Illustration: Alan Moir
There's hardly ever been an election at which an incoming prime minister has not hoped that Parliament will be a kinder, more respectful place, without the raucous brawling and vituperation of the last term. After a change of government, some of the worst performers will now want everyone to be civilised, or will be, in part reward for expertise, in opposition, in testing standing orders to their limits, now the fox put in charge of the chookyard.
In Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, and perhaps Leader of the House Christopher Pyne, Labor politicians now cast into opposition face people who have prospered by making a complete farce of the great forum of Parliament. They have also seen, to their cost, that the public will generally blame parliamentary disorder, abuse and anarchy on the government of the day, even when disruption has been a deliberate opposition tactic. Should not Labor be plotting to return the favour, the noise, sotto voce insults across the table, the tumult, sexism, insults, abuse, interruption and constant and mischievous points of order?
A better, and more fighting tactic, might be by exemplary conduct, some courtesy, and perhaps even some passing acknowledgement that the new government, if hardly composed of gentlefolk, is inhabited by Australians probably doing their best by their own lights. The better parliamentary or forensic tactic involves having such people fall over the cliff of their own accord, rather than attempting to publicly beat them to a pulp.
There was hardly ever an opposition which was, or ought to be (or claims to be) so well prepared. Abbott has a comfortable majority and a mandate, but he did not enjoy an overwhelming victory. There is arrayed against him a government-in-waiting with members very experienced in most areas of practical government. It was rejected by the people, but most of its ministers were generally competent and across the detail and minutiae of their portfolios, and the policies and programs that governments must administer. They know, or ought to know, the actors, the lobbyists, the interests, and what modern heretics call stakeholders, in almost all of the complex decisions facing any incoming government, even one determined to do things a bit differently.
These former ministers presided in reasonably tough times, facing constant calls from the central departments for savings, better integration of programs with other programs, and detailed comments, critiques and pleadings from those who wanted different priorities or outcomes. It was an intensely political process, but it was rooted in facts. These former ministers do not, or ought not need, leaks from former professional advisers to know the type of advice the new Coalition ministers are receiving from their departments. Most have had more than enough experience in arguing their case before cabinet, caucus, their party, Parliament, the media and the public that they know, or ought to know, the pitfalls of most policy alternatives, hidden costs, and consequences of the choices and decisions facing routine government under new management, now open for business.
They know, or ought to know, the short sharp argument or questions that ought to expose the fault lines of a policy or program. All the more equipped they must be, one might think, if this knowledge and experience extends well beyond the rhetoric, the slogans and the spin of oversimplified policy to the close details and rules of practical day-to-day administration. It has been of the essence of Labor's criticism of some of the new team that some are butterflies, who pay no attention to detail, are policy-lazy, and addicted to public relations rather than substance. If this is true, it can emerge only by focus on detail, and by refusing to be diverted into a contest of slogans and abuse.
Hard-worn (and, from their own account hard-done-by) former ministers ought to be able to cross-examine the Abbott ministry, including Abbott himself, into a cocked hat - exposing fundamental differences in a stark way. They ought to be able to do so in question time, not least by keeping the focus on substance and fact rather than spin and opinion. And in debates on finance, administration and on legislation. Former minister for finance Penny Wong ought to be able to cross-examine bureaucrats and ministers in estimates just as she, albeit with some departmental support, could in budget cabinet while trying to rein in government expenditure.
Wong is hardly the first former minister for finance to be able to ask questions in an estimates committee. But many of her predecessors in that role – Nick Minchin, say, or Margaret Guilfoyle – did not much adapt their forensic or debating styles from government to opposition, or tended to concentrate on matters of high policy and principle (as they saw it) rather than the details of administration. Guilfoyle operated before Senate committee inquisition had reached its present point.
Another great senator, former finance minister Peter Walsh, retired before he was back in opposition, but would have been, one suspects, deadly. Two former ministers who became great torments in opposition – using wiles, experiences and detailed understanding of the way government and public administration worked – were Robert Ray and John Faulkner. They did not get their reputations from rhetoric or stating the bleeding obvious. They were most deadly with careful and patient questioning on matters of fact.
Labor has several other tactical matters to consider. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is at best only pedestrian as a debater and parliamentarian. As a minister, he could, up to a point, make well-rehearsed rhetorical flourishes in answering, from a script, a question from his own side. He may be smart and cunning, even on his feet. But he faces in Abbott a relative master of ducking and diving, diversion, exaggeration, minimisation and distraction, and should not be playing to his strength.
Abbott, himself, is fairly good at remembering scripted (and focus-tested) lines. But in the past, he has been rarely good at detail. Asked hard questions about facts and details, he will jump at a chance to escape to the grand point, to the principle, and to the opportunity to score some point and pour some scorn on the opposition. Nothing is so hard for him as answering yes or no on a matter of fact.
His opposition style put back to him will suit him down to the ground. An Abbott-type question seizes on some small fact to renew some fundamental allegation against the other side. It asks, in effect, if this latest fact is proof positive that the prime minister lied to the Australian people?
Efforts to turn this tactic back on him will not work. There are Labor members with debating skills – some, such as Anthony Albanese – quite effective in particular situations. But even its former silks do not have their reputations for cross-examination abilities. Lyndon Johnson once said that one should never get into a piss-fight with a skunk.
Abbott should be made uncomfortable by being asked factual questions. Ones where he looks weak if he fails to address the question, and goes straight to bluster.
Likewise, the better parliamentary question does not actually ask for a response to the inference or conclusion lying behind the question. Journalists, political tragics, and even the public are fey enough to see the point if one has asked ‘‘Did the minister claim $25,000 in allowances and expenses for his two-day trip to Naples, and could she enlighten the House on details of the expenditure?’’ One does not have to make the obvious rhetorical point – the point an Abbott or a Julie Bishop has been forever unable to resist – by adding ‘‘and is the minister not, therefore, a lying, cheating hypocrite?’’ Honestly, if that is a legitimate inference, it will be drawn by most observers. But if spelt out, a good many observers will discount that conclusion as a suggestion from a biased source, rather than their own inference.
How much more satisfactory an execution when the victim has supplied the rope.
Jack Waterford is editor-at-large. firstname.lastname@example.org