On Tuesday, Scott Morrison warned his colleagues disunity was political death. He told colleagues in the party room: “I’m going to lead, and I’m asking you once again to follow me to an election victory.”
Just before dawn on Thursday morning, five Liberals ignored the prime minister’s exhortation, and crossed the floor in the House of Representatives. The rebellion was bigger than senior figures had anticipated.
The news in the other chamber was no better. As the sun rose, it seemed certain the government would not have the numbers to push its religious discrimination legislation through the Senate. The Liberal senator Andrew Bragg also intended to cross the floor.
But free-range moderates were not the prime minister’s only problem. Morrison was also facing a boilover on the right.
The Australian Christian Lobby was so displeased about events overnight it called for the legislation to be pulled. The ACL’s reverse ferret imperative was promptly echoed by the veteran conservative Eric Abetz.
Conservatives, beyond furious with the moderates, were now baying for blood. Without a course correction, and pronto, there was going to be an explosion.
Bear in mind religious discrimination was supposed to be Morrison’s signature reform; the pinnacle of his prime ministership.
It was also supposed to be a potent political wedge against Labor in the outer suburban contests that will ultimately determine the next government of Australia. But given the insurrection – the public vote of no-confidence by inner-city Liberals in a divisive package that failed to protect vulnerable kids – Morrison’s ability to weaponise religious discrimination in the coming election would be diminished.
So things were bad.
By the time weary MPs lined up in the coffee queue at Parliament House, the government was in full strategic retreat. The bill disappeared from the Senate list. Journalists were briefed that amendments moved by the independent Rebekah Sharkie and passed in the House of Representatives were problematic, according to legal advice. There could be “unintended consequences”.
The attorney general, Michaelia Cash, wrote to the crossbencher making this contention. The letter was released to the media before Sharkie had time to read it. In the letter, Cash told Sharkie “concerns ha[d] been raised”. It was not clear, at least in the correspondence, by whom.
Sharkie was clearly sceptical, given she’d lived through a previous iteration of “unintended consequences” with the medevac legislation. Back then, the government said it had legal advice highlighting problems, but when a redacted version of that legal advice was later released under freedom of information, it wasn’t entirely as advertised.
Sharkie made it clear Cash had not shown her any legal advice. If it was shared, she would consider it very carefully. But the crossbencher insisted the amendments the Liberals had supported on the floor of the House were “sound”.
Things were going to get worse for Morrison.
After question time, the Ten Network political editor, Peter van Onselen, had a rare cabinet leak. On Monday night, when the cabinet met, the prime minister had floated an idea. He would put the government’s shelved national integrity commission bill back on the notice paper for debate.
This gesture would hopefully keep the moderates in the tent for the looming religious discrimination votes – Tasmanian Liberal Bridget Archer in particular. Perhaps some crossbenchers likely to cause trouble on religious discrimination could also be mollified.
But a number of colleagues told Morrison this was a terrible idea; too clever by half, and risky, given the government couldn’t control what its own people and other parliamentary actors might do with an integrity commission once the proposal was on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Van Onselen’s story painted a very grim picture. Here was a prime minister in the dying weeks of parliament willing to horse trade protections for vulnerable children with the resolution of an integrity commission – and being rolled in the process.
I’m confident some version of this conversation certainly happened on Monday night.
But some counsel the dialogue wasn’t exactly as depicted. The more benign version says Monday night was a strategy session with Morrison wondering out loud whether or not there was a universe where the government could kill two birds with one stone – get religious discrimination and the integrity commission through the parliament – rather than some high-octane, hideously transactional, roll of the dice.
Some also contend the prime minister can’t have been rolled on Monday night because there was no firm landing point. No decision, because events were too fluid.
There are always nuances.
But whatever the nuances, fact is the confidential conversation leaked, and it leaked on the day where Morrison had to kick his religious discrimination package into the long grass.
This felt like a direct hit.
An absolute bullseye.
But as direct hits go, this one is passing strange.
These things are clear. The Morrison government, five minutes from an election, is tired and ragged. Relations between moderates and conservatives are strained to breaking point. Unresolved factional poison in New South Wales has disrupted the equilibrium in Canberra.
The rolling tumult of the past fortnight also tells us someone, or more than someone, wants to cause a ruckus. Someone clearly wants to cause Morrison some capital “T” trouble.
But the endgame of this capital “T” trouble is entirely unclear.
If Liberals are planning to roll the prime minister before the election, with the predictable precursor to regicide being random acts of violence – a steady drip feed of leaks, and back biting and free character assassinations – it’s not clear who Morrison’s challenger is.
People close to Peter Dutton swear black and blue that the Queenslander is not moving this side of the poll.
Colleagues also insist that it is not in Josh Frydenberg’s interests to move on Morrison three months out from an election contest he could easily lose. Why would the next big thing render himself yesterday’s man? It has been obvious to anyone watching politics that Dutton and Frydenberg are positioning for an inevitable leadership succession face-off post-election. But there’s no evidence either man has an army marshalling covertly on a beach.
So this is a spiral, no doubt.
But it’s a deeply surreal plunge.