Day Two of the 43rd Parliament, and the first Question Time. We might be living in the era of the Great New Paradigm, but it feels awfully like the Same Old Crap.
After yesterday refusing to give Simon Crean a pair to attend the National Press Club, the Opposition relented at 8.30pm last night. I’ve already mused on their possible reasons for doing so. At the time, I wondered if this was a shot across the bow from the Coalition. It seems that I might have been generous in that assessment.
Today in Question Time Brendan O’Connor, Minister for Home Affairs, revealed that he, too, had been refused a pairing arrangement. In this case, though, he wasn’t being denied an opportunity to speak to the media; O’Connor was supposed to attend National Police Remembrance Day services on behalf of the government. This day commemorates and honours all those members of law enforcement who have lost their lives in pursuit of their duty, so it would seem only reasonable that a senior Minister participate. Apparently, the Coalition didn’t agree.
O’Connor went on to note that, as with Crean, the Opposition changed its mind at the eleventh hour, enabling him to attend. Again – what was the point of denying the pairing in the first place? The Coalition only made itself look mean-spirited; the initial denial was a snub to law enforcement, and the backflip was patronising. What does it hope to achieve?
At the moment, all the Coalition has done is give the government ammunition. Every time it denies a pair, the government finds a way to bring that up in Question Time. It’s not even necessary to be nasty about it, either; the person at the despatch box only has to sweetly thank the Opposition for changing its mind, and the damage is done.
Is this really just a way to keep the government on the hop? Keep them guessing, never knowing when a pair might be granted or denied?
The problem of numbers in the House was dealt a further blow today when the Opposition reneged on another part of its parliamentary reform agreement. This concerned changing the standing orders to include ‘re-committing’ votes – that is, allowing a member who didn’t make it into the chamber in time through no fault of their own to cast their vote after the fact. In a delicately balanced House, this would go a long way to assuaging anxieties that an ill-timed trip to the bathroom might be the downfall of legislation.
Only five days ago, Christopher Pyne confirmed that he would honour that part of the agreement. He even indicated that the Opposition might be inclined to grant the right to re-commit in cases where ‘extreme carelessness’ was to blame.
Sounds like a great instance of co-operation, doesn’t it? But don’t get your hopes up.
Today, Pyne moved an amendment that turned a sensible, civil agreement into a potential walk of shame. Now, instead of automatically granting the right to re-commit, a debate will have to be held on whether standing orders can be suspended to allow the vote to be re-taken. The point of the debate is to force the hapless member who had missed the vote can be put through the wringer to justify their absence. This is potentially humiliating. It’s also another weapon in the Coalition’s arsenal. They can now force any member, right up to the PM, to answer a barrage of questions and effectively beg for the right to have their vote counted.
Pyne did this at a time when the government did not have all members present in the House – specifically, Tanya Plibersek was absent, probably through no fault of her own. The irony of using her absence to strike down the very reform designed to prevent such exploitation can surely not have been lost on either Pyne or Abbott – certainly not if their wide smiles were any indication.
So now we have a situation of extreme tension. Both sides will be trying to second-guess each other, to figure out when it might be all right to go to the bathroom, or make an important phone call. John Alexander, newly-elected Liberal Member for Bennelong, joked that it was lucky he was an athlete, since Parliament House was so large that he might not be able to make it to the chamber within four minutes (the time allocated for members to assemble for a vote).
It’s not all that funny, now.
So in the first two days of the new Parliament we’ve seen the Coalition renege on not one, but three parts of the reform agreement it signed in apparent good faith. They’ve refused to pair the Speaker. They’ve embarked on a campaign to create deep uncertainty regarding pairing in general (and I should point out here that pairing is a long-standing arrangement in the Parliament even without these reforms). Now they’ve refused to allow members to re-commit votes.
After the re-committal vote, someone on Twitter crowed, ‘Look out Joolya, here comes the no-confidence motions!’ (sic) Other responses were similarly smug – and even allowing for the vagaries of textual interpretation, the glee was unmistakable. Some of these tweets were from Coalition MPs. They were congratulating themselves for breaking their contract and destabilising the Parliament.
And the government is sinking to the same level. For all that the new Question Time was faster, less obviously argumentative and well-controlled by Speaker Harry Jenkins (who appears to have adopted a ‘Take No Crap’ attitude), the government still engaged in character assassination of the Opposition. Julia Gillard continually accused Tony Abbott of being a ‘wrecker’. Wayne Swan employed some surprisingly subtle insults, and even Kevin Rudd took the opportunity to poke the Opposition about asylum seekers when answering a question about floods in Pakistan.
About the best thing one could say about the new paradigm is that things happen faster, and that the Speaker is less inclined to grant license for personal attacks and antics. That doesn’t however, stop Julie Bishop hiding behind Parliamentary privilege while she attacks Gillard and mangles Shakespearean metaphors. (Dear? Lady Macbeth didn’t kill anyone.)
This isn’t a new paradigm. It’s a new paranoia, and every member of the House – especially on the government side – may well find themselves slipping into a state of hyper-vigilance as they constantly try to work out what’s coming next.
Finally, an annoying autobiographical pause: lately, I’ve faced a few accusations that I am not being ‘fair’ to the Coalition. In my defence, I will say that I am being absolutely fair. I quote where possible, provide references wherever possible, and invite any and all readers to check Hansard, watch or listen to Parliament themselves, and see whether I have misrepresented them.