I think we all owe Opposition Leader Tony Abbott an apology.
There’s been so much criticism of the Opposition for refusing to work with the government to pass significant reforms. As each bill comes up for debate, they propose a raft of amendments or try to push the bill back to a Senate committee. They push votes wherever possible, calling for divisions as a way of gambling on the reality of minority government to perhaps deliver them an unexpected win. At every turn, they’ve made it clear that they’re just not interested in co-operation.
And the government doesn’t exactly have clean hands on this issue, either. For all the talk of offering olive branches and a seat at the table for Opposition MPs, they’ve carefully manoeuvred to ensure that if this did occur, it would undermine policy positions.
But really, we’ve judged them too harshly. Last week we saw a heartwarming display of bipartisanship. Two, in fact, one right on the heels of the other. We saw what happens when major parties work together.
What we saw was the major parties banding together to kill two Private Member’s Bills on the second reading.
Just what were these bills, that they could prompt such a lockstep response?
One was from Independent Andrew Wilkie. The other was from Greens MP Adam Bandt. Both addressed the issue of live exports. Wilkie urged the government to – at a minimum – ensure that Australian standards of humane slaughter be insisted upon as part of contracts with other countries, while urging a permanent ban on trading with countries that did not meet these standards. Bandt called for the outright abolition of the trade, insisting that it made both economic and compassionate sense for slaughter to take place in Australia, under Australian standards.
The two MPs supported each other, which was why they were able to call for a division when the second reading came to a vote. It was a pitiful sight, however, to see Wilkie and Bandt sitting together to the right of the Chair, while the major parties crowded in to sit shoulder to shoulder on the Opposition benches. The scene wasn’t helped by an apparent technical problem which shut off half the lights in the Chamber, casting a rather dismal gloom over already depressing proceedings.
With less than five Members voting for the bills, there was no need to take a count in either case. Wilkie and Bandt got their names recorded in Hansard, but that was it.
A futile gesture? Perhaps. Certainly Bandt was well aware that the major parties had no intention of supporting his bill, and remarked on it in his second reading speech. Both he and Wilkie sat with rueful yet resigned expressions during the division.
But was it simply a waste? After all, this isn’t the first time that the major parties have joined forces to shut down the minority members. In the Senate, for example, the Greens suffer this on a regular basis. Just ask Senator Sarah Hanson-Young how often she’s tabled a bill on same-sex marriage, or protection for asylum seekers. In every case, Labor and the Coalition have killed those bills. In fact, it’s a wonder that Bandt’s motion calling on MPs to canvass their electorates on same-sex marriage was passed at all.
But then, that was a non-binding resolution. A toothless tiger, effective only to the extent that anyone felt like going along with the recommendation.
Minority government has the potential to open up Parliamentary proceedings. One vote can make all the difference, as we’ve seen a number of times (notably when Rob Oakeshott nearly provoked a crisis by voting against a Speaker’s ruling). Some feel that there’s an imbalance at work there, that these ‘balance-of-power’ Members wield influence far above their actual representation.
Yet no one provides commentary on a minority government where there is little difference between the major parties. For all the Opposition is out there trying to erode confidence in the government on matters as diverse as carbon pricing and plain packaging for cigarettes, they are quick to close ranks when a minority Member proposes a socially liberal or environmental policy. In fact, the major differences between Labor and the Coalition on such matters are largely a matter of detail. Both are committed to mandatory offshore detention; both are resolutely opposed to same-sex marriage; both have no interest in overhauling the live export industry. Ultimately whether one supports Nauru and the other supports Malaysia as an asylum seeker destination is irrelevant; both oppose the idea of on-shore detention, or even doing away with a mandatory detention system at all.
So when the Greens pop up with a bill challenging these essential statuses, the differences melt away to nothing, and suddenly we have a united Parliament. It’s arguable, in fact, that much of the Opposition’s obstructionist stance towards Labor stems from purely ideological opposition to the presence of the Greens and Independent support of the government. The rhetoric’s a dead giveaway at times – remember ‘Labor may be in government, but the Greens are in power’?
It says something about a government when bipartisanship is something that gets employed not for the good of the country, but primarily to silence minority voices. What we have now is a far cry from the united efforts of successive government to dismantle the White Australia Policy. ‘Opposition for opposition’s sake’ is not simply an accusation to be levelled at the Coalition; the government appears to enthusiastically embrace that stance when it comes to matters as diverse as gambling machine reform and live exports, despite a lot of high-flown rhetoric about caring for animal and human welfare.
But hey – on the bright side, at least we know the major parties are capable of working together. I’m not sure you can call it bipartisanship, though – more like bipartisan bullying. The equivalent of two schoolyard gangs banding together to make sure the little kids and the nerds don’t get to the canteen before the bell rings.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had real bipartisanship? If we had elected representatives that worked together for the good of the country instead of simply using their majority to silence minority voices?
Yeah, I know … tell her she’s dreaming.