Take control of the toddlers, Tony. Weekly post for The Hoopla.
Patchy politics and diplo-schemozzle. Regular post for The Hoopla.
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.
Next week, while most of Australia is already counting the hours until the first ball of the Ashes, political aficionados will be tuning in to watch the Abbott Government’s first parliamentary session.
Some will do so for the pomp of the official opening. Others will be looking for a bit of biffo during Question Time. And those with the acquired taste will settle in for the often surprisingly entertaining Senate Estimates proceedings.
But mostly, these democracy diehards will be looking for evidence that the weeks since the September federal election were merely a disappointing hiatus and not a disconcerting sign of things to come.
Of principal interest will be how the Coalition adapts its low/no information approach to the demands of parliamentary scrutiny. It’s no revelation that very few of the new ministers are strong parliamentary performers. While it’s one thing for the Prime Minister to keep newbie ministers away from the risks of media events and other public appearances, it’s more difficult to protect them from a brace of ex-ministers on the opposition benches bristling with knowledgeable questions.
What will Prime Minister Tony Abbott do if the Opposition runs a concerted Question Time campaign against a weak minister? How would Environment Minister Greg Hunt cope, for instance, under sustained and systematic questioning from Labor MPs on the impacts of climate change and his previous support for an emissions trading scheme? Being not that great a debater himself, the PM may see more risk in stepping in for his minister than leaving him to fend for himself.
This then raises the question of the extent to which Abbott will willingly expose himself to scrutiny while Parliament is sitting. On the basis that he would only hold press conferences when he had something to say, Abbott has considerably reduced the frequency from Rudd’s daily epistles since the election. His interviews with the ‘serious’ media have pretty much ceased altogether.
And there is no indication the Cameo Appearance Prime Minister has any intention of veering from this approach during the parliamentary session. Considering that Question Time is the only period when Abbott is moderately exposed to scrutiny, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility the Coalition will shorten its duration or revert to the roster system once favoured by Paul Keating, which saw him face questions only a couple of days each week.
Political observers will also be watching next week for reassurance that Coalition reform agendas indeed hold ‘no surprises’ as Tony Abbott vowed before the election. Like the monster under the bed, the longer the reforms remain unseen the greater their beastliness will grow in the imagination of voters. Glimpses of the reform elements during the post-election period have only made things worse, leaving those voters who are paying attention to wonder what the Business Council of Australia’s role in the Commission of Audit might mean for unions and workers or the GST, how the nation can afford tax cuts when there is a deteriorating budget bottom line, and what happens if electricity prices don’t go down when the carbon price is scrapped?
In the absence of ministerial answers or statements next week that comprehensively explain these reforms, it will be fair for voters to assume the Government intends to proceed with the post-information regime it established immediately after the election. Any unwillingness on the part of the Prime Minister to be subjected to questioning or provide illuminating answers will be taken as confirmation.
What then of Labor? Political observers look to the first sitting of the new Parliament to witness the emergence of the revitalised, united and democratised Labor that candidates Albanese and Shorten promised during the leadership campaign. The appearance of such an entity will dispel fears that opposition MPs have been missing in action over the past month because they’ve been collaborating on a strategy to systematically deconstruct the Abbott Government, and not just squabbling over office space and staffing allocations.
Clinically astute performances by shadow ministers in Question Time and opposition senators in Estimates will consolidate that view.
But perhaps most importantly of all, an opposition brought into full battle mode for Parliament next week could quickly and effectively fill the information vacuum deliberately created by the Government.
This would disrupt not only the Coalition’s efforts to manipulate the media cycle but thwart their efforts to accustom Australians to expect less information – and explanations – from their elected representatives.
This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.