Today marked the start of Estimates week (or if you wish to be technical, the 2010-11 Supplementary Budget Estimates hearings). The fun started quickly over in the Environment and Communications Committee where for a around half an hour the life was sucked out of everyone watching while the senators argued over the late reply of Questions on Notice. Now QONs (as they’re known) are very important, but geez the lengths they went to wondering why the QON’s weren't answered, and then why were they all answered at once, and where were the seven that weren’t answered and …oh just get on with it!
Unfortunately they did and thus we needed to find out when to the minute did members from the Department of Climate Change know about the change in policy of the CPRS – did they know when a door stop interview was being conducted? Yep, I could see the media getting ready with pens poised – “Public Servants not aware of political decision”. Hold the front page.
The tone improved markedly when the committee got down to the vexed question of whether or not climate change was real. Has the planet been warming in the last decade, asked Senator Abetz. He was pretty stunned to find it has, and so around and around we went, with National’s Senator John Williams joining in for some fun on sea levels. I’ll wait till the Hansard comes out to comment further because such nuttery deserves to be quoted verbatim.
[UPDATE: The Hansard is now out. Here’s a nice taste:
Senator IAN MACDONALD—Are you aware of that second article—the one from the Daily Mail?
Mr Carruthers—I have not seen that article, personally. I have been overseas for the past week.
Senator IAN MACDONALD—One quote that is alleged by the Daily Mail to come from that report is: The Royal Society now also agrees with the GWPF that the warming trend of the 1980s and 90s has come to a halt in the last 10 years ...Is that accurately reported from the Royal Society? Is that inaccurate?
Senator IAN MACDONALD—So the Royal Society did not say that?
Prof. Steffen—No. I have the report here on my computer.
Senator IAN MACDONALD—Okay. Perhaps I am being a bit specific, when in this general area I was trying to be broader.
So when he quoted a specific article he was trying to be broad. Oh dear. And that was high point for McDonald. ]
While this was happening over in the Finance and Public Administration Committee we were discovering to our horror that the official florist to the Governor General had not been reappointed. And yet life continues on. Miracles do happen, I guess. I don’t think I’ll wait for the Hansard for that one.
One journalist in response tweeted:
A lurch to the left from JG on asylum seeker policy.
That such a policy announcement could be described as such is a pretty sad indictment on the point to which the asylum seeker debate has reached. To my mind all that was done today was what most people assumed was going to happen when Rudd was elected in 2007. It is not so much a lurch to the left as doing the bare minimum of what any decent Government should do.
Gillard and Bowne were at great pains to say they were doing this of their own volition and was not a Greens initiative – perish the thought!
The Government also announced they would be opening two more detention centres – one 80km out of Perth and one in Inverbrackie in the Adelaide Hills. This was not so well received – nor called a lurch to the happy side of things. But at least you could not say they centres are out in the middle of nowhere, miles away from hospitals etc. I know the Adelaide Hills area quite well, and Inverbrackie is about as nice a spot as you would like to be put in a detention centre…which doesn’t exactly make up for the bit about being in a detention centre, but you know small steps…
Tony Abbott ain’t one for taking any steps, and his opening question today had him him straight talking all the way to his next focus group. He asked “How will opening more beds stop more boats?” In a stunning coincidence this was the exact same question posed by Scott Morrison on radio later in the day. What amazing luck the Libs have to posses two such fine straight talkers – no spin from them.
Gillard responded to the question with pretty much infinite ease – referring to Abbott’s three word slogan of the election campaign as not quite being enough to deal with the problem. Absurdly, Abbott rose to waste the session’s only supplementary question asking Gillard why, if it was so urgent that new detention centres be built, did she not pick up the phone to the President of Nauru.
It being nearly cricket season, we should be kind and suggest his supplementary was merely a half volley rather than a rank long hop, but given Gillard has been asked this question on a good many occasions over the last two months, she was hardly going to be bowled by it today. And given she can now refer to the boat phone, anytime Abbott mentions telephonic devices in connection with asylum seekers, he is best warned to try a different tack.
One tack he should also give a rest is asking Julia questions that he has telegraphed the day before in an interview with Laurie Oakes. Yesterday on the Sunday Today Show, Abbott said:
Pre-election the Prime Minister committed to all of the recommendations of the Authority, sight unseen,
Today he asked the Prime Minister why she had committed to all the recommendations of the Authority sight unseen. Gee, she must have been stumped coming up with a response to that one given it came from nowhere.
(Incidentally, Oakes’s interview is a must watch – especially for his questioning on the military tribunal).
The Murray Darling Basin issue got a bit of a working over with Jamie Briggs, Sussan Ley, Sophie Mirrabella, Warren Truss and Tony Abbott all firing damp squibs at either Gillard or Tony Burke.
The problem for the opposition on this issue is that the Murray Darling Basin Authority was set up by the Howard Government, and thus Gillard and Burke were able to cite speeches by Turnbull (the then Environment Minister in charge – now the Shadow Minister for Ipad) and by Mirrabella herself. Burke had great fun pointing out that when the Bill to establish the Murray Darling Basin Authority was introduced Mirrabella said:
Important elements of this bill, which give effect to the National Plan for Water Security, include an independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority with enforcement powers; a basin plan which sets a cap on water systems; an environmental watering plan to coordinate management of the available water in the basin…
He also was able to refer to a media release by Abbott, Birmingham and Barnaby Joyce made during the election which said of the Murray Darling Basin Plan:
The Coalition will release the draft Basin Plan within two weeks of coming to office and proceed with its implementation without delay. Labor’s delays must come to an end.
Burke pointed out it was rather difficult for the Libs to complain about the guide to the draft plan when they had pledged to implement it “without delay” (sight unseen no less).
The other problem they will continue to have is that at the moment Burke will say again and again that it is merely a guide to the draft plan and that the final decision is a long way from being made.
He made however a very important point – namely that when the draft plan is introduced it will be subject to a disallowance motion in both houses, and given the state of the numbers that means every single member will need to decide what happens. This issue has a long way to run, and it will remain one of the more fascinating to watch – for how the Government acts, how the opposition reacts, and how the media reports.
Other questions of note were Adam Bandt’s first – and it was excellent. He asked Stephen Smith on Afghanistan:
Given that one of the oft-stated rationales for our involvement in Afghanistan is the propping up of the Karzai government, is the government concerned about the reported level of corruption, to the highest levels of the Karzai government, and does the government agree with US General David Petraeus’s reported comment that the Afghan government is a ‘criminal syndicate’?
A damn good question that deserves a decent response, because it goes to the heart of what we’re doing in the war. If when we leave all that remains is a corrupt Government that is only good if compared to the Taliban, well then you have to ask if that is any measure of success.
Smith answered forcibly and seriously – he always does – though it did verge a little bit on the it’s in our interest to be in Afghanistan because our interests are to be in Afghanistan line of response. But it was a nice appetizer for tomorrow’s debate on the war.
Kate Ellis also got a chance to answer again as Minister for Sport when she took a question on behalf of Senator Arbib on the Commonwealth Games. Her response was perhaps only worthy of note because Lib MP Andrew Lamming decided this most docile of questions deserved some pathetic hurling of abuse that had Ellis momentarily pausing at the absurdity of it all. If you’re going to interject Andrew, best not to do it on an issue that has bipartisan support.
Finally Greg Hunt go to ask question number 19 on the home insulation report by the ANAO. That he was on so late gives you a good idea of what the Libs think are their chances of getting a scalp from it all. What is more interesting is that Hunt is Shadow Environment Minister, and yet he did not get one question on the Murray Darling Basin Plan. I think that also gives you a good idea of how the Libs will treat the issue – as a regional/rural one, not environmental.
Prior to and after Question Time the new members for the ACT electorates – Gai Brodtmann in Canberra and Andrew Leigh in Fraser (my electorate) – gave their maiden speeches. Both were very fine – Brodtmann’s perhaps most notable for the cameras showing a very proud (and justifiably so) Chris Uhlmann watching from the press gallery. She did greatly praise the union movement, but as a former small business owner also acknowledged the need for balance. She ended with a very rousing series of points made about the benefits of “when we [the ALP] win”. It was real True Believers stuff and was good to see (as an old true believer).
Leigh’s speech would have warmed the hearts of economists everywhere – especially those playing the economists’ Parliament drinking game, who for 110 years had been waiting to take a skoll when Leigh finally made history by being the first member to ever utter the phrase “randomised policy trials”. He also promised that he would “speak more [of it] during my time in this place”. So get those beer glasses ready!
Leigh also used the speech to beautifully skewer the Liberal Party and paint it as a Conservative Party, rather than a truly “liberal” one. He cited Alfred Deakin:
Alfred Deakin was one of the earliest Australian leaders to make the distinction between liberals and conservatives. Deakin argued that liberalism meant the destruction of class privileges, equality of political rights without reference to creed, and equality of legal rights without reference to wealth. Liberalism, Deakin said, meant a government that acted in the interests of the majority, with particular regard to the poorest in the community.
As for conservatives, to quote Deakin’s description of his opponents, they are:
‘ a party less easy to describe or define, because, as a rule it has no positive programme of its own, adopting instead an attitude of denial and negation. This mixed body, which may fairly be termed the party of anti-liberalism, justifies its existence, not by proposing its own solution of problems, but by politically blocking all proposals of a progressive character, and putting the brakes on those it cannot block.’
A century on, it is hard to escape the conclusion that if Deakin were in this parliament today, he and his brand of progressive liberalism would find a natural home in the Australian Labor Party. (And given the numbers in today’s parliament, I am sure my colleagues would welcome his vote.)
Liberals like Malcolm Turnbull and George Brandis who have addressed the Alfred Deakin lectures and who would see themselves as Deakin’s decedents would no doubt be gnashing their teeth at hearing Leigh’s words. Their gnashing would not only be because with Abbott as leader Leigh is spot on, but also because in Leigh they have someone who when they step into the ring with intellectually they know they will not be in for an easy fight.