Question Time in the House of Representatives has always contained an element of theatre. We’ve come to expect, even look forward to it. There’s nothing like a well-aimed barb or clever turn of phrase to liven up what could otherwise be an intensely boring evasion disguised as an answer. Just look at Treasurer Wayne Swan’s responses, for instance. The insults are clumsy, and the figures are dull. Defence Minister Stephen Smith has a similar problem – there just aren’t that many amusing things to say about war – but he’s accorded a little more respect, given the serious nature of his portfolio. They’re the exceptions rather than the rule, though. For the most part, we can appreciate the wit – and occasionally, the artistry – in a well-crafted question or answer.
But there are some things you don’t exploit, that you don’t trivialise, in order to make political points. You just don’t.
Unless you’re Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop, apparently.
Bishop, who also shadows Foreign Affairs, has come in for a great deal of criticism lately, for asking Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd questions about everything except matters related to his portfolio. It’s a bit of a joke, really, and more than a few commentators have speculated about the apparent flirtation being carried on across the despatch box.
Today, she started her question by asking about the recent coup d’etat in the Maldives – and people sat up and took notice. Could this finally be a relevant question?
She went on to describe the situation like this: Mohammed Nasheed, the democratically-elected leader of the Maldives was turfed out by his deputy Doctor Mohammed Waheed Hassan, who claims not to have been involved in any plotting. The deputy, in fact, claims that there was no coup, and that Nasheed resigned voluntarily. Given the accounts conflicted so strongly, the police had announced their intention to investigate both stories.
Wouldn’t Mr Rudd agree that the deputy should ‘come clean’ with his people about his level of involvement? Wouldn’t Mr Rudd agree that ‘honesty’ was important?
It doesn’t take a literary scholar to see the subtext there. Bishop explicitly drew a parallel between Rudd being ousted as Prime Minister and an armed, violent coup. She likened factional intra-party wrangling to the beating, torture and detention of civilians.
And the Opposition front benches, led by the loud voice of Leader Tony Abbott, erupted into raucous, derisive laughter and calls of ‘Good one!’
Rudd started with a pointed comment about the scarcity of foreign affairs questions, but there was no humour in the rest of his answer. He tore into Bishop and the Opposition for trivialising the situation in the Maldives, his anger clearly visible.
And rightly so. The question was utterly offensive. It dismissed people’s suffering, and made an absolute mockery of people’s fear. It invited us to have a chuckle – to excuse thuggery and institutionalised violence. That the Speaker did not immediately rule the question out of order is puzzling. Perhaps he felt that Rudd would satisfactorily deal with the issue.
But really, it’s not that surprising that Bishop would come with such a contemptible tactic. Look at the language the Opposition have used to describe Rudd’s forced resignation and Gillard’s assumption of the Prime Ministership. Rudd was ‘knifed’. Gillard ‘assassinated him’. It was ‘a dark day’ when a ‘democratically elected leader’ could be ‘stabbed in the back’ by ‘the faceless men of Labor’, the ‘Sussex Street death squads’.
It’s not surprising – but it is revolting. Whatever anyone’s opinion of the way Gillard initially became Prime Minister, it’s a far cry from an armed coup. There were no riots in the streets, no police beatings, no dissenting voices being ‘disappeared’.
Bishop may have thought she was being clever, asking the Foreign Affairs Minister an apparently relevant question that was designed to be a big ‘gotcha’.
There was nothing clever about it – and Bishop succeeded only in showing herself to be both clearly uninterested in her nominal portfolio, and – worse – utterly devoid of compassion for the suffering of others.
Bishop should come into the House and state on the record that she unequivocally apologises to the people of the Maldives. And she should be thoroughly grilled about it by the media.
Neither of these is likely to happen – because god forbid we should think about anything other than Rudd’s ‘imminent’ leadership challenge. You know, the one that’s been ‘imminent’ for over a year now.
Maybe if there was less wild speculation and more oversight, Bishop could be made to account for her actions. And she should be. There’s simply no excuse.