The Morrison government has been accused of delaying legislation until “five minutes to midnight” as it tries to end the parliamentary year delivering on key election promises.
With parliament scheduled to resume sittings on Monday for the final fortnight before the summer break, the government is set to release legislation for a religious discrimination act and a bill to establish a commonwealth integrity commission.
Both were key commitments before the 2019 election, but stalled during the pandemic, and the government has been criticised after releasing initial draft legislation for each measure.
Labor’s climate change spokesperson Chris Bowen accused the government of “fiddling” for the past three years, and only reviving the legislation now an election was in sight.
“If this was important to Scott Morrison, he could have done it at any time over the last three years,” Bowen told Sky News on Sunday.
“Let’s not accept any of these excuses about he had other things to do. He could have done an Icac, he could have done religious freedom. He doesn’t believe in either.
“He’s been fiddling. He’s done nothing. And now as the election approaches, all of a sudden he finds a religious freedom bill in the top drawer, which has been gathering dust for three years.”
The attorney general, Michaelia Cash, has been consulting on the revised religious discrimination bill, with the Coalition party room expected to consider the legislation on Tuesday.
Moderate MPs are reserving their right to cross the floor over the bill, concerned about a statement of belief clause that overrides other state anti-discrimination laws and a positive discrimination right for faith-based institutions.
MPs are yet to see the legislation, but the employment minister Stuart Robert said he did not expect everyone to be happy with the scaled-back bill.
“No one gets everything they all want in public policy, I think that’s a given on all sides of debate,” Robert told Sky News.
Bowen said that if the government wanted “constructive engagement” with Labor on the bill – whose support may be necessary for it to pass into law – then it needed to resolve divisions on its own side first.
“They promised it before the last election, and here we are at five minutes to midnight, fiddling,” Bowen said.
“So before it even gets to what the Labor party does, they need to get their own house in order.”
‘Weak watchdog worse than none’
Negotiations are also continuing on the new federal integrity commission, which has also divided government MPs, with many wanting the bill to allow for public hearings and for its remit to be broadened.
Ahead of the anticipated release of the bill, the Centre for Public Integrity put forward an “integrity test” for any revised legislation, outlining five principles it would need to include to be effective.
These include a broad jurisdiction, strong royal commission powers, public hearings and reports, own motion powers and no evidence of criminal offence required in order to begin investigations.
“A weak watchdog is worse than none at all. It allows corruption to continue behind the veil of secrecy,” said Anthony Whealy, chair of the Centre for Public Integrity.
On Friday, the independent MP Helen Haines accused the government of effectively abandoning its pre-election commitment, saying there was not enough time to legislate the anti-corruption body before the next election.
But Robert said he expected the election to be held in May and the government was continuing to negotiate on the integrity commission model.
“The election is still a good six months way, so there is plenty of time for us to move forward on what we took to the Australian people three years ago,” Robert said.
Packed legislative agenda
Robert also said the Indigenous affairs minister, Ken Wyatt, was pushing ahead with plans for an Indigenous voice to parliament, but the government wanted this to be a bipartisan commitment.
“We want something that all Australians can embrace and Ken Wyatt is doing an extraordinary job, working with 51 Indigenous Australian peak bodies to try and bring something to the table that we can all agree with,” Robert said.
Wyatt is expected to take the final report from the co-design panel to cabinet as early as this week, with its release “imminent”, but there are mixed views about the merits of pushing ahead with legislation without fulfilling a pledge for constitutional recognition.
As the government seeks to “clear the barnacles” before the end of the year, it is also determined to try to pass controversial voter ID laws that have been criticised as likely to suppress the vote, particularly among Indigenous Australians.
The packed legislative agenda is unlikely to be smooth sailing for the government, with at least two of its own senators vowing to withhold support from the Coalition unless Morrison meets a range of demands, mostly around vaccine mandates.
One Nation’s Pauline Hanson has also promised to cause “so much mayhem” over the issue, and has suggested she could vote against the voter ID laws, despite previously claiming credit for the Coalition’s policy.
Ahead of parliament’s return, Labor’s shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers goaded the government into a fight on the economy, pointing to rising petrol prices and flatlining wages.
“If he (Morrison) wants to have an election on the fact that petrol prices have gone up on average over the last year something like $900 for an average family with an average car, at the same time as real wages have gone backwards $700 over the last year, then we say bring it on,” Chalmers told ABC’s Insiders program.
“I think that should be central to an election about the economy, about living standards, and about the prime minister’s failures on economic management.”