What a week


The first couple of days of any new session of Parliament are generally supposed to be pretty low key. Last week should have been fairly ho-hum. John Howard was saddling up for a record fourth term, a posse of new politicians were to be sworn in, and a raft of new legislation would slowly roll into the House.

But then again its not every day the Deputy Prime Minister is accused of bribery.

It all went to script early on. Parliament House was bursting at the seams as the friends and relatives of the class of 2004 – all twenty-two of them “ came to see their nearest and dearest swear allegiance to God, Queen and country.

The pageantry that comes on the Opening Day of Parliament is a good excuse for those assembled to slap on their Sunday best and be entertained by the Governor General at afternoon tea in the Members Hall with army band playing the national anthem. Such is the bonhomie even journalists are invited.

For the new pollies it’s like the first day of school and there is much joviality and back-slapping in corridors. However, it was the Prime Minister’s wish that the day should proceed in a fairly understated manner. All the traditional protocols the day demands were of course to be observed, but there was to be no raucous, self-congratulatory lunches or dinners in the House. It was left to the Liberal secretariat to host the welcome drinks down the road and Jeanette Howard, to host a small bipartisan soirée for partners at the Lodge the next day.

The ceremony continued and goodwill blanketed the Parliament, yet there was an undeniable tension rippling through the corridors.It became clear that the Labor Opposition is much diminished and many were dreading the following day’s business.

In the House of Reps, Labor can barely fill three-quarters of their benches whilst on the other side the Coalition struggles to fit everyone in. As the members lined up to be sworn into the 41st Parliament, and despite the Prime Minister’s warnings, the smugness of the Government’s front bench was palpable.
The Prime Minister kept his opening address to the House fairly short and to the point, speaking off the cuff. Neither his words nor his intonation betrayed even a hint of the self-satisfaction he could, by rights, display if he so chose.

The rest of his front bench, particularly his Treasurer and his Foreign Minister, would do well to exercise some of the PM’s forbearance.

Mark Latham read from notes. He was self-deprecating but unbowed “ as he must be “ coming up with all manner of suggestions on how new Speaker, David Hawker, might be able to reform the House. Yet he left it to his Deputy, Jenny Macklin, to formally congratulate the Prime Minister on his election win.

The formalities and niceties over, Government Ministers roared into the Chamber on Wednesday morning raring to go. There appeared to be a revolving door behind the Speaker’s chair as a string of Ministers entered the House tabling a billion dollar legislative agenda, many of the bills enacting election promises.

Of the twenty-five bills introduced in just two sittings days, fifteen of them were done on Wednesday morning. No mean feat considering the number of maiden speeches they also managed to squeeze in.

Tony Abbott was first cab off the rank with the 100% Medicare rebate bill costed out at just a shade under $1.8 billion. Ruddock, Nelson, Truss and Hargraves waited patiently behind him for their turn at the dispatch box. All had bills that encompassed election promises, but the big ticket item was Gary Hargrave’s first foray into the House in his new role as Minister for Vocational and Technical Training. His billion dollar amendments will pave the way for the much-touted and carefully targeted Australian Technical Colleges.

Despite such an impressive start it was over shadowed by the rumours swirling round about Tony Windsor’s claims he’d been offered a bribe to relinquish his seat. By Question Time just about everyone inside Parliament knew that Windsor was going to take up the Prime Minister’s invitation to ‘name names’.

Windsor has always said the ‘inducement’ was made by two MPs. Quite a few people already suspected that Senator Sandy MacDonald was one but were left racking their brains trying to work out who the other person might be. Journalists perched up in the Gallery scanned their list of National Party MPs and Senators, assessing the likelihood of each individual to either be stupid enough or brave enough to offer Windsor a bribe.

Now, Parliament House on a Wednesday night can be a fairly lonely place. Few stick around for the Adjournment debates that wind up the day. Most are already ensconced in restaurants around Canberra. But very few had left by the time Tony Windsor rose in the House to name John Anderson.

Opposition MPs were knocking back a few drinks in Roger Price’s office (the new Whip) after enjoying what some were calling ‘a great show’. But it wasn’t long before Labor frontbenchers, including the Leader, were belting back into the Chamber upon hearing that the Deputy Prime Minister was coming in to defend himself.

High drama or high farce? It was both really. Tony Windsor is regarded as an honest man but he is not the selfless, country bumpkin independent fighting for the small man. He is a sharp and astute politician who thought very carefully about his course of action. But as things have turned out, he perhaps didn’t think through the consequences properly.

There were an unusually high number of Members present in the House the next morning when John Anderson strode in to Parliament to get the ball rolling on his pet project, the National Water Commission. In one of his better speeches, Anderson appeared strong and forthright, almost glaring at the sparsely populated Opposition benches daring them to interject.

For once the mild mannered Anderson looked and sounded like a leader. Unfortunately hardly anyone listened to what he was actually saying. Most people around the Parliament, either in the Chamber or on closed circuit televisions in their offices, were avidly looking for signs of vulnerability after every front page in the country carried headlines of bribery accusations.

Again the Government rolled out more election promises legislation including a bill to increase the Private Health Insurance rebate for over 65s and other measures to help self-funded retirees and oldies who are the primary carers for children. There was an interesting collection of tax and superannuation bills as well, including the promised changes to make reporting easier for small businesses. But none of this made any of the mainstream news services – it was wall to wall Anderson v Windsor.

It was a blockbuster two days to be sure. Yet the Windsor allegations were a gripping distraction and nothing more, especially as there was a police investigation to be concluded. Labor showed itself to be a disorganised rabble asking long-winded and pointless questions that went nowhere “ perhaps the leadership team forgot to have their strategy meetings that morning.

The PM jetted off to APEC, backing his Deputy to the hilt and left the ALP to its navel gazing. Regrettably, the furore around Anderson and the ebullience and excitement of the new members only managed to thinly disguise the bleak outlook for the Opposition.

The beginning of the Government’s legislative program saw the tabling of a wide-ranging selection of bills. Whether we like it or not the Government has been given a mandate to fulfil its election promises, which really means that Labor will pass the legislation already introduced. They have little choice. The Government wisely chose legislation they know Labor also broadly supported at the last election. If Labor challenges any of it or if they attempt to hold up any of the program in the Senate, they set themselves up for further ridicule. Even worse, Labor must endure an agonising six months while they wait for the axe to fall and the new Senate takes control relegating them to mere spectators in the upper chamber.
The Government has shown it’s not prepared to wait until next June when it all becomes a fait accompli. They are taking it up to the Opposition and almost embarrassing them into passing their legislation. One Government MP suggested that they’re feeling so generous they’ll even let the Opposition make one or two amendments to some of the bills just so ‘they have a reason to turn up’. Very grim.

Most in the Opposition know they must grin and bear it for the next two weeks before they can disappear back to their electorates and not have to face the reality of their situation until early next year. Nonetheless, Labor’s senators are already preparing themselves for June by making plans to use every Standing Order and convention at their disposal to force the Government to deal with them.

Some members of Latham’s front bench were talking it up last week saying ‘there were a few issues out there, so it shouldn’t be too bad’. But other backbenchers were muttering darkly about their Leader’s report to Caucus last Monday afternoon saying they thought Latham was still in denial about the loss and some believe that Labor will not recover while he remains in the Chair.

Commissioning reports and finding scapegoats is the lot of a losing party. However, many report that Latham is distant and disengaged and he’s disappointed and has fallen out with allies and friends. It seems he recognises the danger of his position, but while he continues to indulge in some heavy introspection, there’s almost nothing he can do about it. Latham’s address to the Fabian Society last week was positive and constructive but he knows, despite his tough talk, it’s not if the challenge will come, it’s when. Most are predicting after the Budget next year “ if his luck holds out.

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