Last week I noted that one immediate consequence of the hung parliament was that all bets were off — everything was up for grabs.
I was referring, of course, to policy; as Julia Gillard pointed out, circumstances have changed somewhat since she made her election promises.
Even to get through stage A — passage by the House of Representatives — she needs the support of at least four crossbenchers, all of whom have insisted that they will treat every piece of legislation on its merits and vote as independents.
The four nominally supporting her government have also set other terms and conditions that will have implications for policy, most obviously in the field of climate change but in other areas as well. Clearly this will mean compromise and modification on several fronts.
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And Gillard, by admitting as much last week, was doing no more than stating the obvious. When it comes to Labor’s election platform, all bets are indeed off. What I did not mean, or expect, was that the normal processes of parliament would also be abandoned without any serious attempt at explanation or justification.
I assumed, for instance, that written agreements between the parties would be honoured and that the longstanding conventions would be upheld — that decent and civilised behaviour would prevail. And for this naiveté and optimism I must now apologise. Tony Abbott’s decision to shred the solemn undertaking he gave to abide by the agenda for parliamentary reform has set a new and dangerous low, which may result in the system disintegrating into something perilously close to anarchy.
The reason the rural independents insisted that both sides of politics sign the agreement before indicating which of them would have their support was precisely to prevent this happening; to lock both government and opposition into the reform process, to make it genuinely bipartisan. It was always obvious that the provision for pairing the speaker would give the government an advantage, but this was more than adequately countered by other provisions that favoured the opposition and the backbenchers.
Overall the package was sensible and balanced. And of course Abbott has said he will definitely stick with the rest of it — the bits that give him an edge. But on the speakership, the government is on its own.
The proposal by Rob Oakeshott is simple enough: the speaker does not have a deliberative vote, so by appointing one of its own as speaker, as is the convention, the government effectively loses one of its numbers, which, in a parliament as tight as the present one, can be crucial. The idea was that the opposition should therefore appoint the deputy speaker, who would also forfeit his vote, thereby evening things up.
Oakeshott then confused things by nominating himself for the job, which was unworkable: as an independent his vote could go with either side, thus making pairing impossible. But the original idea was perfectly sound: although the opposition started by suggesting it would breach the constitution, the Solicitor-General was adamant that it would not; if the parties chose to come to an agreement, it would be perfectly OK.
Ah, said Tony Abbott, so it would only be an informal arrangement, not written into the legislation; oh dear no, we couldn’t have that. Matters of governance are far too important to be left to an informal arrangement. So all bets are off.
But wait a minute. Like many other conventions of government, the entire system of pairing, which has been in existence since federation, is an informal arrangement. It is simply a fair and practical means of ensuring that the numbers in the house, which are determined by the electorate, remain unaffected when members — either government or opposition — are unavoidably absent.
The proposal to extend the arrangement to include the speaker may be an innovation, but it is hardly revolutionary. If Abbott is serious, he must be prepared to abolish the idea of pairing altogether — and in fact, that seems to be precisely the situation.
The new opposition whip, Warren Entsch, says from now on even ministers making overseas trips will not be automatically paired. He will have to be satisfied that the trip is on official business and in the national interest: “I guess every case will be treated on its merits, and in any case there is a lot of time when the parliament is not sitting.” True; so will the rest of the world please rearrange things so as to make sure events and meetings that could involve Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan, Stephen Smith and the rest of them only take place while the Australian parliament is in recess.
And as for backbenchers, well, forget it. In the past they have asked for pairs for all sorts of reasons, but now only crises such as serious illness, bereavement or childbirth (women only) will qualify. Or that’s the current line from Tony Abbott’s ferocious opposition. In the end it is likely that commonsense will prevail; after all, to have the place run with a modicum of civilisation and decency is as much in the interests of most opposition members as those of the government. But Abbot has now made it clear that his lust for power is absolute; he will stop at nothing.
And he is inviting equally brutal payback. Labor’s unedifying attempt to bribe Alex Somlyay with the deputy speakership in exchange for the same guarantee as has been given by the independents — no support for votes of no confidence or to deny supply — ended in tears after Abbott’s enforcers paid him a visit. But by throwing the rule book out of the window, Abbott has indeed ushered in a new paradigm, which he may live to regret.
By the way, paradigm is an anagram of pig drama. In this context, it seems entirely appropriate.