One of the characteristics of this weird Labor government is that while it is embarrassingly poor at many things, it has proved surprisingly effective in parliament. And it’s done so right from the get-go when it surprised the opposition and everyone else when it nominated Peter Slipper as deputy speaker.

Remember that we were told both by the Coalition and many in the commentariat that a minority government would be inherently unstable, that only macho politics based on strong majorities would provide effective government — not this namby-pamby, more consensual style based on negotiation? Since then, Labor has proved adept at getting even controversial legislation passed.

In a good example of how facts that don’t fit the story tend to get edited out of the narrative offered by the media, its repeated successes have garnered little coverage — a classic example being the flood levy, a noxious policy that started life as the biggest legislative test of the year for the government but which passed virtually unremarked just a few weeks later.

Then again, a government that has often struggled to exploit the benefits of incumbency outside parliament has a lot more of them inside the chamber, and it knows how to use them better. For example, Anthony Albanese’s move to adjourn parliament early on Tuesday night, when there would have normally been an hour of adjournment debate speeches to go, has yielded impressive dividends for such a minor manoeuvre. The opposition had repeatedly called a quorum during the day’s proceedings, so at 9.30 Albanese responded to yet another one by moving to adjourn the House.

The failure of several Coalition MPs to show up — ensuring the government won the vote — was the basis for the latest blow-up between Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. Turnbull is quite right to be annoyed at his treatment, since he let Tony Abbott’s wine-fuelled absence from a key vote on the Rudd government’s second stimulus package two years ago go through to the keeper at the time.

It’s a similar story in question time, where even under the post-election rules, the game is still rigged in the government’s favour. Moreover, the simple task of standing at the dispatch box for several minutes and berating the opposition is one most of Labor’s ministers seem to manage, although Wayne Swan seems entirely unable to fit his tirades within the loose rules laid down by Harry Jenkins about relevance even when he’s answering his own questions. By yesterday, Swan had seen off the opposition’s concerted effort to suggest something, somewhere, somehow untoward about his handling of Colin Barnett’s mining tax rise.

That was mostly because even for an opposition notable for its hypocrisy and inconsistency, prosecuting the issue while avoiding the tricky fact that Barnett’s action is every bit the “sovereign risk” the Coalition and its mining industry mates insisted the RSPT was is virtually impossible, unless Tony Abbott is about to compare the Barnett government unfavourably to that of Botswana, as he did about Labor.

But yesterday, even Swan was dispatching questions with ease. Labor had a spring in its step.

Abbott had used the pre-question time speeches on Sorry Day to promote his monument to Noel Pearson’s hypertrophied ego, the Wild Rivers Bill — another opposition parliamentary loss. And his praise of Rudd for having the “vision” to say sorry looked odd given the presence on his own handpicked frontbench of Peter Dutton and Sophie Mirabella, both of whom shamefully boycotted the apology. But the primary reason for Labor MPs looking cheerier than normal was that Nicola Roxon gave the opposition a frightful kicking over tobacco donations.

To be honest, Roxon approaching the dispatch box never summons memories of Killen, Whitlam, Keating or Costello, and she usually bats well down the question time order for Labor. But she can be stolidly effective in the chamber and yesterday, sent in at first drop, she produced British American Tobacco’s “Political Donations” page, which has the inconvenient data that in 2010 the Coalition received 111,000 pound sterling in donations out of a total BAT donations spend of 114,000 pounds. You can quibble with the figures — surely BAT finds other ways to support friendly politicians in the US and must have cultivated influence among politicians across Asia — but there it sits on the company website.

Subsequently, Albanese rose and made merry with the Turnbull business, reading the whole email into Hansard. Labor MPs suddenly looked happy, and were in strong voice. Nick Champion even got himself thrown out for heckling Andrew Southcott while the latter — a nice bloke but not the most devastating parliamentarian — tried to ask a question.

The difference is, in parliament Labor is able to home in on the opposition’s many weak points, and belt them effectively. Outside parliament, it is almost comically unable to do so. Partly it’s because the parliamentary rules favour the government, and partly because in the chamber, the Coalition’s media cheerleaders can’t help and the opposition has to stand on its own two feet.

Maybe Albo should extend the sitting period to 48 weeks a year.

Peter Fray

A lot can happen in 3 months.

3 months is a long time in 2020. Join us to make sense of it all.

Get you first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12. Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

12 weeks for $12