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Suspended animation: Labor’s refusal to debate with the opposition

28 April 2012 894 views No Comment

WHILE most government members were trumpeting the Peter Slipper defection at the end of last year as a triumph for Julia Gillard, I recall one Labor frontbencher privately likening the situation to the Prime Minister knowingly lighting up an exploding cigar.

Designed to deliver a two-vote turnaround in the House of Representatives, with the former speaker Harry Jenkins returning to the government benches and the Coalition losing Slipper to the Speaker’s chair, it was a political fix destined to blow up in the PM’s face.

But despite intense media speculation surrounding the numbers in the House of Representatives, any consideration of the voting patterns of the so-called independent members show their support for the Labor government is unwavering.

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So it was particularly fascinating to hear the media reports that emerged during the last sitting week before the end of the first parliamentary session this year about how upset the government is becoming by the opposition’s tactical dominance in the House of Representatives.

Anthony Albanese, the leader of the government in the House of Representatives, reportedly told the Labor caucus that the tactics of his counterpart, the opposition’s chief parliamentary tactician, Christopher Pyne, surrounding questions and the use of suspensions of standing orders, enabling the parliament to stop and debate a central issue of importance, were really getting up his nose.

For an opposition this is quite an achievement, because no one should be under any illusions about how our parliamentary system operates and just how heavily it favours the government.

In the Australian parliament, the government of the day has supreme power over parliamentary operations, over standing orders, over procedural decision-making: almost nothing can happen without the government giving it the go-ahead.

By contrast, the opposition may only ask a handful of questions, they must follow the daily program set by the government and in order to have a right of reply on any matter not on the government’s set agenda, they must suspend proceedings in an attempt to debate urgent matters. This action is called a suspension of standing orders and it is the only true opportunity for the opposition to put forward a view without the government’s explicit approval.

When a suspension is moved, the government could accept the proposed debate, which is a tactic often employed under previous governments, as it allows the prime minister to directly repudiate the opposition’s view. The present Prime Minister mostly scurries from the House of Representatives when a suspension is brought on, leaving it to others to defend the government’s position. Sources within federal Labor privately concede it is a tactic that plays into the opposition’s hands.

Some might argue that, in the present parliament, Gillard’s supposedly “minority” government doesn’t have these supreme parliamentary powers. However, an examination of the numbers and voting patterns prove otherwise. With the notorious defection of Slipper to the crossbench to take the Speaker’s chair, the federal government effectively has an absolute majority in the House of Representatives of 76 seats to 73 seats, with Adam Bandt, Robert Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie and Tony Windsor acting like members of the Labor caucus in all but name alone and Wilkie supporting the government on most occasions.

Now that scandal has engulfed the Speaker, Slipper’s continuance in the chair may or may not permanently have an impact on the numbers, but irrespective of this, the unfailing support of these so-called independent members of parliament will continue to prop up the government.

Even in light of this scandal, and its clear indictment on the judgment of the Prime Minister in appointing Slipper, Windsor has already indicated his unwavering confidence in the government.

Even before Gillard switched her speakers from Jenkins to Slipper, when the opposition has attempted suspensions of standing orders, the two so-called independents, Oakeshott and Windsor, and the Greens’ Bandt have supported Labor unfailingly, allowing them to avoid scrutiny and further debate on crucially important matters.

Consider their voting records on motions concerning the member for Dobell, Craig Thomson. Six suspensions of standing orders have been moved by the opposition in an attempt to seek an explanation from Thomson over the allegations surrounding him, or for the Gillard government to provide an explanation about this potentially very serious matter. On each of those six occasions, Bandt, Oakeshott and Windsor voted to protect Thomson from scrutiny.

Never has there been a clearer example of their lack of independence. While suspensions invariably fail due to the government’s allies – Bandt, Oakeshott and Windsor – the government has also taken to regularly abusing question time.

Question time is the only opportunity for the opposition to put unfettered questions directly to the relevant minister, and with so many troubles besetting the government they have taken to refusing to answer opposition questions entirely. On dozens of occasions on serious matters surrounding the involvement of the Prime Minister’s office in the Australia Day riot, on the conduct of the member for Dobell, the failure of their border protection policies and on the carbon tax, the government dodges the answer or attacks the opposition.

It has become so deliberate that the Speaker of the House has sat down some of the most senior ministers, including the Prime Minister, in the middle of their “answers”. As of the end of the last parliamentary session, the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and other senior ministers had been sat down on 12 occasions for not being relevant to the question asked.

Picture it. The Speaker of the House is so appalled by the Prime Minister and her gang of ministers using question time to throw mud that he forces then to clam up and sit down. There could be no greater condemnation of a government intent on traducing our democratic processes in an attempt to cling to power than a government that regularly refuses to even attempt to answer questions in question time.

With more than 12 months of historically low polls, the Gillard Labor government is facing a crisis in the lead-up to the next federal election. Failing to debate the issues Australians care about exacerbates the problem.

Ross Fitzgerald’s latest book is the co-authored political satire Fool’s Paradise.

The Weekend Australian,  April 28 -29, 2012

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