How the first day of the political year threatened to end the Morrison government

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But shortly after 5pm, the Speaker, Tony Smith, read a document detailing advice from the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General concerning the status of the amendments to the bill under consideration.

The advice was as stodgy as you might imagine a statement on the finer points of the Australian constitution might be.

“In essence the advice to me is that the Senate’s amendments increase ‘a charge or burden on the people’ contrary to the requirements of section 53 of the constitution,” said the Speaker.

There was much more, but there it was: a potential constitutional crisis.

At the very least, the bill would require the appropriation of money (to pay a panel of doctors, at least). In short, it was what is known as a money bill.

With a statement from Speaker Tony Smith, Australia's constitution suddenly came into play.

With a statement from Speaker Tony Smith, Australia’s constitution suddenly came into play.Credit:Louise Kennerley

And if a government were to be defeated on a money bill, it would amount to the House of Representatives declaring a lack of confidence in the government. And that, by historical precedent, would likely lead to the government’s fall.

The Speaker got to the end of the advice he had received, the MPs holding their collective breath.

You might have imagined the Speaker would announce that a constitutional crisis would have to be solved in the High Court.

Not a bit of it.

It was, he intoned, a matter for “for the House as to how it wishes to proceed with the Senate’s amendments.”

Illustration: Matt Golding

Illustration: Matt GoldingCredit:

In other words, it was over to the Members of the House of Representatives to decide the fate of the bill … and, unspoken, the potential fate of the government.

By now, the bill was Bill Shorten’s bill, for he had spent the day negotiating with crossbenchers a slightly modified approach to medical evacuations for refugees.

And somewhere along the way, his legislation declared that doctors on a medical panel would not be remunerated.

Did this mean the legislation was not a money bill, after all?

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Yes, in a word. It gave the more cautious of crossbenchers, who didn’t want to take such a drastic step as to destroy a government over an appropriation bill (shades of 1975), the freedom to support Labor on medical evacuations.

And so began the excruciating arguments and series of divisions and votes, the government losing every one.

Morrison stood in white hot fury and declared “I will not stand here and have this Parliament give itself the excuse to weaken the border protection framework.”

Alas for him.

At 6.13pm, the House reached its final vote on the matter.

With a count of 75-74, it supported Shorten’s bill and effectively displayed a lack of confidence in Morrison and his government.

It was the first time since 1941 that a government had lost a substantive vote on the floor of the House. That brought an end to the 40-day term of Prime Minister Arthur Fadden.

Before that, in 1929, the government of Stanley Bruce lost a vote in the House and he called an election the next day … and was trounced on polling day.

Morrison wouldn’t follow Stanley Bruce’s lead. He’d already ruled it out.

But it had been such a close-run moment, less than three months from the real election.

CLARIFICATION The original article said 1929 was the first time since Tuesday that a government had lost a substantive vote on the floor of the house instead of 1941. 

Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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