a bizarre tirade.
It followed Mr Christensen, the federal member for Dawson, using a podcast to urge parents to avoid COVID vaccinations for children.
Mr Christensen – who posted the podcast link on his blog on Tuesday, under the headline “Do NOT vax your children!” – has described the vaccine drive for children aged five-11 as “nuts”.
“I’m going to get condemned, no doubt, by the media and the rest of them, for saying to people, ‘Do not vaccinate your children’. Do not vaccinate your children. I probably could not say that clear enough,” he said.
Mr Morrison rebuked the comments in a statement on Tuesday, but has deflected any further action to Mr Joyce.
On Wednesday, the PM dodged a question about whether he would seek to have the Nationals MP booted from the Coalition party room.
“I think the most important thing to do is to simply say that these views are not the government’s views, they have in no way whatsoever influenced policy at all,” he said.
However, he did say he was discussing Mr Christensen’s lucrative role as chair of parliament’s joint standing committee on trade and investment growth with Mr Joyce. As a backbench MP, Mr Christensen earns $211,250 a year – with $23,000 more to chair the committee.
But Mr Joyce lashed out at journalists who asked him about Mr Christensen in Brisbane on Wednesday, even alleging that those who called for the Dawson MP to be booted from parliament were committing a crime.
“As soon as what you say starts amounting to a threat of removal from office you‘re in dangerous territory,” he said.
“If you made a direct threat about removing them from office, that’s a crime. You can’t do it.”
Mr Joyce confirmed he had spoken to Mr Christensen about his baseless comments on child vaccination, but refused to go into detail about what was said.
“I don’t intend to go on a tirade about Mr Christensen because it serves no purpose,” he said.
“The only thing that serves a purpose, talk one-on-one. Because otherwise, you’re pumping up your own balloon, and maybe not even helping the issue.”
Mr Joyce also confirmed he had spoken to Mr Morrison about the backbencher’s committee role – but again refused to detail the conversation.
“Quite obviously, if you are at odds with the positions that are held by the medical authorities on this very important issue, that is definitely something that is taken into account,” he said.
Labor was quick to condemn Mr Christensen’s latest comments. Senator Tim Ayres described him as a “far-right anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist” who was “actively undermining public health”, while Senator Nita Green claimed the Coalition MP was spreading “misinformation”.
Mr Joyce has previously warned Coalition colleagues against “prodding the bear” by criticising Mr Christensen. He has claimed that might “make the situation worse for us as a government” by potentially spurring the Dawson MP to quit and force a byelection.
Mr Christensen has already confirmed he will retire from politics at the looming federal election.