Day of high farce ends on a low note
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Day of high farce ends on a low note

At 4.30 on Thursday afternoon the Prime Minister and the Opposition leader began their valedictory speeches - the nice end-of-year speeches where they set aside partisan politics for a moment and gesture to the higher values of family and peace on earth.

About 15 minutes earlier, Leader of the House Christopher Pyne tweeted this: “Labor has chosen to allow terrorists and paedophiles to continue their evil work in order to engage in point scoring”.

Lonely at the top: Prime Minister Scott Morrison during debate in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra on  Thursday.

Lonely at the top: Prime Minister Scott Morrison during debate in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra on Thursday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

It was less than Christmassy. (He later deleted it.)

Pyne was referring to the stalled passage of so-called encryption legislation, which gives police the power to surveille encrypted messages.

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That legislation, the Prime Minister had said earlier in the day, needed to be passed immediately, or we would risk said bad guys (terrorists and paedophiles) threatening our national security over Christmas.

But the encryption legislation was held up while the Senate debated amendments to other legislation, amendments backed by Labor and the Greens, and opposed by the government, that would allow asylum-seekers to be transferred more easily to Australia from offshore processing centres based on medical advice.

The government said Labor was deliberately delaying the encryption bill to embarrass it over the medical transfer legislation.

It was these two sets of legislation that were at the centre of the giant parlia-storm that broke on Thursday afternoon, the details of which which ordinary people with normal lives to get on with, may have missed.

Both sides blamed the other as Coalition senators stalled debate on the medical transfer amendments.

Why stall? Because if those amendments were passed and sent back to the lower house, they might have passed there too, against the wishes of the government.

The government would have been in the odd, near-once-in-a-century position, of having laws it opposed, enacted, on its watch.

That would have put it in an embarrassing and untenable position.

So instead, it chose to delay all business until the House of Representatives shut down for the year.

The government decided it would rather no bills get processed, not the embarrassing medical transfers one, and not the paedophile-and-terrorist blocking one either.

It was high farce, with Cory Bernardi deliberately delaying the whole show in the Senate, Penny Wong being accused of “bad manners”, and the Senate President giving everyone a toilet break about 4pm, because they had been at it for more than two hours without one.

It was difficult to feel sympathy for them, or their bladders.

After the House of Representatives rose, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten hoisted himself up to the moral high ground and offered to pass the encryption laws (unamended) in the Senate, effectively capitulating to the government on that legislation.

"I couldn't go home and leave Australians over Christmas without some of the protections we all agree are necessary," he said, with sad gravity.

"Someone has got to act ... like the grownup in the room. We are ready for that."

So what does it mean for us kids, the ordinary people?

It shows that the government is so afraid of a humiliating defeat in the lower house that it was prepared to sacrifice the passage of legislation it said was vital to our national security, while using it as an opportunity to frame the opposition as helping terrorists and paedophiles.

It shows the Opposition is prepared to play as dirtily on tactics as former opposition leader Tony Abbott did during Julia Gillard's minority government.

But anyway, Merry Christmas. And Happy New (Election) Year.

Jacqueline is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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