Our parliamentarians only made it one week into a four-weeks-out-of-five extended session before collectively losing the plot yesterday. If they keep serving up the sort of rubbish they produced yesterday they might start finding themselves with about the same level of public esteem as their British counterparts.
There was plenty of blame to go around. The Prime Minister and Anthony Albanese started it with the photos of Coalition MPs earlier this week, tabling them as they used them so they were “incidental” to their answers — the only circumstances in which props are allowed. Joe Hockey countered with some graphs, first on individual A4 sheets, then yesterday he tried to unfurl an extended series of graphs, with the prim, choreographed assistance of Julie Bishop.
When Harry Jenkins sat him down, there were howls of confected outrage from the Opposition, inevitably led by Hockey’s bellows of incredulity. No one in Parliament does better than Hockey the sound of shock, of stunned outrage, of complete disbelief that the Speaker could act so unreasonably, or that a Government minister could utter such appalling lies and not be struck dead on the spot by a God with the faintest sense of justice.
Hockey got a pair of scissors and began dismantling his fold-out booklet. The Speaker, not unreasonably, suggested he drop the arts and craft session and ask his question. More howls of outrage.
Meanwhile, Wilson Tuckey, mad as hell and not taking it anymore, had left the chamber and come up to the Press Gallery after he was not allowed to table some documents, he claimed, that showed “entrapment” by the Attorney-General. He handed out to the faintly-bemused denizens of the Gallery a letter from Robert McClelland to Tuckey advising of a new Commonwealth-funded counselling service in his electorate and attaching a “shell” press release if he cared to use it to announce the service.
Governments provide shell releases to backbenchers whenever there’s an announcement to be made in their electorates. This is the first government that appears to extend that courtesy to Opposition backbenchers. The fact that they do it while berating Coalition MPs who welcome stimulus package spending in their electorates suggests Tuckey kinda sorta had a point, although one with the caveat that any Coalition MP silly enough to promote a Labor Government’s spending deserves whatever they get.
It was a week for interruptions in the Gallery. On Wednesday, a security guard had entered and begun demanding that all journalists who had a mobile phone leave or provide their pass number for further action. A number of journalists use their (silent) phones to stay in email contact both with their offices and with MPs in the chamber below, many of whom happily send messages back and forth to the Gallery during proceedings. There are also some journalists, I am given to understand, who Twitter about Question Time, which may not be permitted under established practice but which arguably provides a worthwhile insight into the political process, depending on the acuity of the journalists concerned. Said security guard took numbers until he reached the formidable presence of Malcolm Farr, when a lengthy discussion ensued and said guard retired from the gallery. There may be further developments.
Back on the floor, Wayne Swan had given up actually answering questions. This wasn’t much of a surprise since the Government had also given up bothering to write them.
“Will the Treasurer outline for the House the importance of stimulating the economy through direct investment in infrastructure so we can support jobs in local communities?” Tony Zappia lifelessly intoned at one point.
Tony Smith later twice asked Swan about the possibility of further increases in Commonwealth debt. The second time, Swan didn’t bother even vaguely referring to the question, but tried to read quotes from Opposition MPs about debt levels and, after a couple of points of order from Christopher Pyne, Swan was correctly sat down by the Speaker. It was one good call on a day Harry Jenkins might otherwise want to forget, given how badly things got away from him.
Smith’s questions were part of the Opposition’s week-long theme of debt — they only asked a handful of questions the entire week not related to the deficit. Of course, it’s tough to actually ask the same question over and over again (about as tough, in the Opposition’s case, as actually saying what level of debt a Coalition Government would have) so we had variations on the theme of debt — debt in five years time, debt in thirteen years time, how debt would be paid off, when it would be paid off.
I confess that no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t work out what the Opposition’s point was about debt in 2022, especially on Wednesday when Malcolm Turnbull’s first question was to demand inflation figures for 2022. Wayne Swan’s answer to virtually everything was to refer to the Budget papers, which was more than a little misleading, but reflected a strategy of spending as little time as possible discussing debt and deficits and as much time as possible talking about infrastructure projects.
The Government may win this battle not in Parliament, or amongst the commentariat, but out in the community, as school buildings and new infrastructure go up and people move into new homes and can identify a real-world consequence of the Government’s stimulus spending. It will be powerful evidence of the Government’s strategy for dealing with the recession.
While our elected representatives engaged in a collective act of juvenile behaviour, a barn owl had settled into one of the trees in the Senate courtyard to provide a mocking metaphor for the lack of wisdom inside. The owl spent the day asleep, except for occasionally opening an eye to consider the Senate estimates witnesses, journalists and other passers-by watching it through a nearby window. At least one of us had a productive day.