The return of our political masters to Canberra proved to be an anti-climax. With only the Senate sitting on the Monday, most pundits cast their gaze to Tuesday, 11 September when the House of Representatives would resume. However, Senate Question Time provided its usual menu of mutual contempt, harsh generalisations and general ill-will.
During a string of minor Party ‘Notices of Motion,’ after barely a month’s break, we once again glimpsed the contradictory nature of Upper House democracy. With all the physical and mental zest of Ozzy Osbourne on Valium, the major Parties settled in for a snooze. Those who had bothered to take seats in the viewing galleries were contaminated by the highly contagious boredom of the proceedings.
Senator Eric Abetz, the Leader of Government Business in the Senate, slumped in his seat with his head against the rest looking as if he’d rather be sleeping. When Greens Senator Kerry Nettle moved that Government ‘immediately withdraw Australian forces from Iraq,’ Abetz slowly shook his head, rolled his eyes and, as Nettle’s monotone continued, Abetz stared into the non-existent middle distance.
When Greens Senator Bob Brown and Democrats Senator Lyn Allison forced divisions on their proposed Motions (mainly related to the Gunns Pulp Mill fiasco), the Government and the Opposition sat side by side to defeat the Democrats and the Greens.
Senator Brown’s motion was defeated by a vote of 51 Ayes to 4 Noes, while Senator Allison’s motion was defeated by 51 Ayes to 8 Noes. This period of minor Party activity was treated as a waste of time by the major Parties drifting listlessly between disinterest and cadaverous boredom. As Senate democracy was being anaesthetised, I must confess that I too was lulled into at least three micro-sleeps. The sole journalist in the press gallery managed to feign consciousness.
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES (11/9/07)
In light of the intense speculation over John Howard’s leadership, this Question Time was eagerly anticipated by all. There was a sense of expectation that this might be ‘a very significant political moment.’ The Prime Minister had obviously hoped that the APEC meeting in Sydney the week before was going to be a moment of international glory that would lift his flagging popularity.
George W Bush
The suspiciously ostentatious APEC security operation ($250 million) created a taxpayer-funded Police State the many being punished because of the mere threat of the few. Yet the so-called ‘ Ring of Steel’ security perimeter was shown by The Chaser to be more like the ‘Ring Of Balsa Wood.’ The cretinous US President, George W Bush, continued his crusade against the English language, and revelling in his own stupidity at every turn. For an Australian Prime Minister considered to be cunning and clever, it is difficult to see what Howard gained by standing alongside Bush.
NOT IN HANSARD (Question Time, 2:30pm)
Delayed by the visit of the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, Question Time began later than usual. Having gorged themselves on a very large banquet in honour of the visiting Canadian, the MPs moved ponderously into the House. Much of the Opposition had already arrived when the first Government member entered the Chamber. Joe Hockey casually walked in and glanced occasionally at the public galleries. He looked amiable and friendly, nothing like the hard man he has tried to impersonate as Minister.
Kevin Andrews entered the House and sat next to Lindsey Tanner (on the Shadow Front Bench), engaging in a friendly and relaxed conversation before returning to the Government side of the Chamber.
Labor backbencher, Dick Adams, yelled out (seemingly to Hockey): ‘Is he coming? It was clear that the presence of the Prime Minister was greatly desired by the Opposition.
It was telling that the PM seemed tired and somewhat listless when he arrived, but he still looked ready to throw his hat into the ring once more. Given his recent schedule, and age, this appearance of tiredness is hardly surprising. However, Peter Costello’s entrance would hardly inspire confidence that he could lead the nation he looked bored and reluctant walking like a disappointed child ready to take his bat and ball and go home.
IN THE HANSARD
(Questions Without Notice)
Kevin RUDD (2.40 pm) My question is to the Prime Minister. Now that APEC has concluded and given that three years ago we were already two weeks into an election campaign, will the Prime Minister set an election date and let the Australian people decide for themselves what sort of future they want for our country?
John HOWARD The election will be held at a normal time. A normal time is any time between now and early December.
NOT IN THE HANSARD
Howard was characteristically assured and confident at the despatch box, and his answers precisely worded, but his exact intentions were typically opaque. The PM adopted a business-as-unusual attitude throughout Question Time, but one should point out that the Government technically has until 19 January 2008 to set an election date and, the minimum amount of days required until polling day is 33, the maximum 68.
Do not be surprised if the Government makes unprecedented use of this time frame. Riding a current wave of popularity, the ALP might be tempted to believe that the election (whenever it is held) is a sure thing. Rudd might therefore be tempted to actually release truly detailed and costed policies. The last Opposition Leader to bravely adopt this ethical position was Liberal Leader John Hewson a man consigned to the dustbin of history as a highly intelligent and honest man, but a bad politician.
Conversely, John Howard is an excellent politician and will not accept defeat until the bitter end. Peter Costello is unpopular with Australian voters he is unelectable. But there is no other viable leadership alternative. For Peter Costello to have any chance at being Prime Minister, John Howard must lead and win the next election. If Howard does succeed in winning the election his Party room support could very well stabilise enough to frustrate the current doubters and, perhaps, another non-core promise can be rejected.
Rudd’s leadership is yet to be truly tested by internal dissent, or any public concerns over a genuine lack of policy substance. Rudd is a good politician, but at some stage he must show just how he is actually different to John Howard.
Judging by Question Time last week, and the general tone of media reportage, such facts are irrelevant to journalists. A long established incumbent conservative Government, led by a pragmatic politician, is being challenged by newly cohesive Opposition, led by a younger version of the current PM.
If Australians are interested in change, they are endorsing a policy of minimal economic change and a sliver of hope that the new leader might be somewhat less shifty than the old one.
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