Tony Abbott, the boy who cried ‘Censure!’

Few would argue that under the current government, Question Time in the House of Representatives has become little more than a farce. Questions from the Opposition tend to be variations on the themes of ‘When will the government abandon its toxic carbon tax’ or ‘When will the government pick up the phone to the President of Nauru’. Add a liberal sprinkling of revisionist history on Building the Education Revolution, a soupcon of ‘you knifed Kevin Rudd’ and garnish liberally with transparent Dorothy Dixers designed to allow the government to verbally bash the Opposition – and you can just about write the script for each sitting day.

Then there’s the censure motions. Out of 28 sessions of Question Time, the Opposition has attempted to suspend standing orders preparatory to censuring the Prime Minister or the Treasurer no less than twelve times. It’s become so common that those who tune in each day to join the Twitter #qt conversation run a mock sweep on what time it will be before Opposition Leader Tony Abbott stands up to utter the familiar lines, ‘I move that so much of standing orders be suspended’. That group includes many members of the media who are physically present in the Canberra press gallery as well as independent journalists, teachers, lawyers, full-time parents, students and a host of others. It’s quite a remarkable cross-section.

There’s no doubt that these constant censure motions are a source of both hilarity and frustration for those watching. On the one hand, the predictable nature of it all is utterly absurd. On the other, however, it disrupts proceedings and wastes the Parliament’s time.

The motions to suspend are always defeated. Really, it comes across as an exercise in futility.

So why do they do it? Is it such a matter of deeply-held principle for the Opposition? Or is it – as many suspect – an opportunity for the Coalition to make long speeches accusing the government of everything from forgetfulness to incompetence to criminal behaviour – all protected by Parliamentary privilege. Factor in the daily Matters of Public Importance – where various Opposition speakers deliver long diatribes to a largely empty House – and it starts to look more and more as though the Coalition are just going with the theory that something repeated often enough eventually enters the public consciousness as truth.

It’s a clumsy ploy, to say the least. And it carries the very real risk that people will not believe, but rather ‘switch off’ as soon as they realise it’s being tried once again.

Today’s Question Time was a case in point.

At 2.25 pm, Abbott moved to suspend standing orders in order to censure the Prime Minister. The immediate reaction from those watching was confusion that he’d chosen to do it so early – usually, the motion happens just before 3 pm. That quickly gave way to the usual dissatisfaction and mockery from the Twitter gallery as the government benches emptied. The consensus could well be summed up as, ‘Meh, we’ve seen it all before’. We had indeed – out of three sessions this week, this was the second time Abbott employed this tactic.

There was one significant difference this time, though. Abbott was acting on a motion brought by Greens MP Adam Bandt earlier today:

That this House:

(1) condemns the Gillard Government’s deal with Malaysia that would see 800 asylum seekers intercepted in Australian waters and sent to Malaysia; and

(2) calls on the Government to immediately abandon this proposal.

That motion passed 70-68, with the support of Independent MP Andrew Wilkie and KAP MP Bob Katter. A similar motion was passed by the Senate in May, making this the first time on Parliamentary record that both Houses had directly condemned the government. It wasn’t quite open revolt – such motions are not binding, but it was a very clear signal to the Prime Minister that she did not have the support of the Parliament on her Malaysia policy.

Her refusal to accede to the motion set up the conditions for a censure, and rightly so. Finally, Abbott had firm grounds. It was an opportunity not to be wasted – but waste it he did.

Unable to confine his argument to condemnation of the Malaysia plan, Abbott couldn’t resist extolling the virtues of Nauru. ‘There is a better way … Nauru is a humane solution! It’s cost-effective! There are no whipping posts in Nauru.’ It was the same argument the Coalition pushed all this week.

Julie Bishop, seconding the motion, was similarly unable to keep to the issue. She covered a wide range of subjects in accusatory tones: ‘She’s betrayed her leader … this arrogant Prime Minister looked down the barrel of a camera and said “There will be no carbon tax under a govt I lead”.’

The vote eventually saw the motion to suspend standing orders defeated – and the effective end of Question Time with less than half of its alloted 90 minutes/20 questions expired. All in all, it accomplished precisely nothing.

Abbott had strong grounds for a censure. He could have built an effective argument based on the Bandt motion alone, stressing the Parliament’s lack of support for a policy widely condemned as futile at best, inhumane at worst. He could have pointed out that a leader prepared to ignore the Parliament’s expressed will set a dangerous precedent. He could have appealed to everything from people’s sense of humanity to the need for democracy to be consultative.

He might have started that way – but he fell back on the same old formula – haul out every campaign slogan, every slur, every tired bit of rhetoric the Opposition has employed against this government. In so doing, he virtually assured it would fail – and he lost the support of any who might otherwise have put aside party loyalties.

Perhaps there was no chance that the censure could work. It would have taken the co-operation of all the Independents, Katter and Bandt to accomplish that. But the attempt was rightly made.

When the vote was defeated, someone on the Opposition benches called out, ‘A moral victory!’

It wasn’t. It was a wasted opportunity to properly criticise the government. And it was a wasted opportunity to gather public support for an issue with potentially dreadful consequences.

Abbott’s cried ‘Censure!’ so many times, and for such trivial reasons. People have come to expect that anything he says on the subject will be the same kind of noise, designed to do little more than get a few sound-bites into the evening news. Crudely put, it just looks like he wants the attention.

Now, at a time when a censure was not only appropriate but almost necessary, no one can be bothered to listen.

The Coalition have already made comments pointing the finger at Bandt, who did not support them on the motion to suspend standing orders. The implication is clear: Bandt doesn’t have the courage of his convictions when push comes to shove.

But really, Abbott’s got no one to blame but himself here. Gillard is free to defy the Parliament – because he couldn’t stop himself from crying ‘Wolf!’ once too often.

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