A tragic’s perspective.
By Dave Kehoe
Six months is a period with a curious aspect — it is often when moving into a new house or job that, at the passing of six months, one senses that the honeymoon of newness is over. One feels at home with a new way of life and the routine of the ordinary sets in.
So it can be with politics and now is the time for the Abbott Government and Shorten Opposition to face scrutiny on how they are shaping up.
Apart from illegal immigration policy it is perhaps too early to judge the effects of policy change.
Yet there is an aspect that can be judged and that is what some would believe is the most important of political judgments — appearances. Did not the Roman and other emperors ensure that they were regarded as gods through the lofty distance they kept from the people, and in splendour of their court add to the perception of divine glory? And modern times have not escaped this temptation — North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un is a splendid example of the dictum that appearances in politics are everything.
In mundane Australia, public relations luxury is scorned, so politicians have to rely on less ostentatious tricks of the trade to impress those they must keep on side.
One arena is which this is achieved is parliamentary Question Time. It was through Question Time that the magnificent monster of Parliament, Paul Keating as Treasurer and Prime Minister, brought great joy and sense of victory to the Government and despair to the Opposition.
So how goes it in this new Parliament, from the point of view of a tragic who watches Parliament on television and who once worked in the parliamentary press gallery?
A government in the Westminster system has a natural advantage in Question Time in that it can spend several minutes elaborating a point as well as attacking the Opposition, while the Opposition has only time to ask a question with no right of reply, except to ask the next question only to get beaten up again. As the legendary Labor Minister in the Hawke Government, Senator Peter Walsh, would quip as the Opposition put forward a hapless question: “Another free kick in the goal square!”
An Opposition also must be on top of the rules that govern Question Time enshrined in the House of Representatives Practice and Odgers’ Senate Practice to gain the greatest advantage to be had in the slim opportunity offered.
Conrovia steps out
There have been some expected victories on both sides: the silky-tongued Minster for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, continues to fire up Coalition MPs and Government front benchers with his devastating satire against the Opposition. He has even created a new country as he tears into the National Broadband Network mistakes of the former Communications Minister, Labor’s Senator Stephen Conroy. To the roars of delight from Government MPs and the glum looks and stifled smiles from Opposition members, he has created the mythical state of Conrovia, picking up on still active contempt of Anglophiles for the incompetence of ancient Balkan hereditary monarchies combined with the worst command economy aspects of Stalinist Russia. The image of Conrovia is made all the more potent through the generally accepted fear of Senator Conroy as the Stalinist hitman and dictatorial bogeyman of the right wing of the ALP. For such, according to Turnbull was reign of Senator Stephen in the NBN state of Conrovia. How true it is that satire can be mightier than the sword when Turnbull wields it to skewer the Opposition.
It was through Question Time that the magnificent monster of Parliament, Paul Keating, brought great joy and sense of victory to the Government and despair to the Opposition.
Interestingly, ascending to the Government benches has helped bolster the political career of Treasurer Joe Hockey. In Opposition at Question Time he seemed too often to stumble into buffoonery and windbaggery. But in Government, with more time and policy substance at his disposal, he has had greater opportunity to reveal his previously hidden satirical skills. His brilliant pick-up on the run of Opposition treasury spokesman Chris Bowen’s accusation that the Government was “cooking the books” to associate Labor with the cooking show My Kitchen Rules and that Labor’s many billions of dollars deficit was so many ‘soufflés that rise again’ – alluding to Keating’s satire of former Liberal MP Andrew Peacock – brought roars of laughter from the front and backbench. Hockey’s large physical and oratorical talents dominate the chamber as a back up to Turnbull’s finesse. Both can make the Opposition cringe and look for the nearest hole to crawl into in the same way Keating and the legendary Robert Menzies did for their Oppositions.
Also surprising is the presence of Prime Minister Tony Abbott in Question Time. He can be inspiring in non-parliamentary speeches to the party faithful, but in Question Time his oratory is a tad wooden, and presence and appearance is everything when impressing a large backbench. He has an annoying habit of repeating a sentence or point of argument twice if not three times, one after another. Abbott may think it’s a tactic to ram home a point but it is still irritating and he risks turning off his listeners. To his credit, his more off-the-cuff answers to Opposition questions are livelier than his set replies from backbench Dorothy Dixers, but the fact remains regarding the atmospherics of the chamber that the contributions of Turnbull and Hockey — members of the more liberal faction of the Coalition — bring roars of belly laughter from the backbench rather than the respectful nods that Abbott’s offerings elicit.
Abbott’s delivery in doorstop interviews confirms Question Time impressions. His apparent determination to stick to predetermined lines of reply creates a wooden, constricted delivery that does little to inspire. The danger is that, no matter what the virtue of his policies, the public audience will start to turn off when he speaks.
The Leader of the Opposition fares little better than Abbott. In Shorten’s first Question Time performances he appeared awkward in his new role as leader of a parliamentary opposition when other Opposition leaders have seemed comfortable in the role from the first Question Time onwards. Shorten also has an odd way of delivering his questions, looking up and over the heads of the Government Ministers and MPs rather than directly at them, eyeball to eyeball. Such apparent tentativeness does little to inspire confidence among the spokesmen and women and backbenchers already feeling lonely and depressed with their heavily reduced numbers. Shorten as well reads his questions directly from a script rather than showing the intellectual authority that comes from off-the-cuff delivery. On the plus side he has given some fiery speeches in censure motion debate that show he can speak confidently if he keeps away from written notes and prompts.
This failure to at least appear to be on the attack in Question Time has created a vacuum which his shadow ministry has moved into fill. Opposition Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has been very prominent in interjecting loudly and frequently to the point of being ejected several times, which can be a badge of honour for an Opposition MP. Whatever one thinks of unruly behaviour, it still fires up the backbench and gives them some hope that parliamentary attack is being taken to the Government. This verbal attack has also been carried forward by former Leader of the House Anthony Albanese, Shadow Minister for Families, Jenny Macklin, and current Manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke, although his bombast in taking spurious points of order could appear less than subtle when compared with the skill of previous Labor leaders of government and opposition business.
The Opposition also seems to be having difficulty coming to terms with the keen legal mind and imposing presence of new Speaker of the House, Bronwyn Bishop, as the Opposition’s moving a no-confidence motion against her only underlines. Labor in government got used to the sloppy and raucous performance of former Speaker Anna Burke who seemed to think shouting louder than anyone else in the chamber, rather than using strict and intelligent rulings on standing orders to build up authority over an unruly chamber. The Opposition attack revealed that it has nothing to say on policy at present and needs a distraction to give some justification for its existence while it waits for the electorate to forget its failures in government. In the theatre of Parliament, it really doesn’t care about due procedure – like all political oppositions it is more interested in building an image, one step at a time over the next three years, of a mean-spirited, nasty conservatism, relying on the deep-seated prejudice among Australian voters that Tories are the descendants of rack-renting English landlords and repressive monarchical knights and dames to gain extra votes in 2016.
There is a deep-seated prejudice among Australian voters that Tories are the descendants of rack-renting English landlords and repressive monarchical knights and dames.
One revelation on the Labor side has been the contribution of shadow minister for Health Catherine King who has asked her questions attacking Assisting Minister, Senator Fiona Nash, over conflict of interest claims. King has spoken with intelligence and conviction, her prominence eclipsing the more experienced Jenny Macklin and Opposition shadow minister for foreign affairs Tanya Plibersek.
Parliamentary Question Times are a little like football games in that the appearance of strength is as important as actual strength — do not the Maori use the haka to gain a psychological advantage over the approaching enemy, the Scots the awful wail of the bagpipes, and the Zulu the beating of their shields?
Bill Shorten should be careful of his image in Question Time as his opponent in the leadership ballot, Albanese, an effective parliamentary performer, is waiting on the frontbench behind him, as is the assured Dreyfus.
On the government side, Tony Abbott is more secure in that his MPs know that he is a leading political tactician who understands power and how to get it, although last week’s re-introduction of knights and dames makes one wonder. In one stroke he has energised the republican cause, the one thing he has so far successfully held back. Last week’s brain fade, is yet another classic example of how every politician has at least one crazed belief that blinds him and which he has to scratch. For Howard et al it was WorkChoices, and for Abbott, it’s the monarchy.
For his supporters inside and outside the Parliament, he needs not only to identify these ideological Achilles heels, sharpen up his image and stop repeating sentences and thoughts as if nobody understood him the first time; he also needs to let his speech flow a bit more spontaneously.
If for some reason his popularity as Prime Minister falls too far and begins to affect the Government’s overall standing, then Messrs Turnbull and Hockey will be waiting to heed the call of nervous backbenchers. That, of course, would be equally disastrous as neither has the strength to lead the country, but they will make an engaging and pretty sight as, akin to the Pied Piper, they lead the Coalition into the wilderness.
David Kehoe is a former member of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery with Australian Associated Press.