The proverbial visitor from Mars, or perhaps one of the many visiting foreign dignitaries who have graced the House of Representatives chamber this week, would gather from Question Time that the critical issue facing Australia at a time of unprecedented economic upheaval was whether quotes for building new school infrastructure were too big.
Three Question Times so far this week, and a grand total of eight questions from the Opposition about actual economic matters — well, OK, the evils of debt — and 12 about school infrastructure funding. The latter draw on the painful experience of a Hastings Public School or a Grays Point Public School which has, according to the Coalition, suffered the outrage of being given too much money to build a new facility, prompting incredulous head-shaking and groans of disgust from Coalition MPs.
Those questions form part of a joint campaign by the Opposition and its house organ The Australian against the Government’s stimulus package. The Oz campaign started off weak and has gotten weaker as the days have gone by. It is yet to identify a single actual case of mismanagement of any kind, despite what should be the fertile field of State Government incompetence. Today it is reduced to pleading for readers to send in horror stories, and quoting usually the much-maligned education academics about how the stimulus should have been spent on paying teachers more.
Except that requires ongoing funding, not temporary funding like the stimulus package, and normally The Oz is complaining about the Government’s debt level so presumably it opposes more recurrent spending … it’s very confusing trying to follow these people when they’re on one of their partisan crusades.
Julia Gillard appears happy to use the questions as an opportunity to point out the Coalition’s opposition to the stimulus package. Heaven help any Opposition MPs who show up at the opening of a new hall in a school in their electorate. Nevertheless, Christopher Pyne, for whom the adjective “undaunted” appears to have been created, is happy to keep going at the Deputy Prime Minister on the issue.
The only other issue the Opposition seems willing to run at the moment is some sort of undefined suggestion of faint impropriety on the part of someone in the Government, somewhere. This has mainly taken the form of an attempt to suggest the Prime Minister somehow acted inappropriately in regard to John Grant, the car dealer who has lent him a ute, vis-a-vis the car dealer industry finance investment vehicle (which will only be available to finance companies, not motor dealers). This visibly ran out of puff yesterday when Turnbull was reduced to asking the Treasurer to re-confirm a previous answer that Treasury officials could attend a Senate inquiry into the vehicle (both the finance vehicle and the actual ute).
In fact things looked dire for the Coalition yesterday, with Andrew Southcott, who does not exactly summon the image of a Parliamentary attack dog, getting three questions to ask about contact between the Employment Services Minister and Mission Australia, a successful bidder in the employment services contracts tender process. For once the quizzical looks on the faces of Government ministers were unfeigned, as they and everyone else tried to grasp exactly what Southcott was suggesting, a mystery that remained unsolved even in Southcott’s later press release, which said an email from Mission Australia thanking the Minister for taking the time to meet them “raises some serious concerns”.
The Government has a straightforward reply to this sort of thing. Tony Burke took a Dorothy Dixer and went over old ground — old, clear-felled ground — about Turnbull’s involvement in a company that undertook some highly dubious logging practices in the Solomon Islands in the early 1990s. There was nothing new in it, but a clear indication Turnbull’s storied business career might provide a potentially rich seam of material, particularly in relation to tax, which some Labor elements feel Turnbull is vulnerable on. Burke’s effort got the full attention of Turnbull, who had hitherto been busy with his laptop. Craig Emerson also rose and made a particularly tortuous effort to drag Turnbull’s wealth and ritzy home address into an answer on the Australian Business Investment Partnership, throwing in Joe Hockey and Helen Coonan for good measure.
Now that Peter Costello’s departure means Turnbull will take the Liberals to the next election, Labor may start to drip stories from its Turnbull dirt file.
At their joint party room meeting this week, a large number of Coalition MPs discussed the need to overhaul Question Time in the Reps, perhaps making it more like the Senate, where there’s a time limit on answers and supplementary questions are permitted. It’s marvellous how the scales fall from the eyes of MPs about Parliamentary process when they go into opposition.
Nevertheless, the formulaic and increasingly banal Question Time of the Rudd era is indeed in need of reform. Coalition MPs should pursue the issue. They could start with an apology for the abuses they perpetrated when in Government, admit they’ve got a lot of gall calling for reform, and then make some sensible suggestions and commit to implementing them if they are returned to government. Then, at least, Labor would have to treat the matter seriously.