The tie was off, masks looked better on, Mr Speaker was ruled out, and some were shocked to learn the Queen is a coloniser. There was plenty of political theatre in the first two sitting weeks of our new Parliament, but enough civility that Labor MP Brian Mitchell dressed it up as a Dorothy Dixer for his colleague Tony Burke.
“How is the government’s management of the House in its first sitting fortnight delivering on Labor’s vision for a better future? How does that compare to previous parliaments?” In short, Burke said “better”. Crikey took it as a question on notice.
The 47th Parliament set a cracking pace. So how do we measure performance? Politics as usual or certifiably civil? That depends where you put the behaviour barometer. What you see in question time is quite different to what you get in way of legislation.
Labor fit its own bill by passing landmark climate change legislation through the lower house. It did so with the support of the Greens, who conceded to “give a bit”. Independent MPs celebrated their contributions with a collective press conference, while the Coalition took the nuclear option and exhausted even themselves with repeated rounds of “no” votes.
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“You could see the dejection on the opposition benches when they voted no again and again,” Guardian Australia’s political reporter Amy Remeikis told Crikey from the sidelines in Canberra.
The Climate Change bill was one of 18 presented to the House in the first two sitting weeks, as Crikey reported, and one of two to pass. Territory rights were on the table, building codes were axed, there was buy-in for better biosecurity, and the economy brought little joy. Debate was robust, questions were evenly allocated, and answers had to be pithy and pertinent, but petty points of order did pile up.
Question time under the Albanese government has not transformed into a polite debating society. The government had scores to settle after nine years in opposition, and the Coalition-turned-opposition was disoriented playing in defence.
“Labor has to get used to governing, but the Coalition also have to get used to being in opposition and they are not settling in well,” Remeikis said. “Oppose everything seems to be their main tactic.”
Both sides were “combative” as ever, but Remeikis pointed to other markers of change. “So far, we seem to have a government that is at least willing to listen to the concerns of other parliamentarians,” she said, noting crossbench and minor party collaboration. Labor still guillotined two bills yesterday, but there was space for amendments to move, people to speak, debate to follow, and a decision to be made.
Will it last?
News Corp’s national political editor Clare Armstrong is sceptical that collaboration on the climate change bill can be sustained on other bills as Parliament progresses. “It was verging on performative the degree to which these amendments were made. Changing a ‘may’ to a ‘must’. Lots of tinkering,” she said. “In terms of a more civil Parliament, this continued collaboration on amendments and bills will be key.”
The real test of character will come soon enough. Can the government keep it together when things don’t go its way? Remeikis said, “If the Greens sink a Labor bill, that will be a big test of this civil government. As will how much grace they give the opposition when they settle into being an opposition and how much grace stays with the crossbench. Will they continue to engage in negotiations and bring them along for the ride?”
In the public eye, optics trump output, but process remains important. Armstrong was clear: “People are still going to debate, make amendments, and block bills. That slows the process of Parliament and rightly so. These are processes that take time.”
The fortnight in a few acts
What else did we see in Parliament in the first fortnight?
A top button (or lack thereof) undid Nationals Pat Conaghan. He was incandescent at the young Greens Max Chandler-Mather’s lack of a half-Windsor, calling him out for a “state of undress”. Neck nudity is perfectly legal in Parliament, but Conaghan was adamant the slight was a slippery slope into dress-code disaster: “This is not a barbecue. This is question time in the Australian Parliament. What next, board shorts and thongs? Maybe a onesie in winter?” In his maiden speech to Parliament, Chandler-Mather criticised such “pomp” and “ceremony” as the very reason Parliament is “so completely disconnected from the lives of everyday people”.
Independent Monique Ryan made a strong case for a little more fabric when she shot back at hecklers in the opposition to “put your masks on” during a question on long Covid.
The same small mouthpiece might help keep “shadow minister for misgendering” Angus Taylor in check, as Crikey reported. Taylor repeatedly referred to deputy speaker Sharon Claydon as “Mr Speaker”, even after a crash course on titles: “I don’t need a Mr, a Mrs, a Madam, it’s just deputy speaker,” she said.
Greens Senator and DjabWurrung, Gunnai and Gunditjmara woman Lidia Thorpe was reprimanded when she used the “historically accurate” term of “coloniser” to describe the Queen during her swearing-in ceremony, as Crikey reported. Thorpe’s black power salute made multiple appearances during the first sitting fortnight.
Outside the chamber but inside the remit of Parliament, Prime Minister Albanese at Garma Festival unveiled the question for the referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
Time will tell if the 47th Parliament will prove civil and cooperative on more than just pomp and political theatre.