Dec 1, 2010

New paradigm politics proves itself despite the odds – Opinion – The Australian

When the Gillard Government came to office after seventeen agonising days of negotiation, the clamour of the doubters could be heard across the nation. Minority government hadn’t been seen here for 60 years. It’ll never work. It’ll be lucky to last til Christmas.

Alan Mitchell in the Financial Review said ‘this will be a weak and hopefully short lived government’. Piers Akerman in the Sunday Telegraph led his column with ‘Andrew Wilkie has as much chance of finding stability in a Gillard Government as he does of breathing life into the extinct Tasmanian tiger.’

The Opposition went even harder, with Tony Abbott claiming that Labor ‘… lost its majority, it also lost its legitimacy, while his Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey asserted that Prime Minister Julia Gillard was leading “… an illegitimate government.”

In short, the Opposition said the Australian voters got it wrong.

So as Leader of the House, it was with some trepidation that I took a deep breath and started the process of managing Government business when the new parliamentary term began eight weeks ago.

In a majority Government, the role of Leader of the House is relatively straightforward. We’re responsible for things like the order of business and which bills are debated. But we always know the result of any vote in advance because since 1943 governments have always had the numbers.

But this time it was different. We’d won office with the barest of possible margins and to manage this ‘New Paradigm’ required determination, goodwill and old-fashioned hard work.

So let’s look at the record of these first weeks of the 43rd Parliament as the partnership between Labor and the cross-benchers unfolded.

The first thing to say is that it’s working. Take the House of Representatives where the Government has won every vote on legislation. We have not lost a single Bill and there were 54 of them. Nor have we lost a single amendment.

Many of these Bills were of serious national interest such as changes to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme bringing with it $1.9 billion in savings, restoring access to services for university students, establishing the national health and hospital reform and beginning the process of introducing a national broadband network.

In the Senate, the record was the same. Of the 40 Bills considered by the upper house during the course of the new Government, each one was passed. Again, a perfect score.

At the same time we’ve allowed for greater participation for every member of the House of Representatives with more than 90 hours of debate on private members’ business. And the house sits for longer – 56 hours, compared to 46 hours in the last Parliament.

There are also improvements to Question Time. Questions are now limited to 45 seconds and answers to four minutes with a proportionate share of questions allocated to non-aligned members.

Some unusual things have taken place this parliament. For the first time in a decade, a Private Member’s Bill passed the House. It was proposed by Andrew Wilkie, the new Member for Denison in Tasmania, and sought greater protection for journalists.

For the first time in 18 years, the Speaker of the House was called upon to make a casting vote, only the 22nd time since 1901 when a casting vote has been exercised.

This session also saw one of the longest debates in parliamentary history on Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan. This mature and thoughtful debate lasted for just over 24 hours with a total of 106 speakers over the course of ten parliamentary sessions.

In short, it has been one of the most constructive parliamentary sessions since Federation.

And what was the Opposition’s role in all this? After all, Tony Abbott had promised a ‘kinder, gentler polity’ and said he understood the Independents’ wish for ‘a new style of politics’. But none of that was in sight.

Instead we saw the Opposition adopt the same blunt and brutal tactic to every piece of parliamentary business – Stop it. Wreck it. Destroy it. It’s a mantra that has run through the entire shadow cabinet. Tony Abbott’s kinder gentler government has proved a hollow promise indeed.

Despite the Opposition’s negative tactics, the Gillard Government has managed to prove the doubters wrong. We are getting on with the job of governing by implementing our agenda for reform, working respectfully and constructively with the cross-benchers.

While the Opposition blocks reform at every step, it simply toughens our resolve to govern in the national interest and deliver the more civil and effective parliament the Australian people demanded at the last election.