Tonight, you’ll probably hear that ‘the government shut down debate on Craig Thomson’ during Question Time today. Certainly, that’s the message Opposition Leader Tony Abbott undoubtedly hopes you’ll believe – that the government is ‘running a protection racket’ and is willing to subvert (or possibly pervert) the processes of Parliament to do it. The Opposition just wants to ‘call the Prime Minister to account’.
But how true is that?
Let’s take a look at what happened today. It’s convoluted, but see if you can follow me here.
At first it was all business as usual. The Opposition uttered dire warnings about the impending ‘carbon tax’ – which, due to its terrifying ability to travel back in time, apparently caused aluminium manufacturer Norsky Hydro to go belly-up. The government responded with Dixers designed to highlight the upcoming ‘clean energy package’ of compensation and the latest OECD report, which shows Australia to have the best economy in the developed world.
Then the questions about Craig Thomson. The usual stuff, which I won’t bother repeating here. It was obvious what was coming.
At 2.45 pm, Abbott sought leave to move that the Prime Minister be forced to explain to the House whether she believed Thomson’s statement, why he was still in Parliament, and a few other things that were lost in the shouting. Refused leave, he tried – for the 56th time in the life of this Parliament – to suspend standing orders, in order to allow him to move the motion just denied.
Still with me?
Leader of the House Anthony Albanese objected, saying that the matter had been referred to the Privileges Committee, and shouldn’t be further debated. The Speaker was willing to allow it, though, so off Abbott went. And immediately ignored the Practice of the House, which makes it clear that he should not make an argument about the substance of his proposed motion, just explain why it was necessary to suspend standing orders.
It’s a fine line, and it’s one that the Opposition cross every chance they get. Of course, whoever’s in the Speaker’s chair pulls them up on it, but it doesn’t stop them. Abbott, in particular, abuses his privileged status as Leader to flout the rules, and today was no exception. He launched into a diatribe against the Prime Minister, demanding, ‘Do you believe Craig Thomson?’, and accused the government (again) of running ‘a protection racket’.
The government was having none of it today. Albanese interrupted to point out what Abbott was doing, and the Speaker cautioned the Opposition Leader before allowing him to continue. Abbott – without apparently blinking – went straight back to his attack. Cue Albanese.
Finally, Albanese moved to gag Abbott. It was a motion the government couldn’t win (since the Independents are notoriously reluctant to support a gag), and didn’t. What it did accomplish was to waste enough time to run out the allotted time for Abbott’s speech.
Up stepped Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne. And it was Groundhog Day. Again. Mercifully, however, Albanese only objected once before moving to gag. Again he was defeated, and again enough time wasted that the SSO attempt fell in a heap. The Prime Minister promptly closed down Question Time at that point, with over half an hour wasted.
But it’s not over.
At that point Abbott asked Deputy Speaker Anna Burke if, from now on, the clock could be stopped for future divisions and Points of Order. The motive was obvious: if the clock was stopped, then the Opposition would have all the allotted time to say their piece. Receiving an unsatisfactory answer (that it would be up to Speaker Peter Slipper, absent from the chamber but still in charge), he tried another tactic.
Given that the Budget had been referred to a Senate committee, was it even possible to ask questions about it? Here he was angling for a ruling that would allow him to argue that if so, he should be able to bring up the Thomson issue as much as he wanted. It was a nonsensical question, and Burke gave it short shrift – of course they could talk about the Budget, but no ruling. Pyne tried to push her, but she stood firm; it was a matter for the Speaker to make rulings.
Then this from Pyne: ‘If you’re loath to make a ruling, and the Opposition disagree with you, then how can we move dissent?’
Anyone else see the veiled threat of a vote of no confidence there?
Finally, the House moved on – nearly an hour after Question Time was derailed by the Opposition – but Abbott had one more card to play, and it was an act of breathtaking chutzpah.
He called a media conference to complain that the government was preventing debate in the House.
This is the man who shut down Question Time at 2.45pm, with over 30 minutes remaining.
This is the man who refused to keep to the rules of debating SSO motions because it was apparently more important to insult the Prime Minister and deliver a soundbite for the evening news than to respect House Practice.
This is the man who led the call for Craig Thomson to ‘explain himself’ to the House by making a statement in Parliament, and got his wish.
This is the man who led the call for that same statement to be referred to the Privileges Committee, because he claimed that Thomson had misled the Parliament.
Complaining that it was the government preventing debate.
Complaining that Thomson got a whole hour, while ‘we didn’t get one minute’.
Complaining that it was ‘a travesty of a Parliament … a travesty of democracy’.
In Australian Rules Football, I think it’s fair to say that the entire Opposition would cop a 50-metre penalty for time-wasting.
Now, obviously the government accomplished some pretty deft procedural manoeuvring today, and Albanese did succeed in derailing the Opposition’s attempt to call out the PM. But are they actually preventing debate?
They could have prevented Thomson from giving his statement. They didn’t.
They could have refused to answer any questions from media or in Parliament about the issue. They didn’t. In fact, Gillard had answered two question, with supplementaries, just minutes before Abbott attempted to suspend standing orders.
And, when a Matter of Public Importance on the issue was debated, they could have limited the speakers and time allotted to the usual number. They didn’t. In fact, no less than eight speakers addressed the matter, three of whom were from the Opposition. Usually, it’s a maximum of five, taking up an hour.
Can the Opposition really say that they’ve been prevented from speaking on the issue of Craig Thomson’s alleged wrongdoings? Especially when they’ve also virtually monopolised the media coverage on the subject?
Or is it just that they don’t like to face the fact that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander?
If Abbott is really so incensed about the government using procedural tactics to interfere with his own strategies, I have a solution for him. How about both sides enter into a written contract to refrain from doing so in the future? He can promise that Pyne, Bronwyn Bishop and the like don’t repeatedly interrupt the Prime Minister’s answers with spurious Points of Order designed to prevent her from delivering a decent soundbite. He can promise that he won’t use the MPI as a soapbox, and actually use it for its appointed purpose.*
And while he’s at it, he can promise not to try any more end-runs around the judicial process in order to make his political points.
I’m sure the government would be happy to do the same.
*(If you’re interested, take a look at the guidelines on Matters of Public Importance, and maybe spend a little time thinking about how often the Opposition uses this tactic to gain a free debating platform in the House – and whether their claims satisfy the definition.)