This morning at 9am, MPs, led by their respective leaders, crowded into the House of Representatives for the annual end-of-year bout of well-wishing, in which pleasantries and season’s greetings are exchanged in an atmosphere that suggests they’re all top mates.

It’s only a brief interruption to the political combat currently underway.

Yesterday after Question Time, Malcolm Turnbull had called on a Matter of Public Importance debate, spending 15 minutes attacking the Government and Kevin Rudd. Unlike in the G20 phonecall censure debate the other week, this time the Prime Minister didn’t duck his turn. He rose immediately in response to Turnbull and tore into him. Rudd made a point of exploring Turnbull’s abandonment this week of the deficit as a point of attack, and the seemingly regular outbreaks of division within the Coalition over carbon sinks, asylum seekers and Julie Bishop’s position. It was a reminder that Rudd can speak in a manner that doesn’t suggest he once won that famous Goodies competition, the Cannes Festival of Le Boring.

Whether today is the last sitting day depends on how the Senate handles its remaining pile of legislation. As of late yesterday, Coalition MPs were resigned to sitting tomorrow, and worried about having to come back on Monday. If so, there might be some attempts to get expelled from the House for 24 hours this afternoon so MPs can get out of it.

However, the biggest remaining bill, the Schools Assistance Bill, passed a short time ago after the Coalition backed down on the national curriculum issue. The manoeuvring on the bill yesterday provided neat examples of how the game of brinkmanship is played round here. Gillard first: she called a press conference at 10.15am in the Blue Room, the smallish room near the Prime Minister’s office where Ministers hold press conferences. She brought in Bill Daniels from the Independent Schools Council and Bill Griffiths of the National Catholic Education Commission. Bill1 looked happy to tell the Senate to get its act together and pass the damn bill. Bill2 sounded like a hostage from a Beirut kidnapping video as he pleaded for the Senate to see reason. The suggestion seemed to be that Gillard might do something very unpleasant to him if it didn’t, involving cutting a lot more than his funding off.

With the independent and Catholic school reps saying they wanted the bill passed and they were happy with the national curriculum process, Gillard swept off well-satisfied into the chamber to reject the Senate’s amendment, which removed all reference to linking funding to a national curriculum.

Steve Fielding, the only non-Coalition Senator (to the extent that Fielding is non-Coalition) to vote against the bill, was the next cab off the rank. He blundered by electing to hold a press conference inside the press gallery, at the traditional location for such events near the press release boxes. This meant that a lot more senior journalists showed up than he would have got if he’d held his press conference outside. Moreover, the gallery was in a hostile mood. Fielding claimed that the Government was blocking funding for private schools and that the independent and Catholic representatives were only saying what the Government wanted them to say out of fear. Schools in his own state, he said, were terrified of a national curriculum.

Fielding was proposing an unworkable amendment that would link funding to “a national curriculum or a broad equivalent.” “Broad equivalent”. He barely got his words out before he began taking fire from all sides. “How can you say the Government is blocking the bill? You’re blocking it.” “Aren’t you just pandering to Christian schools?” “Are you worried intelligent design won’t be on the curriculum?” “Why is it always you that ends up blocking legislation, when the Greens and Senator Xenophon can work out a deal?”

Fielding called a halt and retired to tend to his wounds.

Christopher Pyne then called a press conference in the usual spot, down in what is called the Senate courtyard. He beat Bob Debus and Chris Evans, who had also called a presser there for the same time. Debus and Evans had to hover, impatiently, as it was getting close to Question Time, while Pyne offered his version of a compromise on the issue, which was that funding be linked to a national curriculum or an accredited alternative, meaning that there’d be a mechanism for ensuring curricula had to pass muster, compared to the national version before there was any funding. How the accreditation process would work, and who would accredit — Pyne suggested the Government’s new National Curriculum Board — would have to be worked out later.

It was a lot more sensible than the Fielding suggestion, but Pyne’s cause wasn’t helped by the Montessori schools issuing a press release right about then saying they too were happy with the national curriculum process and wanted the bill passed. Gillard gleefully read it out in Question Time an hour later. From that point, with virtually no support amongst the key stakeholders, all the pressure was on the Coalition. Thus the backdown this morning.

Another victory to Gillard. Whether she is, as Malcolm Turnbull says, “very nasty” or not, she gets results.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW