With the opposition and other critics homing in on the issues of his character and integrity, Scott Morrison on Monday played right into their hands.
It was question time on the first day of parliament’s final sitting fortnight for the year (and incidentally, the last day the much-respected Tony Smith would be in the Speaker’s chair).
The issue was an old one, that had been canvassed before, giving all the more reason why the prime minister should have been careful with his words.
Labor MP Fiona Phillips, from the NSW marginal seat of Gilmore (which the government hopes to reclaim) asked Morrison why, when her electorate was burning in the bushfires of 2019, his office told journalists he wasn’t on holiday in Hawaii.
Morrison replied that he’d texted Anthony Albanese “from the plane when I was going on that leave, and told him where I was going and he was fully aware of where I was travelling with my family”.
Half of this was untrue, as Albanese knew full well. Morrison had not said “where” he was going at all. There were some angry exchanges across the table.
After question time, Albanese in a personal explanation said Morrison had not indicated his destination in the text.
Morrison then made his looseness-with-the-truth worse, redefining the meaning of “where”.
“Where I was going was on leave, Mr Speaker, and that was the important thing I sent to the leader of the opposition. […] I told him I was taking leave.”
But soon after, Morrison or his advisers realised the need to get the carpet sweeper out. The PM made another intervention.
In a rare admission, he told the House: “I wish to add to an answer. I want to confirm what the leader of the opposition said, that in that text I did not tell him the destination of where I was going on leave with my family.
"I simply communicated to him that I was taking leave.
"When I was referring to, ‘He knew where I was going and was fully aware I was travelling with my family,’ what I meant was that we were going on leave together.
"I know I didn’t tell him where we were going because, Mr Speaker, that is a private matter where members take leave, and I know I didn’t tell him the destination – nor would I and nor would he expect me to have told him where he [sic] was going.
"I simply confirmed to him that I was taking leave with my family and he was aware of that at that time.”
This is extraordinary. First the PM says he told Albanese “where” he was going and emphasised the point. Then, pushed onto the back foot, he admits he didn’t tell him that and says neither of them would have expected him to do so. It was a spectacular example of Morrison’s penchant to slip and slide around things, but one that, given the written evidence and his own logic, was always going to end badly.
This wasn’t the only untidiness of the day.
In the Senate, five government senators crossed the floor to support Pauline Hanson’s bill to ban discrimination against the unvaccinated. The bill covered federal, state and territory government and the private sector.
Those Coalition senators who voted for the bill were two former ministers, Matt Canavan and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, as well as Alex Antic, Gerard Rennick and Sam McMahon.
Ironically Hanson could not vote for her own bill, defeated 5-44, because she was participating in parliament remotely, which doesn’t permit casting a vote. She had to confine herself to a fiery speech, that was matched by an opposing one from another crossbencher, Jacqui Lambie, who launched a ferocious attack on One Nation.
Hanson said: “State governments are relishing this extraordinary power to command and control […]
"The Victorian government relishes this power so much they’re trying to permanently enshrine it in law, giving the premier unprecedented authority to act like a dictator – and still the prime minister has done nothing to stop this discrimination.”
But Lambie said: “If you want to champion against discrimination, you don’t want One Nation”.
“One Nation is not a fighter against discrimination. One Nation seeks to profit from it. It’s just a fundraising exercise for them and that’s all this is.”
Morrison had facilitated the bill being considered in an attempt to mollify Hanson, who is opposing government legislation generally over the vaccine mandate issue. Despite this gesture, she is maintaining her position.
Senators Rennick and Antic are withholding their votes from the government over the same issue, making the outlook in the Senate chaotic for this fortnight.
On Tuesday the Coalition party room will get the government’s religious discrimination legislation.