On this, the opening day of the 43rd Parliament of Australia, I’d like to pause for a moment, and extend my deepest sympathies to Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie and Adam Bandt on the death of their hopes for political goodwill and electoral responsibility.
It’s a sad tale. A Parliament, brimming with potential and enthusiasm, fired up with possibilities for reform, cut down before its time – really, it’s enough to bring a tear to the eye. Devastated mourners are everywhere, wailing, ‘It could have been so beautiful!’ Their voices are almost loud enough to drown out the embittered mutterings of those gathered in the corners – ‘We told you this would happen. You were foolish to get attached’.
Actually, it’s not a sad tale at all. It’s a shameful one.
First, the wholly undignified scramble to form government, in which we saw the Coalition alternately instruct, cajole and threaten the Independents. That episode also featured the birth of the ‘Labor-Green’ scare campaign, using a sadly out-of-date ‘Reds under the Bed’ playbook. The whole business was redeemed, though, when both major parties signed on to a raft of parliamentary reforms designed to streamline government business, give backbenchers a voice and encourage bipartisanship.
Then, when it looked like Rob Oakeshott might be a candidate for Speaker, the Coalition suddenly ‘discovered’ that some of the reforms to which they’d agreed might be ‘constitutionally questionable’. They ignored the fact that their own strategist, Grahame Morris, had suggested to Oakeshott that his appointment to the Chair might prevent deadlock or outright failure of Parliament. They dodged the question of why they’d signed on in the first place. They engaged their own ‘independent expert’ to test the constitutionality of the agreement to pair the Speaker – said expert being Senator George Brandis. Now, Brandis does happen to be a constitutional lawyer, but ‘independent’? Well, given that the Coalition’s choice of firm to test their election costings was associated with former Liberal WA Premier Charles Court, perhaps there is more than one definition of ‘independent’ out there.
The Solicitor-General was consulted. His verdict? Pairing the Speaker was no different to pairing any other two MPs – an informal ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ did not breach the constitution. Good news, right? But wait. The Coalition decided that the Solicitor-General was, in fact, wrong, and chose to believe Senator Brandis instead. On the basis of that, they withdrew their support for pairing arrangements.
You have to give them points for consistency, I suppose. First the Treasury, now the Solicitor-General – it seems the Coalition doesn’t trust any government department.
Faced with that, Oakeshott felt he had no choice but to back away from the idea of taking the Speaker’s Chair. Predictable political manoeuvring followed, and it seemed for a while that former Coalition Whip Alex Somlyay might step into the role of Deputy Speaker and agree to pairing – in direct defiance of his party’s position. He too, though, changed his mind, amid speculation that Tony Abbott had applied a great deal of pressure to get him to do so.
In the end, the Speakership fell to Harry Jenkins, reducing Labor’s nominal majority in the House to one seat. Now, given how vocal that Coalition had been in advocating his appointment, you might expect a degree of respect and goodwill. Not so. The traditional opening statement of the Prime Minister – containing a slap at the Coalition’s behaviour regarding the Speakership – was greeted with rowdy heckling and scornful laughter from the Opposition benches. The Opposition Leader’s reply contained remarks about the Speaker that went well beyond cheeky, and earned him a rebuke from the Chair.
We still don’t have a Deputy Speaker. The Nationals popped up and reminded their Coalition partners that, traditionally, the Deputy should be drawn from their ranks. The Liberals challenged Labor to nominate one of their own MPs, which would bring the House into parity. Labor sat back and watched the Coalition argue with itself, while Rob Oakeshott on QandA last night vehemently rejected the idea of taking the position himself. All indicators point to Bruce Scott of the Nationals, but with the way things have proceeded up to now, who knows?
In a few moments, the House will be officially open for business, and the Governor-General will announce the government’s agenda for this term. Usually, this is straightforward – but the Coalition have already fired their first official salvo in this ‘kindler, gentler polity’.
Simon Crean, the Minister for Regional Australia, is scheduled to appear at the National Press Club tomorrow afternoon. Customarily, when an MP or Senator appears at the Press Club, or undertakes official duties that require their absence from the Parliament, the opposing side agrees to a pairing arrangement. If any vote takes place during that time, someone from the other side of the House will sit out, maintaining the usual balance of seats.
The Coalition have refused to allow a pair for Simon Crean, should any votes be called tomorrow. This placed Crean in an untenable position. The government’s majority is fragile, and the absence of a single vote might be the difference between workable government and a slew of blocked legislation and no-confidence motions. Under those circumstances, Crean had no choice but to apologise to the Press Club.
The strategy is clear. The Coalition intends to hold the government to ransom. Effectively, they wish to control the movements of government ministers – and the Prime Minister herself. If this tactic of withholding pair arrangements continues (and there is no reason to think it will not), we may see Tanya Plibersek’s vote lost because she is not granted a pair when she is in labour. We may see the Foreign Minister shackled to a Canberra desk instead of attending G20 meetings. The Prime Minister could well find herself having to schedule her official duties and the legislative agenda based on the whim of the Opposition. This is pure obstruction, designed to frustrate the government and bring about a premature end to the 43rd Parliament.
This is not ‘robust debate’. This is not ‘ferocious opposition’. This is a blockade, a siege. It’s a more blatant version of the ‘Just Say No’ strategy employed by the Coalition during the last Parliament.
And it goes further than votes. With the Coalition threatening to withhold pairs, government ministers may find themselves unable to fulfil vital parts of their duties. The National Press Club Address isn’t just a nice lunch for the media – it’s broadcast live, and is a way for the public to hear their government representatives speak at length on their portfolios, and be questioned. Community Cabinets provide unprecedented access to Parliamentarians. Meetings with leaders of foreign countries, important trade talks, meetings with business – all of these now stand threatened.
Undoubtedly, some will now call for an early election, claiming the situation cannot be resolved satisfactorily. Perhaps that’s a Plan B for the Coalition – but I think Abbott’s words to his party room say more about its real goals. The Coalition want to force a situation in which they can win a vote of no-confidence. All they have to do is wait until Labor simply cannot cancel a couple of official engagements, and they will strike.
At that point, the Governor-General traditionally asks the Opposition if they can form government. The Coalition may be counting on the Independents’ desire to keep Parliament running at all costs, and expect them to support an overthrow of the Labor government. I think that’s an unreasonable expectation – Windsor and Oakeshott have already expressed their disgust at the Coalition’s tactics thus far, and Bandt is unlikely to support a party that has already ruled out any form of carbon pricing.
Which puts us back to an early election – and then watch the spin. The Coalition will claim they ‘had no choice’. The Labor government was ‘unworkable’ – they didn’t have a mandate, they had unreasonable expectations, the Coalition is the party of stable government, etc.
What they won’t say is the truth – that, from the moment they were denied government by the Independents, they have worked tirelessly to ensure that this Parliament cannot work. That they made a decision to deliberately destabilise government, hamstring the legislature and harm the nation, and ruthlessly set about accomplishing that aim – in short, to acquire executive power at any cost.
This is a dreadful prospect for Australia, and I have no doubt that there will be those who strive to prevent such an outcome. Those people – Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor, Adam Bandt, Andrew Wilkie and Tony Crook – deserve our absolute support, because they will be working for a higher goal than personal political power. They may be the only ones who can lift us out of this situation – and hopefully, they haven’t yet accepted the idea that the dream is dead.
And if the worst happens, and we do end up back at the polls? I can only hope that there will be enough voices reminding the public of just who was really responsible for putting us there – and that the electorate will respond accordingly.
Reports are now coming in that the Opposition has changed its mind, and will offer Crean a pair arrangement for tomorrow – but only because the booking with the Press Club had already been made. That immediately raises the question: why refuse the pair in the first place? It’s unclear as to whether this reversal is in response to loud criticism from Labor and some areas of the media, or whether it’s simply another tactic. This might well be the Coalition’s way of saying to Labor, ‘You depend on us for permission to act’ – a shot across the bow, so to speak – and making it clear that, next time, Labor might not be so lucky.