“Get a real issue!” yelled a wheat farmer from the gallery yesterday as Christopher Pyne asked about Belinda Neal in Question Time. Pyne looked up, unhappy at having his moment at the Dispatch Box ruined by a stroppy cocky.

The cockies were back in Canberra to protest, yet again, that their molly-coddling, anti-competitive rort of a single desk policy had been taken away from them. “UnAustrayan!” they cried at a press conference led by Barnaby Joyce. Yep, fellas, it might be unAustralian but it’s called the marketplace and it’s what everyone else in the country faces every day of their lives.

Not much other than protectionist drivel came out of the mouths of the farmers, but they were on the mark when they whinged about Belinda Neal. Even the Opposition only asked one question about it yesterday, a half-hearted attempt by Pyne to follow up Julie Bishop’s stupid claims of a Prime Ministerial cover-up on Meet The Press. The less said about Bishop’s effort, in which she also managed to cast further doubt on which petrol excise policy the Coalition has, the better. Luckily, Warren Truss rode to her rescue later on Sunday by proposing a 20c a litre excise reduction.

Any takers for the whole 38 cents a litre? Barnaby? Greg Hunt? How about a fuel subsidy?

Brendan Nelson got his big shot in early on petrol. “Is the Government all blow and no torch?” he asked first up. His backbench pretended to dissolve into helpless laughter, and the rest of us expected him to declare “I’m here all week,” which indeed he is. Nelson of course was referring to the presence of Martin Ferguson in Jeddah (pronounced “Jeddaaaaah” by Labor backbencher Chris Trevor, as if Obi-Wan Kenobi should’ve been sent instead of the Resources Minister). On the news, I saw all the conference delegates wearing those translation headphones. Arabic and Martinese, presumably.

The emphasis on petrol segued into the Coalition’s disgraceful scare campaign on emissions trading, but things only really livened up when the cockies interrupted Lindsay Tanner, in the midst of explaining how he’d handed out How-To-Vote cards for the Country Party as a kid, from the gallery. The heckling picked up when Simon Crean rose to report on progress with the Doha round — normally Australian farmers support free trade, of course, but wheat farmers presumably have different ideas. Speaker Harry Jenkins eventually warned the farmers to keep it down, while Parliamentary guards hovered anxiously.

Belinda Neal, meanwhile, kept her head down. Did she compel a staff member to sign a false stat dec? Or was it true in all of its particulars, but omitted certain details? Or are the claims rubbish? The only person in the firing line at the moment is her ex — and rather brief, staff member Melissa Batten. Everyone else is standing by their declarations except her. There are suggestions Batten received $100,000 for her ACA interview, which works out at about $30,000 a week for enduring Ms Neal. Sounds about right.

Crikey has been discussing the appalling conditions of politicians’ staff, and especially electorate officers, for some time. If there’s one guaranteed outcome from the now-multiple investigations into this matter, it’s that anyone considering working for an MP should run a mile. And then keep running.

Brendan Nelson, doubtless infuriated that there wasn’t actually anything else that could happen to Belinda Neal until the police have completed their investigations, today demanded that Neal be somehow suspended from Caucus by the Prime Minister. Nelson even bizarrely referred to Neal as “a key member of the Rudd Government”.

Take the advice of the cockies, Brendan, and find a real issue.

Peter Fray

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