Parliamentary question time can make or break governments, prime ministers, premiers and opposition leaders. Which is very strange because very few voters ever bother to watch it, listen to it or read Hansard transcripts the following day.

If you have any doubts about this assertion, just look at the trouble Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison are in after floundering, unconvincing and amateurish performances in the House of Representatives recently.

The gloss has worn off both of them, while Bill Shorten’s Labor opposition has gained unexpected momentum.

In NSW, the situation is quite the reverse. Coalition Premier Mike Baird goes from strength to strength as the nation’s most popular leader while Labor leader Luke Foley is scrambling in his wake.

Question time in the NSW “Bearpit” has become a stark focus of Foley’s ineffective leadership.

Last week, when Parliament resumed after its holiday break, Foley, his shadow treasurer Michael Daley and shadow attorney-general Paul Lynch seized every question over three consecutive days to interrogate Brad Hazzard, the bombastic former attorney-general who is now Minister for Family and Community Services.

Hazzard chose to defend himself by bluntly admitting he had made phone calls to the Independent Commission Against Corruption on the eve of its aborted inquiry into deputy Crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen SC.

He brushed aside suggestions of political interference of ICAC, telling Parliament he was fulfilling his role as attorney-general and he would do the same thing again.

While Labor’s “Big Three” monopolised question time for three days, questions about the ransacking of TAFE, health cuts and forced council mergers went begging. Some members of the shadow cabinet and many backbenchers looked on in mild disbelief.

As Crikey pointed out the test of Labor’s strategy would be whether the question time attack would continue this week or be dropped.

The result is in: not a single question was asked on Tuesday about the Hazzard/ICAC/Cunneen affair that had preoccupied Labor’s attack for the whole of the first week of the sitting.

Instead, questions were hurled at Premier Mike Baird over unsavoury events during the election campaign in East Hills when Labor candidate Cameron Murphy was scurrilously targeted by anonymous “dirty tricks” leaflets. An official investigation is still underway, which could upset the narrow Liberal victory by Glenn Brookes, an ardent right winger whose political career is supported by broadcaster Alan Jones.

While Hazzard has escaped any sanction for blindsiding ICAC with his private phone calls, Labor’s intense questioning raises two questions:

  1. Why didn’t ICAC commissioner Megan Latham complain about the over-zealous contacts made by the attorney-general; and
  2. Did she inform ICAC Inspector David Levine AO QC so he could report the unusual events to Parliament?

This week’s switch from one Liberal target (Hazzard) to another (Brookes) is in line with the approach of Foley’s chief of staff, Pat Garcia, who heads the question time strategy committee.

The strategy favours grabbing headlines and media space as the foremost objective of a party in opposition. But the trouble is that substantive policy issues tend to get lost in the daily scramble for media attention.

If the media loses interest in this Game of Drones, then the strategy comes undone. And when their “exclusives” fail to arouse reporters’ interest, spin doctors become more desperate and correspondingly more inventive. Embroidery begins to replace factual content.

It might prolong political life, but it is ultimately fatal. Foley’s team is not yet in this zone, but the danger signs are present.

Peter Fray

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