Conventional political wisdom is that Labor can’t win on the asylum seeker issue full stop, and it’s mostly right. Move to the Right and it’s unconvincing, validates more hardline views on the issue and establishes the debate on territory controlled by the Coalition. Move to the Left, it loses votes in outer-suburban electorates in Sydney, Perth and Brisbane. And either way, as long as the political conversation is about asylum seekers, the Coalition benefits.

Labor’s strategy for a long while has thus been to try to keep the issue off the agenda as much as possible. At some point, though, there are diminishing returns to that approach, and Scott Morrison’s disgusting efforts to exploit the issue and the ramping up by grubs Kevin Andrews and Cory Bernardi of attacks on Islam appear to have been the trigger point for Labor to decide to declare it actually stands for something on the issue.

First, well into question time yesterday, Melissa Parke asked Julia Gillard about migration and multiculturalism. Parke is former UN human rights lawyer with stints in, inter alia, Kosovo, Beirut and Gaza. The PM used the question to renew a line about One Nation used repeatedly yesterday by Labor, and demand that Tony Abbott sack Morrison and Bernardi and back a non-discriminatory immigration policy.

That was followed by Ed Husic, the only MP with a Muslim background, asking Chris Bowen about multiculturalism, allowing Bowen to kick the tripe out of Bernardi, whose persistent attacks on Islam disgrace his party and the Senate. Bowen, who’s one of Labor’s best performers, has so far looked wasted in Immigration; far better, it seemed, to put him in Finance where he could try to fill the enormous hole left by Lindsay Tanner. But his aggressive approach has proved valuable in taking the attack to the Coalition on an issue they own — it’s hard to imagine Chris Evans ever making much of a dent in defending multiculturalism.

Morrison stayed silent. Didn’t ask a single question, which is curious given he was so demanding of answers last week about funeral expenses. His only contribution yesterday was to rise at 9pm last night to move a motion calling for a cap on protection visas provided to asylum seekers arriving by boat, under his usual figleaf of concern for refugees. It may have been that the opposition was hiding him during question time, but it looked, to use an old rugby league term, like he dogged it.

It was all more of the same as the first week of the parliamentary year: Gillard strong and sharp, back to her deputy prime ministerial best, the opposition seemingly unable, despite a wealth of policy problems within the government, to lock onto a single issue — several questions were on health reform, which is hardly going to be fertile ground for the Coalition. The flood levy only featured as a cameo, the mining tax not at all.

Instead, they settled for focussing on Bill Shorten, who was filling in for Wayne Swan.

There’s plenty of potential for the Coalition in Get Shorten. He might rate himself as prime ministerial timber but, more problematic, he seems to think he has some skills at the dispatch box, when it’s clear he has still got his training wheels on. He might note Greg Combet’s approach, which was to master the basics of ministerial performance in question time first before trying to get on the front foot.

The only time Shorten showed nous was when Karen Andrews tried to catch him out on health funding and Bronwyn Bishop saved a visibly floundering Shorten by foolishly rising on a point of order that gave him time to get the answer. Bishop even realised what she’d done but, given those painful non-points of order are the only moments in the spotlight she ever gets these days, she couldn’t help herself.

It’s only early in the parliamentary year but a low point was plumbed right at the end of question time when Kevin Rudd rose to discuss the Middle East and, in particular, Libya, revealing the Libyan ambassador had been called in for a dressing down and that he’d spoken to the Bahraini foreign minister about the killing of protesters there.

This was, plainly, a matter of complete non-interest to a number of Coalition MPs who used the answer to offer doubtless witty advice to Rudd. Peter Dutton and Greg Hunt both heckled and interjected. And sitting up in the back corner, Queensland MP Ewen Jones spent the entire answer jeering and laughing as Rudd discussed Middle East protests, the slaughter of demonstrators and the presence of Australians in Libya.

Classy.

Peter Fray

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