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As Christian Porter is protected in the house of representatives, details have emerged of Alex Hawke’s attempt to wedge Labor on immigration. By Karen Middleton.

Coalition attempts to wedge Labor on immigration

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke at Parliament House on Wednesday.
Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has told Coalition colleagues a plan to deport foreign citizens for family-related assaults that Labor was opposing would allow the government to portray the opposition as abandoning vulnerable women.

The minister’s private remarks to Tuesday morning’s Coalition party room meeting came hours before he reportedly agreed to Labor’s request to defer the relevant legislation for two weeks, so a bipartisan position could be reached – then changed his mind.

On Wednesday, the senate rejected the legislation, which would have expanded the offences warranting deportation, including low-level common assault involving family violence. The legislation would have exposed more offenders to deportation by setting the possible maximum sentence as the trigger, not the actual sentence. It also reached backwards, allowing the government to reject offshore visa applications from people convicted of past offences punishable by up to two years’ jail.

After the bill had sat on the notice paper for three years, the government suddenly brought it on this week, with a last-minute family violence amendment attached.

Shadow Home Affairs minister Kristina Keneally exchanged barbed letters with Hawke, outlining three issues of concern.

A furious Keneally told parliament on Wednesday morning Hawke had promised to defer the bill during a private Tuesday lunchtime meeting. A 5pm letter reversed his undertaking.

“Having analysed your request for delay, considered your proposed changes to the Bill, and weighed this against the need to get this Bill passed, the Government has decided to list the Bill for debate tomorrow,” Hawke wrote, rejecting the proposed changes. “… I look forward to working with you proactively on this important area to make our migration program safer for women and children.”

The Saturday Paper has learnt that in his earlier party room address, Hawke emphasised how the bill contrasted with Labor’s policy and that Labor had not yet decided to vote for it.

He suggested opposing it would expose Labor to accusations it protects perpetrators of violence against women and would be a point of political distinction between the parties. Unaware of the remarks, Keneally accused him of orchestrating “a political wedge”.

While it is understood Hawke did not use the word “wedge”, one MP tells The Saturday Paper: “That’s what he meant.”

Hawke is believed to have said Keneally was being disingenuous and Labor was playing tactical games.

When the bill was rushed in on Wednesday morning, Keneally told the senate Hawke had welshed on a deal, something Hawke refused to confirm or deny.

“There is only one person who can make a cabinet minister renege on a deal and that is the prime minister,” she said. “Clearly Prime Minister Scott Morrison has yanked Minister Hawke’s chain.” She said Morrison was playing “politics with domestic violence”.

Hawke told ABC Radio National he had found “almost universal” support for the laws. “It’s simply protecting our society from violent criminals.” He later said Labor must explain why it opposed laws to keep people safe.

With other crossbenchers split, independent Rex Patrick had the casting vote on the legislation. In similar situations previously, Patrick says the government sought his early support. This time, it only approached him after debate began.

Annoyed at being rushed and unclear on why the bill was even needed, Patrick voted against it. He said the minister “already had sufficient discretion to deal with the sorts of conduct that the bill was intending to address”.

Labor raised similar concerns in opposing the original bill in 2018.

Existing deportation law covers serious violent offences and has seen 10,000 foreign citizens deported or detained since 2014.

Labor feared broadening its reach would see lifelong Australian residents deported for misdemeanours.

Many previous deportees were New Zealanders with few connections there, prompting ongoing unsuccessful protests from NZ prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

After generating the conflict with Labor in the senate, the government sparked a different one in the house of representatives, with its own speaker.

It used its numbers to reject Liberal speaker Tony Smith’s recommendation to refer former attorney-general Christian Porter to parliament’s privileges committee for possible contempt.

On Monday, the opposition asked Smith to consider referring Porter over an estimated $1 million in anonymous donations he received to fund his defamation case against the ABC. Porter has said he cannot identify the donors, who contributed to a trust fund, and was forced to quit the ministry as a result.

Smith found Porter had a case to answer.

It was the first time since Federation in 1901 that parliament had refused to back such a recommendation.

In contrast, in the senate, the government backed a similar recommendation by former senate president Scott Ryan to refer tax commissioner Chris Jordan to the privileges committee at Rex Patrick’s request, for ignoring a senate order to produce documents.

While the senate referred Jordan – a public servant – Porter was protected.

Leader of the House and Defence Minister Peter Dutton rejected Smith’s ruling and led the government vote against it.

Dutton had written on Monday to Liberal privileges committee chair Russell Broadbent requesting a broader inquiry instead.

Dutton said other MPs had crowdfunded donations and failed to provide full names. He listed 14 donors who used pseudonyms or first names on a GoFundMe page established to help Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young cover legal costs in a defamation case.

Hanson-Young said only eight of 1800 donations exceeded the disclosable $300 threshold and she had named those donors.

The house vote represents an effective no-confidence in the highly regarded speaker, who is retiring at the next election.

Rejecting his recommendation lessens the risk of Porter quitting politics. The resignation of either Porter or Smith would create an unwelcome byelection unless it occurred close to a federal election. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has speculated that an election could be held as soon as December 11. He said the government’s actions highlighted the need for a federal integrity commission.

Morrison suggested Labor was playing politics. “I want to make sure the rules are right so the integrity is protected,” he told Nine’s Today show.

Some Liberals wondered why Morrison did not simply let the referral proceed quietly and be buried in months of deliberations.

Some suggest the rebuff may be payback for Smith’s no-favours parliamentary umpiring, which has silenced government ministers flouting question time rules, including Prime Minister Morrison.

Smith tangled with Morrison on Monday, refusing to let him attack the opposition while answering a question.

“Thank you, Mr Speaker, I’m well chastised on that matter,” Morrison said.

“I haven’t even started yet,” Smith replied.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 23, 2021 as "Hawke politics".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.