After the leadership spill, the parliamentary theatre comes. The vanquished take their place on the backbench; the victor the chair at the Despatch Box, the opposition prepares to attack. And so it unfolded Tuesday afternoon after the morning’s Liberal leadership ballot. Peter Dutton took a position up at the far back; Malcolm Turnbull took his usual seat as Prime Minister, but one with the support of less than 60% of his colleagues.
Labor wasted little time in attacking, moving a motion of no confidence in Turnbull — the first of this near-hung parliament — after the first question, which the government, instead of rejecting, took on, “with relish” Christopher Pyne declared. It was an eccentric tactical choice by Labor, forgoing the opportunity to build momentum and pressure with questions aimed at ministers about their support for Turnbull. But at least, instead of the artificial and silly rules of engagement of question time, we would have the heavy hitters of both sides lining up to take their best shots.
Bill Shorten was first. His speech was Shorten-like — neither good nor bad, neither inspiring nor boring. Shorten started off poorly as a parliamentary orator a decade ago, and rarely gets beyond workmanlike even now; this was no different. But his job isn’t on the line, that of the man opposite was. Malcolm Turnbull’s response was poor. He began by targeting Shorten, then rapidly moved on to defending the government’s achievements, but in mind-numbing detail; numbers about participation rates and health investment tumbled from his mouth, not so much down the weeds as stuck in the roots.
The body language of his colleagues told the tale. They were silent, staring listlessly at their screens and papers, only occasionally finding their voices. On the frontbench, Julie Bishop watched and nodded. Christian Porter wrote furiously in his papers, pausing to wriggle his pen reflectively; Nationals leader Michael McCormack clapped the tips of his fingers together, perhaps considering his trainwreck of an interview with David Speers yesterday. All this time, 10 metres back, Peter Dutton furiously texted, head down.
Tanya Plibersek rose after Turnbull and kept the tone light, joking about Dutton sitting in Abbott’s lap as a creepy puppet, a 21st century Chucky doll. McCormack rose and didn’t even come close to using his allotted time, yelling about farmers. Labor’s Tony Burke gave the best speech, talking about the contrast between Turnbull, a man with no principles, and Dutton, a man of extremist principles.
The debate was an accurate summation of where politics currently is: a competent but uninspiring Opposition Leader who can deliver when it counts, backed by a strong frontbench, against a Prime Minister who struggles to deliver and can’t energise his own party, and a deputy from another party regarded as a particularly poor placeholder.