Richard Whiting bathes in olive oil

Slick campaign … olive farmer Richard Whiting makes his point alongside members of the Australian Hazara community outside Parliament House. Photo: Penny Bradfield

IT WAS a postmodern scene, one that either illustrates the marvellous pluralism of our democracy or speaks to the imminent and catastrophic decline of our entire civilisation.

It was hard to be sure.

Will the wheels soon fall off the lumbering wagon of our democracy? 

On the parliamentary lawn, in a large portable bath filled with extra virgin olive oil, sat the near-nude South Australian olive grower Richard Whiting, the frosty morning nipping at his nipples.

Farmer Whiting was in Canberra, and in his oil bath, to call for truth in olive-oil labelling.

Apparently some cheap imported olive oils contain other toxic oils, including lamp oil and sundry impostors. This is a practice that must be stopped.

But as our democracy is great and varied, the olive oil protest had to share parliamentary lawn-space with a group of Australian Hazaras, who were there to protest at human rights abuses against their people in Pakistan.

They gazed upon the bathing man with a mixture of bemusement and dismay, as though questioning for the first time whether they shouldn't have ticked ''New Zealand'' or ''Canada'' on their immigration application forms.

And who could blame them?

In a postmodern Parliament all truths are equally valid, and moral relativism dictates that no cause is worthier than another. Olive oil sits on the same canvas as human rights abuses, and Bob Katter makes about as much sense as Jacques Derrida.

This was true inside Parliament as well as outside.

During question time, the government laboured onwards with its budget theme - spreading the benefits of the boom to the working families of Australia (or STBOTBTTWFOA to give it its catchy acronym). The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, Treasurer, Wayne Swan, and Families Minister, Jenny Macklin, all lined up to quote tracts from the Class Warfare 4 Dummies handbook, and to accuse the opposition of hating working families and wanting to smooch billionaires.

The opposition, after a few fig-leaf questions about the increase in the national credit card limit, hammered the Prime Minister over whether or not she knew about the payment of MP Craig Thomson's legal bills by the NSW Labor Party.

''The matters raised are not my responsibility or my staff's responsibility,'' she said in a queenly manner.

You could have knocked no one over with a feather when the manager of opposition business, Christopher Pyne, subsequently moved to suspend standing orders to force the Prime Minister to tell the House what she knew about the matter.

The Coalition lost the vote 69-71 and the precariousness of the minority government was once again exposed.

Will the wheels soon fall off the lumbering wagon of our democracy?

It's too early to tell.

All we can be sure of is that farmer Richard Whiting, once he emerged from his protest-bath, would have spent most of yesterday smelling like salad dressing.

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