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Dec 5, 2008

ALP and Liberal backflips in the final hour of parliament

The mass abstention was a poor look for Turnbull, especially with his Senate leader being amongst their number, writes Bernard Keane.


After an hour of vigorous debate over Senate amendments, Anthony Albanese rose in the House of Representatives at 10am this morning and moved to adjourn the House. Some wag called “no”, but it wasn’t safe to stand near the exits as the few MPs left in the chamber bolted for the cars that would take them to the airport. The feared Monday sitting was off and they’ll be gone until 3 February.

The Senate has already adjourned, having sat until nearly 2am last night to get through its remaining legislation. Sleepy senators are now winging their way back home.

There wasn’t much love lost between houses yesterday. Albanese rose before Question Time to explain that the Senate was “moving extraordinarily slowly” on legislation and sarcastically noted that they had spent yesterday morning on committee reports rather than bills. “Glacial” called someone from the Opposition.

The Schools Assistance Bill was dealt with yesterday via what Julia Gillard, with perhaps more than a little hyperbole, called “one of the most humiliating backflips in Australian politics”. That Gillard was in effect crowing over the passage of massive funding for non-government schools suggested that, somewhere along the way, the ALP itself had done something more than a backflip on the issue.

The other significant bill was the Nation Building Funds Bill. The Coalition, the Greens and the independents had supported a variety of amendments in the Senate, which spent several hours in committee yesterday working through the bill. In essence, the Coalition and the Greens wanted greater transparency and a role for a Senate committee in assessing projects recommended for funding by Infrastructure Australia. The Coalition also wanted the role of running costs for funded projects addressed, and to prevent funds from the sale of Telstra that had been quarantined for rural and regional projects from being added to the Government’s infrastructure funds. The quarantining had been one of the sops thrown to the Nats to get them back the sale of Telstra by the Howard Government.

The Senate amendments would have established a best-practice process for vetting of infrastructure projects — albeit a gold-plated one, given it took the establishment of an entirely new Senate committee. The Coalition would never have considered it for a moment when it was in Government — particularly not with its preference for pork-barrelling — but we can only assume they have seen the light and will introduce such practices when they return to office.

While the Government devoted much of its time in the House of Representatives to speeches on the Fair Work Bill, after dinner it got around to looking at what had come back from the Senate. Just after 10pm, the Government rejected all the amendments to the Nation Building Funds Bill and kicked it straight back to the Senate. The responsible shadow, Andrew Robb, said at that point the Opposition insisted on the Senate amendments. This was presumably when the AFR decided to go with today’s front page about the Senate stymieing the Government infrastructure plans.

But by the time the bill came back to the Senate at 11.20pm, shadow Cabinet had met and decided that holding up the Bill wouldn’t be a good look when the Government was making so much of both its nation-building agenda and the need to boost the economy. Barnaby Joyce and Ron Boswell rose and gave chapter and verse on why there should continue to be a specific slush fund for rural and regional projects. Then, at 10 to 12, Nick Minchin rose and said, “I regret to say that, on balance, it is the Coalition’s position that we will not insist on these amendments,” on the basis that the Government would spend the next two months demonising them if they did.

There were another two hours of debate before the bill was brought to a vote. And when it was, only Senators Johnston, Ronaldson, Brandis, Coonan, Mason and Troeth from the Liberals voted for the unamended bill, although Mason missed the division on the sale of Telstra funds. Senators Eggleston and Ferguson voted with the Nationals in favour of the amendments. This was the second time in a week that Eggleston, from Western Australia, has stood apart from his colleagues, having joined Petro Georgiou earlier this week in backing changes to the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

Johnston, Ronaldson, Brandis and Coonan are all shadow Cabinet members and thus are bound by Cabinet solidarity. Mason is a Parliamentary Secretary. According to the ABC, there was confusion within the Coalition over who was required to vote and who was allowed to abstain, and reports of Coalition senators trying to bolt the chamber before the doors were locked for the vote.

The mass abstention was a poor look for Turnbull, especially with his Senate leader being amongst their number. But how much was a deliberate revolt, how much late-night confusion and how much the desperation of senators to get out of Canberra depends on whom you talk to. Politicians are not at their best late at night in December.


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One thought on “ALP and Liberal backflips in the final hour of parliament

  1. Chris J

    Like a bunch of jet-lagged ARL players our MPs turned up for the final hours of the parliamentary year to overall create an airhead’s dream. But full and extra points to the government with Gillard taking the energy of the year right into the final moments making even Costello and Howard at their best appear a couple of wimps. The girl has class. If ever we’ve had an MP sporting leadership credentials so early in a career its Gillard. The fittest most astute parliamentary player of the year. Congratulations Julia!


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