The Government may have its agenda mired in Senate obstructionism, but in the House of Representatives it is so dominant it is painful to watch.

The Opposition rarely troubled the Government in Parliament last year, but got off to a reasonably bright start this year by hammering Joel Fitzgibbon over the SAS pay debacle. Now that political business has turned to policy issues, they’re on the receiving end. Yesterday’s Question Time was as close to a political massacre as we’ve seen since Peter Costello in his pomp.

It started ordinarily enough, with the Opposition probing on the ETS, the Prime Minister boring for Australia as always at the Dispatch Box, Wayne Swan reporting from the G20, Mr Speaker, from the G20, Stephen Smith silkily discussing Pakistan and Harry Jenkins complaining in exasperation “unbelievable, you people”. The Opposition got all the way to 2:53pm without incident, at which point Sid Sidebottom rose to ask Julia Gillard whether there were any proposals to “strip away the rights of Australian workers”.

Funnily enough, the answer was “yes”.

The Opposition had circulated amendments to the Government’s Fair Work Bill altering the definition of a small business to 25 full-time equivalent staff, from 15 staff. And because the definition of a small business affected redundancy entitlements, the Opposition had been careful to make sure they didn’t also increase the threshold at which people were entitled to redundancy, which even under Workchoices remained at 15.

But not careful enough. They changed the number, but not the full-time equivalent requirement, meaning employees in businesses at the threshold of the definition of small businesses might suddenly lose their entitlement to redundancy payments, which they had retained even under Workchoices.

It’s the sort of error you make in Opposition, when you don’t have an army of lawyers and Commonwealth drafters to advise you, and you have to craft amendments to complex legislation with your staff and help from the Senate clerks.

Gillard, however, was not in a forgiving mood, and launched into an attack. “Let every Australian worker, particularly those who work for small businesses, understand that today the Leader of the Opposition and his Liberal Party have drafted an amendment and committed themselves to supporting an amendments that rips redundancy off hardworking employees.”

Turnbull turned around and looked at his IR spokesman Michael Keenan, who looked like he hoped the floor might swallow him up at that point. Greg Hunt offered to get up and run interference with a point of order but Turnbull waved him back. The Coalition backbench was, as one, collectively engrossed in the contents of its folders, press clippings, laptops and the little ballot papers they were filling in (purpose unknown but not apparently for the leadership). By late yesterday evening, the Coalition had circulated a replacement amendment that fixed the problem, but too late to prevent the embarrassment.

It got worse, because the Opposition had then planned an attack on the Member for Petrie, Yvette D’Ath, with the suggestion she had somehow improperly secured funding under the second stimulus package for a school in Peter Dutton’s electorate, to benefit the local State Labor candidate in the Queensland election. But Government members dissolved into hysterics at the notion of Coalition members complaining about Labor members securing funds for schools in Coalition electorates. “I would have thought that the member for Dickson would have sent a thankyou note to the member for Petrie for getting this problem resolved for one of his local schools,” Gillard crowed. Dutton was dispatched from the chamber in the ensuing uproar.

Worse, Christopher Pyne rose twice more and continued the attack, reading at length from P&C meeting notes, to the evident delight of Gillard and Government members. Anthony Albanese began making quips about Dutton’s “Dorothy Dickson”. Brendan Nelson rose — for the first time since he lost the leadership — and asked about the cost of local tradesmen being given preference for work under the stimulus package.

Little of this would have filtered out to voters, but Parliamentary momentum matters to MPs. In a week when the Government should have been under pressure, given its inability to get key legislation through the Senate, Question Time has been like shooting fish in a barrel.

Monday’s Question Time broke down in laughter when Michael Johnson, given a question to promote Queensland backbenchers, asked Rudd whether he agreed with Craig Emerson that the IR bill “got the balance right” and then stopped, allowing Emerson the chance to theatrically give himself up. Johnson didn’t help himself by offering to ask the question in Chinese. “Got a preselection coming up have you?” called House wag Daryl Melham.

The last first term Opposition got lucky — the travel rorts affair served up a conveyor belt of opportunities for Parliamentary pressure and ministerial scalps to Kim Beazley and Simon Crean. The discipline of Rudd and his control over his ministers has meant that, Fitzgibbon’s travails with the Department of Defence aside, this Opposition has been left to scramble for opportunities. But their tactical judgements about Question Time aren’t helping at all. 

Peter Fray

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