The
major business of yesterday’s resumption of Parliament should have been
this: The Prime Minister announces to the House and the nation that
Australia is sending a detachment of 450 troops to Iraq at the request
of Japan and the UK, to relieve Dutch troops as part of the
international Iraq taskforce.

And John Howard did get up
after Question Time and deliver a ministerial statement formally
announcing the Government’s decision, see the SMHPM claims new strategic maturity.
But it says much about how Howard has virtually de-clawed Parliament
that no-one seemed to notice, or care, that once again the PM has
favoured the TV cameras ahead of Parliament in making a statement of
national importance.

Howard
announced the deployment on 22 February, after lobbying from Japan and
the UK. He couldn’t make the annoucement in Parliament immediately –
because he has savagely cut back sitting days in the first half of the
year.

Parliament is secheduled to sit only 15 days before
the middle of May. The schedule picks up after July 1, when Howard gets
his Senate majority.

Over the past nine years, Howard has
trumped the achievements of even Paul Keating in cutting Parliament out
of the political equation; empowering the Executive and treating the
parliamentary forum as a rubber stamp.

Of course, not
informing Parliment until absolutely necessary abour key policy
decisions helps avoid parliamentary scrutiny over controversies like
today’s debate over what role the Australian troops will exactly play
in Iraq, see The AgeCall for details of troops’ role in Iraq

Most recently, Howard sidestepped Parliament two days before the first sitting of 2005, when he went on Nine’s Sunday
program and made a major policy announcement on industrial relations
reform. Then he announced at a press conference that APEC would meet in
Sydney in 2007. The Parliament was sitting at the time and he could
have easily gone into the House to make a ministerial statement.

A
lone voice speaking out over Howard’s bowdlerising of Parliament has
been veteran gallery correspondent Rob Chalmers. He wrote of Howard’s
APEC announcement in his ‘Inside Canberra’ newsletter:

His
hero, Menzies, would carpet any minister who dared make a policy
pronouncement outside Parliament when it could have been made to the
Parliament.

In the lead up to the 1996 election, Howard
promised to restore the dignity and authority of the Parliament. Yet
no-one, even Keating, has treated the Parliament so off-handedly.

And
there is no sign Peter Costello would return Parliament to the primacy
it enjoys – nominally – in that oft-ignored document, The Australian Constitution.

When
Parliament rose the week before Howard’s Iraq announcement, Costello
flew home to Melbourne – and promptly called a press conference to
announce he wouldn’t be intervening in the Xstrata bid for WMC.

Like
the Prime Minister and other ministers, Costello prefers the TV cameras
to the House. And vanity aside, going into the House to make a
ministerial statement also allows the Opposition the right of reply –
and to debate it in Parliament.

No control freak PM like
Howard would want a breakout of that kind of democratic discourse.
Don’t expect things to change after July 1.