<i>Illustration: David Rowe</i>

Illustration: David Rowe

There was a happy moment in Parliament House on Thursday, when Opposition Leader Bill Shorten revived memories of the 1970s BBC children's show The Wombles.

Debating the government's bill to allow foreign ownership limits on Qantas to be cut, he declared Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss was ''wombolic'' and the Nationals' ''chief womble''.

Soon, social media pundits were sharing YouTube clips of the theme music, with its refrain, ''Underground, overground, wombling free/The wombles of Wimbledon Common are we.''

The Wombles was an English children's television series about pointy-nosed furry creatures that favoured corduroy pants, tartan, sensible hats and spectacles. They were early environmentalists, and the show was a twee but radical morality tale about collecting and reusing rubbish that thoughtless humans leave behind.

In any event, it was the Opposition, resurrecting the old Labor values of protectionism and nationalism, that fulfilled the role of Great Uncle Bulgaria, the centuries-old chief womble who rejected modern notions.

''They can't trust Uncle Sam to buy Graincorp,'' Shorten told Parliament. ''What are they going to do when Chinese companies or Middle Eastern companies buy Qantas?''

There is a strong sense that Shorten is yearning for simpler times, as shown by his repeated parliamentary references to children's TV. (He also echoed a line from The Simpsons, calling the government ''cheese-eating surrender monkeys'' during debate.)

It will get lost in the storm of hubris and childish taunts that defined the parliamentary to and fro, but the week-long debates about Qantas signified so much more than the future of the national carrier. Finally, we see a government staking out its territory and defining itself, and, at last, we have an opposition willing to stake out its turf.

For months, it seems as if the government has been moving through treacle. Facing a hostile Senate until July 1, it has been in no hurry to push legislation through the House of Representatives, listing only 18 pieces of legislation for the autumn session, compared with 50 bills for that period last year.

But last week, despite knowing its legislation to cut foreign-ownership limits would fail in the Senate after passing through the House, the government brought on the legislation anyway.

Debating the ownership of Qantas gave Shorten and Prime Minister Tony Abbott the opportunity to lay out their visions for the future of the country. Are we for unshackling business or are we about looking after our own and protecting jobs for Australians?

Abbott told Parliament that by passing legislation to raise foreign-ownership levels, it had ''taken a big step towards liberating Qantas from the shackles under which it operates, towards establishing a genuinely level playing field for Qantas''.

Key to this is the government's determination to remove the business impediment that is the carbon tax.

''All this demonstrates that this is a government which is serious about supporting businesses and the workers of our country,'' he said.

For Shorten, the debate has come to symbolise the future of Australia's job market and therefore our future as a nation.

''This debate about the Qantas Sale Act has been a most dishonest, rankly opportunist debate by the government,'' he raged. ''They have no ideas about Australian jobs. They have no view about the future of this great country. They would use words dripping from their mouths - they 'support freedom for Qantas'. It is the freedom for Qantas to transfer jobs overseas. It is the freedom for Qantas to offshore its maintenance work overseas.''

No wonder he harks for simpler times, when the wombles were rambling over Wimbledon Common.