While Tony Abbott announced in Sunday’s videogram that the adults were back in charge, the first real business day of the 44th Parliament more closely resembled a first day at primary school.
Wobbling trainer wheels, name-calling, and testing the limits of the yard duty teacher were all on show, ending with a spectacular dummy spit – and tears – later in the day.
Kevin Rudd’s emotional resignation from politics last night ensured the news of the day’s business would be relegated to second place, but it wouldn’t have been a fitting first day in the schoolyard if it didn’t conclude with someone crying in frustration or exhaustion.
Rudd declared it was finally time to give back to his family who had supported him over the years. The announcement met with a standing ovation and acclamation… though many will be relieved to see him gone.
Before the climactic ending, the day had been jam-packed with new legislation, procedural skirmishes and petty point scoring. The inaugural Question Time presented the first real opportunity for Labor to hold the Coalition Government to account under the collective gaze of the parliamentary press gallery.
No-one knew who would show a natural aptitude and who would wobble. The new Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, had an unexpectedly shaky start, ignoring Abbott’s concession on Monday that his new moniker for Bill Shorten would not be appropriate parliamentary language. In ruling that “Electricity Bill” could be used because it was a ‘descriptor’ and not a name Bishop failed an early test, if not of her impartiality, at least of her determination to raise the standards of parliamentary discourse.
The Speaker’s precedent was quickly tested in Question Time. Although Adam Bandt prefaced his question with the observation that the Greens had taken to calling Abbott “Typhoon Tony”, Madam Speaker did not demur. Undoubtedly Labor will also test the boundaries of Bishop’s tolerance on this.
While the new manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke clearly swotted up on parliamentary practice over the break, other recently ex-ministers had trouble grappling with the finer detail during Question Time. Several reasonable points of order were rebuffed by the Speaker for not being presented with the relevant clause of The Practice, as Bishop herself was famous for doing. Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek, whose repeated attempts to raise points of order were meek and unfocussed, will have to sharpen her game if she is to have any impact with this tactic.
The Government used the first Question Time to showcase the breadth of their agenda. One by one, new Ministers strode to the dispatch box to outline how they were righting the previous government’s wrongs, with Hockey likening Labor to a bad tenant who had had trashed the joint and was obstructing the clean up.
Curiously, the Opposition took a similar approach, peppering a range of questions at Abbott, Hockey and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison instead of pursuing one line of inquiry at depth.
First it was climate action and the scrapping of the carbon price, then the need for the Government to justify raising the debt ceiling, and finally the asylum seeker no-information policy. History has shown that sustained questioning of one minister tends to bear more fruit than a scattergun approach.
The Coalition looked self-assured, as one would expect of a party that had been returned to government with a strong result after only two terms in the wilderness. Abbott’s determination to keep former Howard ministers in his own ministerial lineup paid dividends, with most demonstrating workmanlike oratory skills and the capacity to reel out the approved slogans (toxic taxes, the boats are stopping, who can you trust?) while being berated from the Opposition benches.
Health Minister Peter Dutton was the weakest performer, at one point calling the former Minister for Health “nasty Tanya”, which he then guiltily withdrew even before the Speaker had directed him to do so.
Question Time ended with no real sense that the Opposition had identified the strongest line of attack. There were looks of relief on ministerial faces that they had survived their first day. And a growing realisation that the Speaker may not live up to the expectations of impartiality she had so recently created.
Overall, the Abbott Government got what it wanted out of its first ‘working day’: an opportunity to showcase its wares to the Australian people and limited scrutiny from the Opposition. In a moment of biting candour during the inaugural Question Time, Joe Hockey told the vanquished opposite him “this is your best day in opposition – trust me.”
Hockey might be right, but it’s going to take a better day than yesterday from the Opposition for Australian democracy to be fairly served.
This is the first of my regular posts on federal politics for The Hoopla.