No end in sight in race to trample leaders
The Melbourne Cup may be the race that stops the nation but the Blood On the Carpet Leadership Stakes is the race that never ends. Normally, this is the fixation of the Canberra press gallery but now the Gillard government has taken up the race call. The politics of personal insult has started to work for the government.
On Thursday, the last day of the latest parliamentary session, the Minister for Climate Change, Greg Combet, got right into the spirit.
''The Leader of the Opposition has claimed that the whole Australian way of life is under threat from carbon pricing. But major events, like the spring racing carnival, which are surely cornerstones of our way of life, are under way and I want to reassure racing fans that there is no cause for alarm. Carbon pricing will not stop the Victoria Derby on Saturday and it will not stop the Melbourne Cup next Tuesday. The carnival is going to go well,'' he said.
''Fashion at Flemington is going to be OK because last week's CPI [consumer price index] figures showed the price of women's clothing actually fell by 0.2 per cent in the September quarter! What people with an interest in the racing industry need to know is that the Leader of the Opposition's scare campaign has been the biggest shakedown since the Fine Cotton affair in 1984.
''Frankly, it is time that the Liberal Party stewards started to intervene here and had a look at a bit of change. What about the member for Wentworth [Malcolm Turnbull]? A classy thoroughbred if ever there was one! He was badly checked by the member for Warringah [Tony Abbott] in the 2009 race.''
Turnbull smiled boyishly on the front bench.
Combet continued on his way: ''The member for North Sydney [Joe Hockey] is hungry for a win … Then there is the member for Curtin [Julie Bishop]: three times runner-up, surely a chance this time! The member for Cook [Scott Morrison] is a promising weight-for-ager, I reckon, but spooked by foreign horses every time!''
That got a laugh on both sides of the chamber. As did his next line.
''Or the member for Mackellar [Bronwyn Bishop], a favourite in 1994 and what a stayer - she's still here!''
Combet wasn't the only one in a fever. All the usual suspects were busy.
On the opposition benches, Sophie Mirabella was screeching and being warned. The parliamentary mosquito, Christopher Pyne, was bobbing up and down, making points of order. The government's usual suspects were also on form. The Prime Minister twice referred to the Leader of the Opposition as ''mendacious''. Anthony Albanese was sneering at everything. Wayne Swan was Wayne Swan.
Amid it all, the Speaker, Anna Burke, did a superb imitation of a disapproving school teacher with much eye rolling and tart warnings and the occasional expulsion:
Hockey: ''We love you, Swannie!''
Speaker: ''The member for North Sydney will leave the chamber! I continue to warn people.''
Speaker: ''No, you cannot hear the warnings because you are all making so much noise.''
I find the Speaker kind of appealing when she's in full disapproving school teacher mode but I was aghast to see rows and rows of actual schoolchildren in the gallery, neat in white shirts, quietly watching all the unedifying sub-banter below them, the general braying and bile-spraying in the chamber.
Even more dismaying is the genuine disconnect between the antics inside the Parliament, the personal politics from the government, the feuds and distractions from the pressing issues that face the country.
First among these is the growing cost burden on small business, especially energy costs, which are largely driven by government impositions.
A yawning chasm has also opened up between the liabilities the government is setting up for the future, from the national disability insurance scheme to the ludicrous promise to make children learn an Asian language. Not a word about how to pay for all these grand designs.
Instead, we are getting more and more petty personal politics. The day before, in question time, Julie Bishop leapt to her feet to complain.
''I rise on a point of order. I find it offensive as a woman that the Prime Minister would suggest that I am being dictated to by somebody else,'' she said.
Give it a break. The gender card was dubious from the minute the Prime Minister used it to smokescreen her promotion and protection of the now thoroughly discredited Peter Slipper as speaker.
Feeding the mischief is now entrenched as government policy. While Julie Bishop was frothing about being patronised because she is a woman, Combet was polishing his Liberal leadership speech.
''It is time that the Liberal Party moved on from the DLP leadership and became a Liberal Party once again. Give the member for North Sydney a go. Give the member for Wentworth a go. They are both starters. There are a couple of roughies there. I like the member for Menzies for the job. He has put up his hand before,'' he said.
Such references are becoming commonplace from the government.
Turnbull has done his bit to encourage the mischief.
In September, after months of tacitly undermining Abbott's position against same-sex marriage, he then went on a march through the Canberra press gallery to attack Abbott's own parliamentary secretary, Senator Cory Bernardi.
He said Bernardi had been ''hysterical'' and ''offensive'' over comments made about same-sex marriage. Turnbull wanted Bernardi sacked and he was sacked.
This was duly noted by the government. The improved opinion polls for Gillard may provide relief from speculation over a leadership challenge from Kevin Rudd but the press gallery will now simply switch the equation. The number of stories touting Turnbull's leadership has already started to sprout. The nation may stop for one race for one day but the gallery cannot stop the Blood On the Carpet Leadership Stakes.