Mighty hand-raising gestures: Chris Bowen, Tanya Plibersek and Kate Ellis. Photo: Andrew Meares

There's an old saying: while the cat's away the mice will scamper about and make a bucket of mischief.

But expectations were not exactly high when Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten flew out to Johannesburg first thing on Monday.


Flamboyant response: Julie Bishop and Christopher Pyne. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

For one thing, the two leaders were leaving the political debate firmly stuck on repeat. With the carbon tax repeal and the debt ceiling up for discussion once more, the parliamentary track list had all the novelty value of the Christmas CDs playing in shopping centres at the moment. For another, Warren Truss, the acting Prime Minister, is not a man famous for his overwhelming charisma.

Nevertheless, Parliament took a big sip of Coke Zero and braced itself for the 2pm battle in the House: Truss versus Plibersek.

Proceedings started sombrely with a condolence motion on former South African president Nelson Mandela. Truss spoke of the passing of a ''great man'' and, in an unusual move, appeared to pronounce the ''th'' in ''apartheid''.


Debate stuck on repeat in leaders' absence: Acting Prime Minister Warren Truss watched by Peta Credlin during question time. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Behind him, Tony Abbott's chief of staff, Peta Credlin, watched silently (one can only imagine what sort of feedback she might later provide).

In a sign that Labor had other Coalition fish to fry, the first question went not to Truss but to Treasurer Joe Hockey on the future of automobile manufacturing.

''The future of the car industry is in the hands of the car industry,'' Hockey declared to indigno-hollers from the Labor benches.

<i>Illustration: Cathy Wilcox</i>

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox

Picking up on nascent energy levels in the House, Truss took his maiden question as acting PM (a dixer on the carbon tax and sugar), with a spring in his step and possibly a twinkle in his eye.

''The best Christmas present that Labor could deliver to the sugar farmers of Australia would be to abolish the carbon tax,'' he declared as if the Coalition had never made that gift gag before.

Indeed, even if the PM and the Opposition Leader were not there to provide the fizz and pop that only a title can bring, their frontbenchers still exhibited regular doses of outrage.

As Christopher Pyne attacked Labor for not backing the higher education cuts it suggested when in government, Plibersek led her team in a mighty hand-raising gesture (wha?).

Julie Bishop and Pyne later responded in flamboyant kind when the deputy Labor leader asked for the South Korean free trade agreement to be tabled (and thus answer Labor's questions about unknown details of the deal).

The Foreign Affairs Minister and her South Australian sidekick contorted their faces in a manner that would give any high school student a run for their lunch money: as if. The cats may be overseas but the mice are all right.

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