In Australian politics, there’s a little thing called pairing. Until this Parliament, it was confined to the Senate, but as part of negotiations to form minority government, all parties agreed to extend that arrangement to the House of Representatives. It was all very decent, and designed to ensure that government could function. At the time, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott stated he would ‘honour the agreement’, that he ‘made the agreement in good faith and will keep to the agreement’.
It’s a shame, really, that the agreement was threatened on the opening day of the 43rd Parliament. Two government ministers – Regional and Arts Minister Simon Crean and Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor – were refused pairs. In O’Connor’s case, that would have prevented him from attending the National Police Remembrance Day services, a grave insult to law enforcement.
At the eleventh hour, after considerable pressure from media, the public and (reportedly) their own back bench, the Opposition relented and granted the pairs. Since that time, pairs have been routinely granted. In fact, it looked like the whole incident might simply have been a case of the Opposition testing the waters.
Earlier this week Opposition Leader Tony Abbott announced that he would no longer grant the government a ‘pair’ under any circumstances during the upcoming debate over carbon price legislation. His objective was clear: to force the government to either delay the debate or to renege on its responsibilities to the country. No more appearances at the Press Club. No opening ceremonies for the NBN. No overseas trips to G20 conferences. In other words, to make government unworkable.
Ultimately, of course, Abbott’s aim is to have the government throw up its hands and consign the legislation to the ‘too hard’ basket. But perhaps it’s simply sabre-rattling, another shot across the bow like last year.
This time, though, the Opposition has already made good on its threat – and it’s worth nothing that this happened before any debate on carbon price legislation even started.
Crean was a victim again. He was granted a pair so that he and Malcolm Turnbull could attend the funeral of artist Margaret Olley AC, who died last month. The arrangement was made some time ago, in writing. Today the Opposition withdrew from that agreement.
It was a direct insult to Olley’s family, and to her memorial. As Leader of the House Anthony Albanese commented, ‘It was appropriate that the Australian government be represented … [and there is] no one more important than the Arts Minister to do so’. Not that this apparently mattered to the Opposition.
As if that wasn’t enough, Abbott also withdrew a previously granted pair from the Prime Minister. She was scheduled to meet today with the visiting President of the Seychelles. Protocol for these matters demanded her attendance, and as a result she had no choice but to be absent from the chamber and missed a vote.
And about that vote …
In recent days Member for Dobell Craig Thomson has come under fire from the Opposition over a convoluted series of events involving a mobile phone, one (or possibly more) escort agencies, a defamation suit and a legal defence fund. Basically, the accusations boil down to this: that Thomson, while working for the Health Services Union, misused his corporate credit card to splurge on sex workers, sued Fairfax newspapers for defamation about it and ran up such a huge legal bill that he needed the Labor Party to bail him out just so that he could avoid bankruptcy and stay in Parliament.
Never mind that Thomson is not charged with any offence. Never mind that the HSU isn’t looking to recover funds. Never mind, in fact, that Thomson has always claimed that others had access to both the credit card and the mobile phone in question. The Opposition think they smell blood in the water, and want Thomson gone so they can force a by-election.
Much of the pressure has come under the umbrella of Parliamentary privilege, which means that Thomson can’t stop the Opposition from stating as fact what amounts to little more than conjecture. Neither can the Prime Minister prevent the now-constant insinuations that she knew what was going on and may even have colluded in some wrongdoing. But that’s not all – Senator George Brandis, apparently acting in his capacity as Shadow Attorney-General, wrote to the New South Wales police urging them to open an investigation. He seemed disgruntled by the news that the Australian Federal Police had already said there was no grounds for such an inquiry.
Yesterday the NSW police said they’d assess whether it was worth opening an investigation. This is pretty much standard procedure when they receive a complaint. That didn’t stop Abbott claiming in Parliament that Thomson was ‘under investigation’, of course. Nor did it stop Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne from attempting to force Thomson to front Parliament and ‘explain himself’.
That was the vote that Gillard missed. Fortunately for the government, the Coalition failed to get an absolute majority of 76 votes, which is required for such procedural motions. Nonetheless, Pyne claimed a moral victory because more people had voted for the motion than against it.
(Sound familiar? Remember Abbott’s ‘moral victory’ at the 2010 election, otherwise known as ‘we got more seats than you’?)
It was an exercise in blatant hypocrisy. Under the Howard government, the Coalition repeatedly refused to force MPs and Senators whose behaviour was in question to explain themselves to Parliament. Famously, this included former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who was saved from having to answer questions from all comers about his knowledge of the Australian Wheat Board Scandal.
Here are a couple of choice quotes:
Prime Minister John Howard, 2007: ‘The appropriate thing for me to do is to let the police investigation run its course’.
Senator George Brandis, 2007: ‘We’re entitled to the presumption of innocence.’
It seems that presumption doesn’t extend to a Labor Parliamentarian, however. Thomson has already been pressured to resign as Chair of the Economics Committee (although he is still a member), and the calls for him to resign from Parliament altogether are becoming increasingly shrill.
Meanwhile, Senator Mary Jo Fisher, currently the only Parliamentarian who is charged with a criminal offence, absented herself from her position as Chair of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Communications, but retains it. That position earns her $12,000 per year.
She, however, has the full support of not just her party, but all sides of government:
Tony Abbott – ‘The party is right behind her and supporting her in this tough time.’
Senator Nick Xenophon – ‘The presumption of innocence is paramount.’
Anthony Albanese – ‘She’s entitled to that presumption of innocence.’
Craig Thomson, apparently, is not – at least according to the Coalition.
Really, it’s all about overthrowing the Labor government by any means necessary. If that means offering insult to visiting dignitaries or families of Australians, so be it. If it means hiding behind Parliamentary privilege in order to smear a man charged with no crime, that’s okay too. (But not, mind you, if it’s a case where the Coalition might lose any of its own Parliamentary influence.) The Department of Dirty Tricks is working overtime – and the tactics just get more and more questionable.
The Opposition have tried to excuse themselves at every turn, but the reality is that they have reneged on an agreement they signed in 2010, abused Parliamentary privilege and attempted to interfere with the work of the judiciary. Then there are the constant accusations of corruption in Treasury and the Solicitor-General’s Department.
Albanese commented today that Abbott appeared to think that the Lodge was his birthright.
It’s hard to disagree with that suggestion. And more and more, it seems that the Opposition isn’t going to let a little thing like democratic process get in the way of helping Abbott achieve his ambition.