Can the Prime Minister run and hide? With this Opposition, probably. Still, the pursuit of the Prime Minister over the Oceanic Viking made, inter alia, for a rather more interesting Question Time yesterday than we’ve had in some months.
The Government’s line on the Oceanic Viking — expertly put by a cool and impressive Stephen Smith on ABC Radio this morning — is essentially sound. Australia assisted Indonesia to aid a stricken vessel in its waters. Those on board don’t get to pick and choose where they go having been rescued.
Nevertheless, various parties on the Left and the Right are hellbent on whipping this into a Tampa-esque crisis. And the Government is constrained by its own rhetoric from stating the obvious: this is essentially an Indonesian matter.
It’s a bit like all those questions about schools spending that Julia Gillard fielded earlier in the year, in which she had to answer for the bodies actually implementing the schools component of the stimulus package- state education authorities. But because this Government is all about “ending the blame game”, any reference to State bureaucrats stuffing up could never pass Gillard’s lips.
In the same way, you won’t hear Rudd declare that the people rescued by the Oceanic Viking are Indonesia’s responsibility, even when they are. Not when he is heavily dependent on “regional cooperation” to help keep the boats away.
This made for elaborate ducking and weaving in Question Time yesterday. Five times the Prime Minister was asked about what he knew about arrangements relating to the vessel. Five times he avoided the question, giving brief answers full of fudge like “the normal agency of the Australian government” and “I cannot recall each step in that sequence of events” and “there are diplomatic negotiations which occur between governments”.
“Tough but humane” eventually appeared, although a much-anticipated and — as always -– unprompted refusal to make any apology didn’t.
He tried to throw his pursuers off — first with a reference to the “dirt-digging” email , for which a question had been reserved for a Anthony Albanese comedy routine later. That didn’t work, despite Rudd blatantly defying the Speaker and continuing to discuss it after he was told to stay relevant. But, asked a fourth time, he succeeded, baiting the Opposition and particularly Philip Ruddock and Kevin Andrews into an angry exchange over the detention of children and children overboard.
Both Ruddock and Andrews rose to complain — quite how it is possible to reflect in any way adversely on Ruddock’s integrity in a way he failed to achieve during his time in office is one of the sublime mysteries of Australian public life, but that didn’t stop him remonstrating — as did a number of other Opposition figures.
It was in the ensuing uproar that Speaker Jenkins appeared to come close to doing his block, with a particularly extended version of his schoolteacher trick of staying silent until everyone notices and shuts up. The silence went on so long Christopher Pyne eventually and hesitantly ventured “are you going to speak?”
Things settled down after that. The Opposition switched to infrastructure and other matters. Albo got to do his comedy routine about the Opposition email on digging dirt, reprising his e-security routine from the Godwin Grech incident. The question had been scheduled for earlier but the outbreak of animosity occasioned by the asylum seeker questions prompted them to delay it. Christopher Pyne then asked Julia Gillard about education, prompting her to approach the Dispatch Box carrying only her pen, always a sign she’s about to bite. She didn’t disappoint, giving a brief but vintage performance full of swipes at The Australian, the lack of Coalition policy and Pyne’s “bellows and yaps”.
Jenny Macklin later rose and spoke, quite movingly, about the apology to the Forgotten Generation, supported by an emotional Steve Irons. The momentary imposition of genuine feeling briefly imposed a sense of civilized behaviour on the House, although it didn’t last too long.
What about Wilson, I hear you ask. Wilson had a quiet day by his standards, until the end. Irons asked Justine Elliot about the numbers of aged care places in Perth. She was three sentences into her answer when Wilson rose to declare “this is a question about supplying assistance and facilities to aged people with dementia. It is wrong for the minister to raise issues either of the past or, more particularly, to read a diatribe of expenditure that is not materialised. Give the old people a go!”
Needs no comment, really.