Parliamentarians are scheduled to disperse for a fortnight at the end of proceedings today, giving the government a momentary breather from pressure over Craig Thomson.

As of yesterday at 2pm, the Coalition had 20 allocated questions remaining this week to direct to the government, minus the question allocated to the independents. Opportunities to ask about who knew what and when about Craig Thomson, his credit card use and the convenient gift to him by the NSW Labor Party.

Instead of using them for the ostensible purpose of question time, to subject the government to scrutiny in the public interest, and instead of using them for the political purpose of turning up the heat on Labor, Tony Abbott asked one question — did the Prime Minister have confidence in Thomson — and then moved a suspension of standing orders.

After this was defeated, the Prime Minister immediately rose and ended question time. Just as she’s always done after a suspension motion, of which there have been seemingly dozens this year, just as Kevin Rudd did, just as John Howard did. Don’t want to ask questions? Fine, no question time. Nothing unusual in it, except that courtesy of Abbott’s impatience, it was at 2.40.

Scratch eight or nine questions from the 20, then, just like that.

Thus went opportunities to, if nothing else, try to make the government squirm, or maybe to test out a wider range of ministers with questions, by putting poorer parliamentary performers like Robert McClelland under pressure. You never know who might stumble or stuff up under pressure, yielding a cut-through moment.

The suspension or censure motion could always come later, after some pressure has been built up. But no — having repeatedly wasted censure motions throughout the year on any topic that seemed to spring to mind, it felt like to make a real demonstration, the opposition had to drop the whole business of asking questions and go straight to it.

Now Labor only has to get through another eight or nine questions today — unless of course it’s to be curtailed again courtesy of another censure or suspension motion.

Parliament’s been sitting for two weeks, but the Thomson issue has only really turned heated this week, despite little in the way of salient new information emerging. All of a sudden the opposition is in a rush, convinced it might be the means to another election. Such a rush, indeed, that that eminent jurist George Brandis felt obliged to chivvy the NSW Police Minister, who in turn called the NSW Police Commissioner, to discuss an investigation.

Always in a hurry, this mob, and never overly interested in trivial matters like the independence of regulators and law enforcement. One wonders if, in the event that Fair Work Australia and the NSW Police are unable to find any wrongdoing, we’ll see the same regulator creep we’ve seen from Christopher Pyne over the BER program, and hear calls for a Royal Commission.

Perhaps Abbott could cut to the chase and do that this afternoon and save us all some trouble.

The other problem with the early suspension motion was that it gave Anthony Albanese 10 minutes to berate the opposition, which he did with good effect by reeling off a number of quotes from opposition figures in other circumstances, pointing out its hypocrisy over Mary Jo Fisher and again going over Tony Abbott’s murky dealings in his effort to destroy Pauline Hanson. Albanese gave the impression Labor was belatedly starting to take the gloves off, a necessary response after insisting for so long on fighting by Queensberry rules in a wild brawl. Most pertinent was his citation of Abbott’s call “let’s let those authorities make their investigations and come to any conclusion” about the lengthy investigation into Ross Vasta and other MPs over the misuse of their parliamentary priting allowance in 2007.

That was a rather different investigation than that of Thomson, which deals with union funds, not taxpayer funds, and before he became an MP, not while he was one. Vasta eventually paid back $24,000 of taxpayers’ money in 2007 because of what he said was an “administrative error”.

What Albanese didn’t include was that Labor — primarily in the form of “accountability spokesperson” Penny Wong — at the time was hounding John Howard over what he knew about alleged breaches by Vasta, Gary Hardgrave and Andrew Laming, and when, and demanding he answer questions about it. Plus ça change …

Vasta was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing. He lost his seat of Bonner in 2007, but had another crack last year and won it back from Kerry Rea. Today, few people would remember that he was a thorn in the side of the Howard Government for an extended period in its last days. So there’s hope for Craig Thomson yet. Probably more than for the Gillard Government, actually.

And don’t forget a notable absence. Missing all this fun is Kevin Rudd, still recovering from his heart operation. The most we’ve heard from Rudd lately is about him defeating Alan Jones in a tea competition — the only victory over the forces of reaction Labor’s likely to have for a while. At the moment, Rudd’s king-in-exile act looks smarter than ever.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey