Bill Shorten

Amid claims of stunts and how irrelevant parliamentary shenanigans are to voters, one thing illustrated how bad the government’s loss of control of parliament last night was — Christopher Pyne actually admitted it was a “stuff-up”.

The man with — to borrow a Keatingism — more front than Mark Foy’s, who would lecture you that black was white and anything to the contrary was a typical Labor lie if it served the government’s interests, admitting that things had gone poorly for the government? Cripes. The preferred line now is that this was a “learning experience” and that it had been a valuable lesson — indeed, the Prime Minister was counting his blessings this morning on radio that it had happened so early in the life of the parliament. Yeah right, PM.

None of what happened yesterday is overly important in the scheme of things — there was never any danger of a bank royal commission being produced from the government losing a division, no bill was defeated in the House of Reps. And voters couldn’t care less about the minutiae of Parliament. But it’s the look of the thing, that contrast yet again between what the government says and what it does, a contrast that dogs it in seemingly every area of both policy and politics, whether it’s the fiscally disciplined government that is taxing and spending and running debt at ever higher levels or the promised “stable majority government”, freshly embarked on “a term of delivery”, that loses control of Parliament.

“I’ve got news for you,” Treasurer Scott Morrison yelled at Bill Shorten in one of only two Question Times this week, “when the whistle has blown, and you’re on the wrong side of the scoreboard, when you’re on the wrong side of this House, you lost the election, buddy.” Didn’t quite look that way last night as government MPs sat on the opposition side of the chamber losing divisions. Bill Shorten looked very comfortable in the Prime Minister’s chair.

[Keane: is anyone actually in charge ’round here?]

For a government that is now wracked by the issue of the Prime Minister’s authority and the emerging sense that no one is actually in charge, it seemed to demonstrate that those are very valid questions indeed.

And remember that the government had nearly two months since the election to get ready for this sitting, two months to get its act together, to make sure every MP knew the risks of being AWOL for even just a few minutes. In the Gillard years, now-Health Minister Sussan Ley, whose office was at the end of a corridor on the second floor of Parliament House, was the opposition MP furthest from the chamber. She knew exactly how long it would take her to get down there so she could be there for every division. Some Coalition MPs have evidently forgotten such lessons or, like minister Christian Porter, weren’t around for them. Labor, on the other hand, appears to have absorbed the lessons of running a parliament as a minority government at a deep level.

You can bet there was one Liberal MP who was perfectly relaxed about proceedings. Tony Abbott thrives on chaos, and constantly sought to create it in the Gillard years. His genius for creating dysfunction, however, isn’t required at the moment — the government managed it by itself. That’s been the key to his path back to the prime ministership. He’s given things the occasional push, to be sure, but there’s been no Rudd-style acts of utter bastardry and treachery designed to blow up his own side; instead, he’s been able to maintain an almost Zen-like calm as the Turnbull government takes repeated aim at its own feet. His borrowed description of a government “in office but not in power” — which Labor was happy to use this week — is emerging as the most on-point analysis of his replacement’s government.

Get set for more “learning experiences”. This government has an awful lot of them.