Politics

The Government Just Sacrificed Its Encryption Bill So It Didn’t Have To Help Kids On Nauru

"This is everything that's wrong with this place."

UPDATE: In an 11th hour move, Bill Shorten has given in to government demands to pass the encryption legislation, saying he needs to put national security first.

“I will not sacrifice the safety of Australians because Mr Morrison doesn’t have the courage to deal with issues in the house of representatives,” he said. “We are not going to go home and leave the Australian people on their own over Christmas with inferior laws of national safety”.

The laws have now passed the Senate.


EARLIER: The government just sacrificed its precious encryption bill — the one it’s been saying is an urgent measure that will help prevent terrorist attacks — in order to prevent Labor from passing a bill to evacuate the remaining kids on Nauru. If you’re confused and disgusted, you’re not alone. Here’s what’s going on:

Basically, today the government and Labor both had a top priority in Parliament. The government wanted to pass its encryption bill, aimed at expanding law enforcement’s powers to access suspected criminals’ messages. Labor and the crossbench, meanwhile, wanted to force a vote on what we’ll call the ‘Nauru bill’, which was aimed at speeding up the medical transfer process that can help get kids off Nauru.

What happened in Parliament today was messy, but the short version is this: given the choice between getting work done quickly (allowing both bills to pass), or stalling and wasting time (allowing neither bill to pass), the government chose to stall. It decided to sacrifice its supposedly critical encryption bill rather than face the humiliation of being forced to help kids on Nauru.

How Did This Turn Into A Fight Between Encryption And Nauru?

It all came down to timing, and the government’s willingness to be humiliated. Here’s why.

Today was the last day of Parliament for 2018, so both bills needed to pass both the House and the Senate today in order to become law. Anything that didn’t pass both houses today would need to wait until Parliament starts up again next year — that’s months away.

Both the government and the opposition really, really wanted their bills to pass today. The government has been arguing for weeks that the encryption bill is absolutely crucial to national security and cannot wait until the new year (experts, it should be noted, disagree). The opposition, meanwhile, desperately wanted to push the Nauru bill through today, arguing similarly that the legislation cannot wait because the lives of refugees still on Nauru are at risk.

Now, the government had Labor’s support to pass the encryption bill. It could, in theory, have allowed both bills to pass. But the Nauru bill passing would have been hugely embarrassing for the government, because it would have involved them losing a vote in the House of Representatives (now that the government has lost a few members, Labor and the crossbench combined have the numbers to defeat them).

Why Is The Government Getting Defeated In The House Of Reps Such A Huge Deal?

The government was so scared of that scenario because it’s incredibly rare for the government to be defeated in a vote on legislation in the House of Representatives.

In fact, the last time a government lost a vote on legislation in the House of Reps was 1929, nearly 90 years ago (they have lost votes on procedure, which is slightly different, more recently). It’s such a big deal that governments in the past have just admitted defeat and called an election after losing a vote in the House of Reps, because it basically shows that they’ve lost control and can’t even pass their own laws.

To be clear, nothing would have forced the government to call an election if the Nauru bill passed, but it would have been super embarrassing. So embarrassing, in fact, that they were willing to do almost anything to avoid it — this morning, Scott Morrison said he’d use “whatever tool or tactic I have available to me to ensure that we do not undermine our border protection laws”.

Those tools and tactics pretty much boiled down to one thing: wasting time. Because the Nauru bill started in the Senate, it had to be passed there before moving to the House of Representatives. So the government basically tried to make the Senate debate last as long as possible, even though they knew that would also mean running out of time to pass the encryption bill.

The Senate this afternoon was an absolute farce as a result. Government senators took to filibustering, giving extremely long speeches and moving amendments to try to drag things out. They called long votes on every single tiny amendment, and at one point even asked for a toilet break to delay proceedings. Someone asked leave to wish everyone a merry Christmas, also as a delay.

“This has been a disgrace, a shambles, and you should be ashamed of yourselves,” Richard di Natale said around 4pm, pointing out that the major parties were playing politics over a bill aiming to help people being tortured on Nauru.

“This is a stain on the Australian nation,” he said. “We had an opportunity to come together and actually do something decent. And what have you done? You’ve played politics.”

Labor’s Penny Wong had similar criticism to make. “I think it’s a real indictment that politics has come before national security for the government. That’s how desperate they are,” she said.

Unfortunately, nothing changed. The government continued to waste time until 4.30, the time when the House of Representatives normally adjourns for the day. Most days, the government moves to extend debate for longer, but today they stayed silent.

If you followed none of that, here’s the upshot: neither the encryption bill nor the Nauru bill passed before the Parliamentary year ended. The government actively chose to sacrifice its supposedly urgent national security bill so that it didn’t have to provide better medical assistance to kids and families on Nauru.

That pretty much sums up this year in politics, if we’re being honest. See you in 2019.