If the government can’t face Labor in parliament, what chance does it have in an election campaign?


Christopher Pyne says indignantly that the government will decide the schedule for the parliamentary sitting that begins next week – as leader of the house, he will not be bullied by the Labor party.

Come again? Pyne, a victim of bullying in the house of representatives? In fact, the chamber is the government’s most pre-eminent bully pulpit – has he already forgotten the reign of Bronwyn Bishop?

The government always has the numbers, and uses them ruthlessly. The best the Opposition can do is complain, and that is precisely what Bill Shorten and his followers are doing when Malcolm Turnbull suggests that the house will only sit for a couple of days and then go home until the budget.

There is, he says, no need for the 150 elected members to hang around once the ceremonial bit – the reopening, dictated by himself and the Governor-General – has completed the tea and scones. What matters is getting the senate to debate his Australian Building and Construction Commission bill.

Well, technically, this is true—for him. But for Shorten, and for the public, it hardly makes sense to recall the entire parliament, its staff and infrastructure, only to send most of them away as soon as possible.

There is not only legislation pending, that could be dealt with; there is also the matter of accountability. Labor obviously wants to talk about its proposal for a Royal Commission into the banks. There is also the ongoing matter of Arthur Sinodinos; the word is that Labor’s chief prosecutor, shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus, has prepared a formidable brief around the Cabinet Secretary, his involvement with the Liberal party and its funds, and his apparent conflict of interest over his role in Australian Water Holdings, for which he reportedly sought to gain $20 million in fees for ensuring access to the Liberal party.

For Turnbull to close things down while the parliament – at least the senate – is still in session would look suspiciously like cutting and running; another piece of arrogant and self-indulgent trickery to avoid scrutiny and debate.

Turnbull cannot afford to be defensive: with Shorten leading the political agenda, the prime minister has to take his opponent head on – to release, if you like, his inner bully. He has done it before, with the CFMEU and with negative gearing: now he needs to confront new threats, especially Shorten’s demand that he take on the banks – the traditional allies and supporters of the Liberal party – as fiercely as he lambasted his enemies, the union movement.

So far Turnbull has tried simply to dismiss Shorten’s ideas as reckless and dangerous, but to take the next step – to effectively gag him by closing down the House of Representatives – would be an overkill that would almost certainly backfire. There is an election campaign to fight, and a bloody long one at that.

To retreat from the field at the first opportunity will not send the right signal to his own increasingly nervous party, and definitely not to a bemused electorate.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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