Remember back in March, when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott wanted to address an anti-‘carbon tax’ rally on the Parliament House lawns? That was so important, apparently, that he felt it necessary to request a ‘pair’ from the government, in case a vote was called. Even though Abbott was effectively asking for freedom to slander the government and encourage hateful and violent sentiments, Labor granted him that pair. Thus secure in the knowledge that his absence wouldn’t upset any Coalition plans, Abbott hurried off to get himself married to the lynch mob.
Fast forward to around three weeks ago, where Abbott declared that he would not grant pairs to the government during debate over the 13 bills that make up its Clean Energy Future package. He backed up the threat with immediate action, denying a pair to Arts Minister Simon Crean so that he could not attend the funeral of Margaret Olley AC, one of Australia’s great artists. This meant that his own colleague, Malcolm Turnbull, was also unable to attend the funeral. It was a particularly puzzling act – the absence of both Crean and Turnbull would have balanced the numbers anyway – unless you take into account that this was a shot across the bow.
Abbott quickly followed it up by denying the Prime Minister a pair so that she could meet a fellow head of state. In that case, Gillard had no choice but to risk that no vote would be called – it was that, or deliver an inexcusable snub to the President of the Seychelles.
Now it’s Craig Thomson’s turn. You probably remember him – during the last sitting of Parliament, the Opposition used Parliamentary privilege to consistently assert that Thomson was guilty of multiple acts of fraud, and incidentally employed sex workers (because a good ol’ morality campaign never goes astray). The New South Wales police, who looked into the matter after Opposition Senator George Brandis decided to make a few phone calls putting pressure on the state’s Police Minister, announced that it had insufficient evidence to even warrant launching a full investigation – let alone bring charges. Effectively, this means that Thomson has no case to answer, at least in NSW.
Not that this matters to the Opposition. Abbott declared that NSW had very high standards of proof that needed to be met in order to bring charges – so high, in fact, that even with all the ‘evidence’ that it had, it couldn’t go any further. Brandis chimed in with his own brand of spin, asserting there was prima facie evidence of Thomson’s guilt – though apparently the NSW police don’t agree. The message was clear – no let-up on Thomson in the near future.
But the Coalition may have undone themselves this time. As part of the ongoing campaign against the government in general, and Thomson in particular, Abbott has denied Thomson a pair in the upcoming session. ‘No way,’ Abbott said. ‘We have made it crystal clear that only in the most extraordinary circumstances will pairs be offered for the carbon tax vote.’
Well, that’s somewhat softer than his earlier ‘not under any circumstances’ stance. Which begs the question – for what apparently trivial reason has Thomson been denied a pair?
His wife is due to give birth soon.
Yes, you read that right. Attending the birth of your child, supporting your spouse in labour – that’s not enough reason to miss a vote in Parliament.
Remember, this is the man who asked for and received a pair merely in order to attend a violent, hate-filled rally in order to make a speech and get his photo taken in front of signs recommending Gillard burn in hell. It’s arguably ‘extraordinary’ – but more important than being there for the birth of your child?
Abbott prides himself on being a family man. Remember during the election, when he took every possible opportunity to sideswipe Gillard for being unmarried and childless? When his wife Margie accompanied him on the campaign trail, and his daughters sat in the audience during speeches to the faithful? And that’s without listing the numerous times he’s used his ‘Dad’ status to bolster his opinions on everything from abortion to same-sex marriage.
Yet he doesn’t consider the birth of another man’s child sufficiently ‘extraordinary’ to allow a pair.
Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne confirmed Abbott’s statement. He went further, claiming that it was up to the government to make sure it didn’t schedule any votes while Thomson was with his wife and new baby. This is nonsensical in the extreme. Debate and votes are usually scheduled in advance – is Pyne suggesting the government employ a psychic to determine when the birth will be? He also completely ignored the possibility that the Opposition might take advantage of numbers to attempt a suspension of standing orders to attempt a censure or throw the bills back into committee. In other words – what he said is simply meaningless.
Perhaps the Coalition thinks the baby should just wait until it can be squeezed into a packed schedule. After all, ‘the first duty of members of parliament is to be in the parliament when critical votes are taken,’ as Abbott said. Never mind his own record of sleeping through a crucial vote on the ETS under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, or Pyne’s own vote missed through bungled scheduling – a vote that was re-cast after the Coalition insisted it was ‘only fair’ that Pyne be allowed to record his vote anyway.
That baby has no business interfering with the business of Parliament, by the Coalition’s reasoning – and Thomson’s wife should really be more considerate about her timing.
This isn’t just petty politicking. It isn’t even simple, mean-spirited points-scoring. This is sleazy. Not content with smearing Thomson’s reputation from the safety of Parliament (and perhaps not coincidentally, suggesting that he’s a poor husband), Abbott has now attacked Thomson just for wanting to be with his wife when she’ll need him. Apparently Abbott doesn’t realise the contradiction there – he’s as happy to attack Thomson for being a supportive husband as for allegedly being a two-timing lowlife.
With any luck, this will backfire on the Opposition. Thomson was cleared by the NSW police – just pursuing him on that matter runs the risk of looking like a witch-hunt. Add to that the absolutely inexcusable refusal of a pair, and it rapidly takes on the odour of persecution.
It’s a serious misstep – there are few people who wouldn’t make an exception to business as usual for such an important family matter, and even diehard Coalition voters are likely to think Abbott’s gone too far. He needs to back down immediately; he can easily save face while doing so, say he’s consulted with his colleagues, made an exception in this one case, wax lyrical again about the importance of family – really, whatever works. But he needs to do it quickly before he poisons his unending election campaign irrevocably.
A frequent charge levelled by the Opposition is that the current government lacks ‘compassion’. They should scrap the ‘carbon tax’ to show compassion for the ‘forgotten families’. They should send asylum seekers to Nauru to show compassion. They should scrap the mining tax. Et cetera.
This is an opportunity for Abbott to walk his own walk. Grant Thomson a pair, apologise for even suggesting his family’s welfare should be sacrificed, and provide an example with which he can task the government on future occasions.
It’s a win-win, Mr Abbott. But something tells us you won’t see it that way.
Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey considerably softened the Coalition’s stance on the pairing issue this morning. Appearing on the Sunrise program, he informed Environment Minister Tony Burke that, ‘If you tell us when the vote will be I’m sure we will be very reasonable’. (Notice the attempt to make the Coalition’s sleazy tactics the fault of the government?)
Hockey added, ‘We are not going to deny a person the chance to be at the birth of his child’, which seems like a laudable sentiment. Unfortunately, at the same time Abbott was telling the Today Show that he supported Pyne’s comments from yesterday. Confusion in the ranks? Or Hockey caving in under pressure?
A moment ago, Sky News reported that Abbott has since refined his position. Apparently now it might be possible for Thomson to be granted ‘brief relief’ if his wife goes into labour. It’s not at all clear what that means, but it certainly suggests that Abbott would impose a time limit on any pairing granted. In that time limit, Thomson would have to travel from Parliament House to the airport, get a seat on a flight, fly to Sydney, and take a cab from Mascot Airport to the hospital. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to spend supporting his wife.
Presumably, it would be Mrs Thomson’s fault if her labour went longer than Abbott thought it should. Just like it’s the government’s ‘fault’ that the Coalition won’t grant him a pair.