A moment of decorum before the rock fight resumed
The contrast between past and present arrived quickly and starkly in Parliament yesterday.
Just before Question Time there were moving speeches of condolence following the death on Saturday of Margaret Whitlam.
From the Labor side of the House Julia Gillard, Tanya Plibersek and Kevin Rudd were listened to by all in silence.
On the Coalition side, Tony Abbot gave an elegant tribute and Malcolm Turnbull was obviously emotional as he expressed his affection for the “Bondi girl” who had been the mother of one of his former business partners. Julie Bishop also saluted Margaret Whitlam.
When the speeches finished, so did the decorum, and the rock fight resumed.
At the centre was Labor’s problem MP Craig Thomson, currently on sick leave on doctor’s advice. Like all other MPs, Mr Thomson is waiting for the findings of two investigations into his actions while national secretary of the Health Services Union.
Opposition questions eventually revealed that the Government had referred a Fair Work Australia report into finances of an HSU branch, released last week, to the Tax Office. Mr Thomson did not feature in that report, but it was used to attack him and the Government.
Get used to the no-holds-barred style of engagement now blighting federal politics. We might have to endure it for another four and a half years.
That means up until the scheduled election late next year and then for the three-year term of whomever wins.
And that means government instability and a reduction in the attention given to the range of decisions the country will need made.
The rules have changed. The consequence is that Parliament, seen through the keyhole of Question Time, is dominated by skirmishes rather than considered policy debates.
The Government demand from the Opposition a full fiscal accounting of its policies – 18 months out from a scheduled election.
And the Opposition is demanding the Government punish one of its MPs – before an official investigation even reports on him, let alone condemns him.
It doesn’t even trust the doctor who has given the MP a medical certificate.
Part of the present instability comes from the fact of a minority Government, and from the Government giving an aggressive Opposition so many opportunities to go on the attack.
Standard practices are being dumped or distorted, and those alterations are likely to persist no matter who wins the scheduled election late next year, and whether or not they have power in their own right or must rely on a demanding cross-bench.
Whoever is in Opposition will replicate the current political law that every promise must be broken down to all its constituent parts and all those parts implemented—no matter whether it is the right policy for the times or not.
The present Opposition is showing no mercy now, and nor will the next one.
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