Hey fellow wonks,
This sitting I’m trying out something new. Rather than post a full blog on events in Question Time, I’m embracing the wonder that is Storify. My #qt tweets, with ‘explanatory memoranda’ (well, a few notes here and there) will be collected there.
I’ll post links here. If you like this format, drop me a comment and let me know!
We’re pretty much inured to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s regular attempts to suspend Question Time. Almost every time the Parliament sits, a new ‘crisis’ manifests that forces him to his feet in order to yell across the chamber for ten minutes or so. Usually it’s either the ‘Toxic Tax Based on a Lie’ or how the government’s ‘Lost Control of our Borders’. At this point, there’s often a collective switch-off from those watching. After all, we’ve heard it before – and every time, the attempt to suspend Question Time fails.
Not so today. This time, the government said, bring it on.
And the reason? The Opposition wanted Speaker Peter Slipper gone. It wasn’t enough that he stepped aside while the court case brought against him by James Ashby was still underway. He had to go. Immediately. It was time to make history, and use the Constitutional power granted to the Parliament to remove the Speaker.
Abbott started in high gear, and just got louder. Slipper was a misogynist, he said. He was sexist. Look at the disgusting text messages he’d sent, comparing a vulva (though he used a far less polite word) to the kind of mussels you buy in a jar at the Fish and Chip Shop. Look at his behaviour towards James Ashby. Look at the way he just happened to boot Sophie Mirabella from the House so that she couldn’t cast a vote on the carbon price – that was not only sexist, it was also partisan! Forget that Mirabella was being continually disruptive; apparently if she’d been a man (or, presumably, a woman on the government benches), she could have escaped discipline.
Of course, none of this is proven. The case is underway, the judgment currently reserved. Some of the text messages were released to the media, but there were no grounds for saying that Slipper was guilty of the allegations Ashby’s brought against him. It’s a niggling little detail, and one Abbott seemed happy to skip over. So, for that matter, were the other Coalition speakers, notably Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop and Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne.
With Slipper’s character thoroughly delineated as a sleazy, woman-hating popinjay (oh yes, the formal procession through the halls of Parliament House came in for plenty of ridicule), it was time for the Opposition to turn on Prime Minister Julia Gillard – and it was quickly apparent that she (and through her, the Labor government) was the real target.
The least of Gillard’s sins was poor judgment in appointing Slipper in the first place. What was that? The LNP backed Slipper for pre-selection since 1993, and only dumped him when he became Speaker, leaving them down a vote? Pshaw. Details. Astonishingly, according to Pyne, it was one thing to support this man – who had allegedly brought the Parliament into utter disrepute – in his quest for a local seat, but quite another for him to be Speaker. Pyne didn’t elaborate on exactly where the line should be drawn, but presumably there’s a sliding scale. I’m sure the good people of Fisher would be pleased to know that the LNP were happy to help them elect a man of such low character.
But back to Gillard. She ‘forced’ former Speaker Harry Jenkins aside (oh, and let’s not forget to slip in a mention of the midnight assassination of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd). She dared to ‘lie’ to the Australian people about carbon pricing just so she could hold onto power. She was ambitious, grasping for power (and isn’t it interesting that ambition is only a failing in a woman). The Opposition even intimated that she knew about the Slipper/Ashby issue when she appointed the Speaker, making her culpable in this denigration of the Parliament. Finally, she was a hypocrite. Some of her own members had made sexist remarks, and she hadn’t told them off.
She, she, she, she, she. Over and over, the Coalition speakers refused to give the Prime Minister the benefit of her title, or even adopt the convention of using her surname. As my grandmother used to say, ‘She’s the cat’s mother’; ironic when you remember Julie Bishop’s cat-scratch moment towards Gillard in another memorable Question Time. And as Leader of the House Anthony Albanese said when he spoke against the motion: ‘If you used the Prime Minister’s title instead of just ‘she’ all the time, you might have a shred of credibility’.
For a series of speeches designed to make the case that Slipper was a sexist and misogynist who needed to be dismissed at all costs, there was a remarkable degree of sexism shown by the Opposition. But nothing matched up to one comment from Abbott, which sent shock waves through the chamber and those watching on social media:
‘This government should have already died of shame’.
And just to make sure we heard, he repeated it. Again and again.
It was utterly unconscionable. Barely a week after the Daily Telegraph reported that Radio 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones had told the Sydney University Young Liberals Club that Gillard’s late father had ‘died of shame’, there was Abbott invoking the same sentiments.
It’s a familiar theme for the Opposition. Sophie Mirabella, after organising an anti-carbon price demonstration outside Albanese’s electoral office (featuring placards with such lovely sentiments as ‘Tolerance is our demise’), told him that his mother had died of shame.
Quite a coincidence. But who really believes that? Abbott had to know what he was doing. After all, he’d been hounded by the media for nearly a week about Jones’ comments, and forced to defend his decision to keep accepting invitations to appear on Jones’ show (from which over 70 major sponsors, including Mercedes-Benz, have withdrawn their support). It was clearly aimed straight at the Prime Minister. Perhaps Abbott hoped to throw her off her stride when she rose to reply.
He couldn’t have picked a worse tactic.
Gillard let fly. Almost shaking with rage, she condemned Abbott for his hypocrisy in bringing this motion, given his history of sexist comments and alleged unacceptable behaviour towards women. Pointing at Abbott, she declared, ‘I will not be lectured by this man on misogyny and sexism. Not now, not ever.’
With devastating effect, Gillard used Abbott’s own sexist and misogynist words against him. His assertion that inequality might not be a ‘bad thing’. His claim that women were ‘physiologically’ unsuited to positions of authority. (Here he was echoing Alan Jones, who infamously declared that women in power in Australia were ‘destroying the joint’.) The outrageous statement that abortion was ‘the easy way out’. And so it went.
Gillard declared that Abbott was using a double standard in seeking to remove Slipper for sexist comments, and vowed that she would not allow that to rule the Parliament. Her fury was palpable, and for once, Abbott didn’t turn his back. There was a court case under way, and Parliament had no right to pre-empt the judgment. Slipper had voluntarily stepped aside, she reminded the House. She would not permit Abbott to impose a standard to which neither he, nor his Opposition colleagues, would adhere.
There was one moment when Gillard’s emotions threatened to overcome her – when she finally spoke about Jones’ comments, telling Abbott, ‘The government is not dying of shame. My father did not die of shame. If anyone should be ashamed, it is the Leader of the Opposition who should be ashamed of his behaviour.’
The motion was defeated by the narrowest of margins: 69-70. There were no questions, no points of order. Just an incredible eruption, immediately followed by business as usual.
But we saw something today. We saw an Opposition attempt to paint itself as a champion of morality and a protector of women – led by a man notorious for sexist language and bullying behaviour. We saw an Opposition attempt yet again to turn the House into a kangaroo court; Julie Bishop went even further, stating that it didn’t matter that there was as yet no verdict.
But we also saw a Prime Minister who seems to have finally been pushed too far. The bland, polished, vaguely condescending voice reminiscent of a tranquillised Margaret Thatcher gave way to a passionate, cutting anger. No mockery, no stock phrases, no cut-and-paste speeches praising the government’s record. This was the Gillard of old, the Deputy Prime Minister who took on all comers and did more than hold her own.
It’s a Gillard we haven’t seen for a long time.
Whether the government’s successful defence today of Slipper’s position as Speaker will prove a continuing problem remains to be seen. The outcome of the court case will, presumably, determine his future in the chair. In the meantime, the Opposition will undoubtedly find yet more ‘reasons’ to attempt a censure, or force an election. Having embarked on this course from the moment he was denied government, Abbott will not let up until after the next election – an election he expects to win with a majority comparable to that gained by the LNP in the Queensland state election.
The question is, though: will Gillard return to the measured, soporific cadences that many have described as seeming ‘fake’, ‘put on’? (And the question must be asked: did she adopt that way of speaking in the first place because she was told she’d appear ‘shrill’ otherwise?)
Or will it be the Prime Minister we saw today, who takes the fight to Abbott and confronts the Opposition tactics forcefully and without apology?
For Labor’s sake, it will need to be the latter.
Peter Slipper has just announced in the House of Representatives that he will tender his resignation from the Speakership to the Governor-General. In an emotional speech, he said the House was more important than his own future. ‘Nothing is more important than the preservation of the dignity of our parliamentary institutions.’ According to Anthony Albanese, Slipper made his decision after today’s vote and informed the government. Slipper’s likely successor is his Deputy, Anna Burke, who has been fulfilling the Parliamentary role of Speaker since he stood aside.
This comes four minutes after Slipper tweeted, ‘Sources say Steve Lewis/News Ltd plan 2 run story based on untruths from certain LNP members&volunteers who worked on my last LNP campaign’. We can only wait to see what comes next, but one thing is clear; Abbott gained a valuable scalp today, as Slipper now joins Craig Thomson on the backbench. It’s a victory that – for all his sober words tonight as he said Slipper had done ‘the right thing’ – Abbott won’t hesitate to exploit. Stay tuned for more claims that the government relies on ‘tainted votes’ to stay in power.
It’s a pretty ugly day in Australian politics.
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.)
As unlikely as it may seem, there are days when Parliament debates substantial issues – climate change, mining revenue, the woeful lack of mental health infrastructure …
And then there are days like today.
We had Christopher Pyne, Shadow Spokesperson for Education and Manager of Opposition Business in the House, launch into a full-throated attack. His argument seemed to be a variation of ‘for want of a nail, etc’, but somewhere along the line his logic became a little tangled.
Let’s see if we can tease it out:
* the government has terrible border protection policies (read: people are coming here in boats!)
* because they have terrible border protection policies, they have to spend lots and lots of extra money trying to fix things (read: stop the evil refugees seeking our help at all costs!)
* because they spend money trying to ‘fix’ border protection, more guns have turned up in Australia (wait, what?)
* because there are more guns, there are more bikie gang wars in South Australia
* therefore, the government is responsible for bikie gang wars in South Australia because they didn’t stop the boats.
No, I’m not kidding.
Of course, you can see the nasty little implication, can’t you? All these evil boat people who the government can’t keep out must be bringing the guns in with them … and presumably selling them to their bikie contacts in Adelaide. Perhaps it was even all planned this way!
Funny, I never knew that the Hells Angels had chapters in Afghanistan.
As ludicrous as it sounds, this was the subject of a serious speech in Parliament today from a senior member of the Opposition. Bad refugee policy equals bikie gang wars.
But if you think that’s absurd, try this.
In Question Time today, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott asked an apparently serious question of the Prime Minister: why hadn’t she taken the recommendations of the Future Fund and appointed former Treasurer Peter Costello as its head?
Fair question, actually. Why wouldn’t you choose the guy who actually set up the fund in the first place? The long-serving Federal Treasurer who left the Budget in surplus when Labor was elected to government back in 2007? The very person, in fact, who the fund’s Board wanted for the job?
Well, there are a number of reasons, actually, and Stephen Koukoulas lays them out in devastating fashion. But let’s put those aside for a moment, because Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s answer said all that needed to be said: because the government decided that, notwithstanding the recommendation of the Board, they felt that someone else would do better. That someone, David Gonski, has a resume at least as impressive as Costello’s – and without the partisan political history.
Abbott was fairly outplayed – not that this stopped him. Before Gillard’s backside had hit her seat, he was up at the box again, using a supplementary question to press the point. Not to be outdone, Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey joined in, and their combined questions started to bear a suspicious resemblance to an annoying three-year-old: ‘But whyyyyy???’
And then we truly entered the realm of the ridiculous. Abbott attempted to suspend standing orders for the 46th time since the Gillard minority government came to power. In itself, that would have been enough to qualify as a stupid waste of Parliamentary time. It was the substance of the motion, however, that carried the day.
Abbott called on Gillard to ‘explain herself’. Why hadn’t she appointed Costello? What did she think she was doing? How dare she and Finance Minister Penny Wong make a decision that didn’t slavishly follow a recommendation with which he agreed?
It was unbelievable. Here was Abbott attempting to take the government to task for not practising nepotism – not providing ‘jobs for the boys’. This was the same Opposition that pointed the finger and cried foul when former Labor leader Kim Beazley was appointed as our US Ambassador (while conveniently failing to complain when former Nationals leader Tim Fisher became Ambassador to the Vatican). There should be no favouritism – apparently unless it means that a former big-name Liberal misses out on a plum government job.
And it got worse. Gonski was an ‘outsider’, Abbott argued. How can we trust him to do the job properly?
This from the man who outright accused Treasury of corruption in order to justify bringing in an outside accounting firm to go over the Coalition’s costings during the 2010 election campaign.
Remember, all of this was in context of Abbott attempting to interrupt the normal business of the House. The matter of Peter Costello not getting a job was so important that all other business had to immediately cease.
(It must have given Costello a warm glow to hear that. Certainly warmer than when his former colleagues refused to support him for the Liberal Party leadership and chose instead to engage in some truly vicious character assassination.)
But really, it was Hockey who walked away with the award for the week’s Most Nonsensical Argument, when he rose to second the motion.
Basically, it boiled down to this: it’s OUR Fund and it’s OUR turn. (Insert metaphorical foot stamp and pout.)
Yes, you see, it was a Coalition government that created the Future Fund. It’s too good for the likes of some grubby little Labor appointee. Why, you could say it’s … it’s … Costello’s birthright! Hand it over at once, and let the man lead as he was born to do!
Okay, I may be paraphrasing a little there. But this … is pure Hockey. This was how he wound up his speech:
‘If the government won’t do the right thing and appoint Peter Costello to chair the Future Fund … then they should get out of the way and let us govern!’
(Flourish, decisive nod of the head, retire to seat and stare at the government in self-righteous indignation.)
Yes, you read that right.
Hockey seemed to think that was a stinging ultimatum. It was an utter absurdity.
What does he expect? Perhaps the scenario plays out like this in Hockey’s mind:
Gillard, crushed by Hockey’s inescapable argument, suddenly stands up and says, ‘Whoops, Joe, you’re right there. We want our man in the Future Fund job, so I’ll just swap places with Tony here and off you go, Bob’s your uncle – Bob Menzies, of course, wouldn’t want you think I meant our Bob, ha ha. Oi, Swanny, hand over the cash box, it’s Joe’s turn now.’
Everyone in the House shuffles chairs, and a message is sent to the Senate telling them the news. Joyous bells ring out across the land as people everywhere celebrate their rescue from the terror of doing it hard on $160,000 a year, and a New Golden Age of Prosperity and Corporate Success dawns as unicorns gallop gracefully over the rolling hills of the Australian capitalist utopia.
Which is a scenario as ridiculous as Hockey’s demand. I mean, honestly. Does Hockey really think Gillard will call an election just because he tells her to do so? And then what? Not campaign? Put out an ad telling everyone she’s decided to ‘let’ the Coalition govern? All on his say-so?
It’s probably a good thing that this is the end of the Parliamentary week, because – barring a sudden invasion of clowns into the Senate, the Clerks deciding to play Jenga with the accumulated volumes of Hansard, or the Serjeant-at-Arms running amok in the Press Gallery with the Mace – I don’t think it could get any stupider than this.
And the worst part of it is that, apart from a small amount of exaggeration here and there (and the occasional unicorn), it’s all true. As the man says, you can’t make this stuff up.
These are the people we elected. Depressing, isn’t it?
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.
Question Time in the House of Representatives yesterday was anything but business as usual. For a few minutes, we teetered on the brink of a Parliamentary crisis.
It started when the level of rowdiness and generally un-Parliamentary conduct finally proved too much for Speaker Harry Jenkins. He issued a general warning to every member. Now, as he often reminds the House, if the Speaker formally warns someone, it’s the equivalent of telling them they have one strike left. Any further misbehaviour would see that member ‘named’ – and when that happens, the member can be suspended from the Parliament for 24 hours.
In a situation where one party has a clear majority, this is not such a dire prospect. When the numbers are as tight as they are in this Parliament, however, a 24 hour suspension might be the difference between winning and losing a vote. Every member knows this – and usually the warning is sufficient to pull them into line. Yesterday, however, Bob Baldwin (Liberal member for Patterson) apparently chose to risk it, and for his pains was formally named.
Anthony Albanese, Manager of Government Business, immediately moved that Baldwin be suspended. It should have been a pro forma vote; after all, the motion was merely designed to support the Speaker’s decision.
It wasn’t. The Opposition, effectively challenging the Speaker’s authority, called for a division. In the resulting vote, Independent MPs Bob Katter and Tony Windsor were conspicuous by their absence. My feeling is that they’d decided to unofficially pair themselves, thus having no effect on the eventual outcome (since Katter has generally sided with the Opposition on most votes, and Windsor with the government). The Greens’ Adam Bandt and Independent Andrew Wilkie voted with the government. The real surprise, though, was Independent Rob Oakeshott. His was the deciding vote – and he voted against the Speaker.
By voting against him, the House had in essence declared that they had no confidence in him.
At that point, Jenkins announced that, following Question Time, he would ‘consider his position’ – in other words, that he might resign. You could see the shock on some members’ faces.
In doing so, he was following the example of Speaker Jim Cope, who resigned from the chair in 1975 after the government refused to support his decision to suspend Minister for Science and Consumer Affairs Clyde Cameron.
There’s no rule that compels a Speaker to do this, although it’s considered Parliamentary protocol. Jenkins could have simply continued with the business of the day. In declaring his intention to consider resigning, however, Jenkins was sending a message.
That message was clear; the current House consistently disrespects the Speaker. Anyone who’s listened to or watched Question Time will be familiar with Jenkins’ frequent cries of ‘Order!’ and the extent to which those instructions are ignored. Members, particularly those on Opposition benches, argue with many of his decisions. At times, four or five Opposition MPs have risen, one after the other, to challenge a single ruling.
In itself, questioning a ruling is not objectionable; when the challenges are simply repetitions of the original objection, however, it ceases to be anything but bullying. When that bullying goes on day after day, it’s scarcely a surprise to find that the Speaker might consider that the House has no confidence in him. And when his own ruling is overturned, that can only confirm such a suspicion.
Almost before Jenkins finished speaking, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott leaped to his feet and moved a motion of confidence. In speaking to that motion he was both eloquent and – unexpectedly – heartfelt. He didn’t quite acknowledge the Coalition’s role in bringing about this crisis, but he admitted that the minority government situation was difficult for everyone to navigate. Nonetheless, he had complete confidence in the Speaker. ‘Please, please, Mister Speaker, please do not take this as anything other than an example of the difficulties of this new paradigm’. In fact, he said ‘Please’ nearly half a dozen times, and each time it sounded genuine.
Gillard clearly had long to think about her answer, and didn’t shy away from making a political point in her speech. The government had always supported the Speaker, she argued. It was the Coalition that had voted against the motion to suspend Bob Baldwin.
Finally, Rob Oakeshott stood. He was unapologetic about his role in the vote, stressing that he would always consider the rights of a private member in such situations. In this he was at least consistent; he voted against a similar motion to suspend Christopher Pyne back on March 23rd). Nonetheless, he too supported the Speaker – ‘Don’t go,’ he said. ‘Don’t go, Mister Speaker’.
Jenkins finally called the vote, which passed unanimously without a division – and business resumed. A potential crisis was averted yesterday – but had the Speaker followed through and actually resigned, it could have been a very different story.
Remember, Labor holds government by the slimmest of margins – only two seats. One of those seats needed to be sacrificed to install Jenkins as Speaker, reducing their margin to 1, which is incredibly tenuous. Should the Independents decide to vote against the government, any given bill or motion can be defeated just as happened yesterday. If Jenkins stepped down, the government would return to its 2 vote margin – but a new Speaker would need to be immediately elected.
Logically, Deputy Speaker Peter Slipper would be next in line. He is a member of the Liberal Party, however – and if elected, the Opposition would have only 73 seats, making it much harder to defeat any government bills or pass their own. It’s fair to say that Abbott would probably resist any move to reduce his bargaining power.
When the Parliament was first formed, there was considerable speculation that Oakeshott would take the chair. If Jenkins stepped down, no doubt that speculation would resurface. His support for the government on crucial issues such as carbon pricing and the National Broadband Network is very solid – the loss of his vote could jeopardise these two initiatives. The same would be true of any other Independent.
It’s likely, then, that the government would be forced to fall back on another of their MPs, returning us to the situation we have now. But there’s always the possibility that both parties would simply engage in a staring contest, and hope that the other blinked first. And if neither did … well, we could end up back at the polls. Given Abbott is positively champing at the bit to fight another election – and you could be forgiven for thinking that’s what he’s been doing ever since the last one – Gillard would be crazy to let it go that far.
So for now, the crisis is over, and it’s back to business as usual – yelling across the chamber, trotting out the lies and distortions, and pushing talking points instead of answering question. The government avoids giving out any information, while the Opposition reverts to the same kind of rowdy, disrespectful behaviour that provoked the situation in the first place.
I’d like to think Abbott’s speech to the confidence motion was an indication that he realises the tenuousness of the situation, and the extent to which his Opposition has contributed to nearly plunging the Parliament into a potentially disastrous situation. I’d like to think everyone took a step back and re-evaluated their behaviour, and decided to put the country ahead of the opinion polls.
I’m watching Question Time now, though – and it’s like yesterday never happened. Christopher Pyne has already received a warning.
But it did. And it should not be allowed to pass out of people’s minds with the next day’s news cycle. Jenkins showed that he has a point beyond which he won’t be pushed. And perhaps next time, it won’t be resolved so quickly and easily.
The kind of spectacle that Question Time has become is neither desirable nor irreversible. Debate and challenge can be respectful and rational. It requires discipline, and a willingness to set aside opposition for opposition’s sake.
Our Parliament has been given another chance. It should make the most of it.