I never got the whole censure thing. In all my years watching Parliament, I’ve never worked it out. The Opposition moves a censure motion against the Government. Both sides rant. And then they vote and the motion is inevitably (I can hear Laurie Oakes’s intonation now) “defeated on party lines” – a result that seems to leave at least some journalists stupefied. “Opposition fails to censure government” the ABC breathlessly reported last night. Someone call the stewards.

Then again, sometimes, if they can be bothered, the Government turns the censure motion back on the Opposition leader. This appears to be the political equivalent of playing a “pick up 4” card. In such circumstances, the motion is passed. So to speak.

It’s never a good look when an Opposition resorts to censure motions during Question Time. It’s a sure sign they’ve failed to land a blow. If they’ve got a minister on the ropes, they keep punching away.

And so after six questions on the carers’ payment yesterday, Brendan Nelson went for the censure. On reflection, it probably wasn’t a bad idea. Rudd had handled all the questions easily. And in fact after a while, in what was evidently a deliberately escalated response, he began making discomfiting points about the Coalition’s own record on payments.

And the rest of the Government looked very comfortable indeed. Wayne Swan managed to avoid disaster, which is good for him. Julia Gillard dished out some more mockery on IR. In contrast to virtually everyone in the chamber – especially the junior Opposition frontbenchers crammed together down the back – she spends the entirety of Question Time leaning slightly forward, poised, watching the Opposition with a sort of relaxed malevolence. And Peter Garrett looks increasingly at ease in his role of environmental attack dog. Labor may have found the best way to use Garrett’s skills, in a role that shields him from too much attention but allows him free rein to gleefully mock the Coalition’s climate change denialism.

Meantime the Opposition’s best player had a spell. Nelson, employing his professional eulogist’s tone of artificial grief, Tony Abbott and, um, Margaret May shared the carers questions. Malcolm Turnbull sat silent. Perhaps he couldn’t quite work out the Opposition’s tactics, debated frenetically by the terrier-like Greg Hunt, Joe Hockey and Abbott at various stages during proceedings.

The Opposition might be playing some sort of long game of making Rudd look nasty. More likely, they couldn’t think up anything better than asking the same question six ways and then failing to censure the government. They didn’t even ask about the billions of dollars in other programs that might also be in Lindsay Tanner’s sights.

At The Australian, which has worked feverishly to portray the carers issue as the stuff of high political drama, Dennis Shanahan declared Nelson had had a victory. Well, he’s still in the job. At the moment, that counts as a victory.

Peter Fray

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