Yesterday, Malcolm Turnbull learned just how difficult the next three years could be, when the Government lost three votes in Parliament.
A close election result coupled with an ill-disciplined and divided party room means the Government will be sweating on the results of every single vote on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Here’s what happened yesterday;
Typically, Thursday afternoons are when Canberra starts to wind down. Politicians begin leaving the Parliament building to begin their journey home to their electorates.
It’s been the practice over many many years for politicians from both sides, especially those with a considerable journey ahead of them, those who might live in Far North Queensland, Perth or the Northern Territory for example, to depart before the House has formally completed business and adjourned.
Yesterday three senior Government ministers, Michael Keenan and Christian Porter who are from Perth, and Peter Dutton who lives in Brisbane, did just that.
The marriage equality plebiscite was big news in politics this week too. Listen to Mia Freedman, Kate De Brito and Monique Bowley talk about it on Mamamia Out Loud.
That left the Government three votes short, and in the minority in the House of Representatives.
At 4:30pm, the Opposition voted against a motion to adjourn the House, and with the numbers as tight as they are, the motion was defeated 69 to 67.
The Labor Party then used the opportunity to bring on a motion to establish a Royal Commission in the the banking system in Australia.
At this point Christopher Pyne, the Manager of Government Business, moved a series of votes to adjourn the house. The Government was able to win the vote this time after Michael Keenan, Christian Porter and Peter Dutton returned to Canberra.
It doesn’t sound like such a big deal, really. And in practical terms, it’s not. No legislation was passed. The Opposition did not achieve the establishment of a Royal Commission into banking.
But in political terms it’s a big deal.
It’s embarrassing for the Government, a point made by the Prime Minister himself this morning on Melbourne radio station 3AW.
“What (Bill Shorten) has exposed is among a number of our colleagues, a degree of complacency that obviously was unwarranted,” Mr Turnbull said.
“The parliamentary tactic that Labor used is, I would say, best described as an ‘oldie but a goodie’ and it has been around a long time and people that have been in the Parliament a long time, like a number of those who did leave early, should have known that and they should have known not to go.”
The events raise questions about the Government’s capacity to successfully run the business of the house. The last time a majority Government (as opposed to during a hung parliament) lost a vote in the House of Representatives was 1962.
Christopher Pyne and the Government Whips (the Whips are charged with the task of getting the bodies on the floor of the House to vote) should be acutely aware of how tight the number are in the house. Letting MPs leave Parliament, two of them had gotten so far as to land in Melbourne before they returned to Canberra to shore up the Government’s numbers, was amateur stuff.
Pyne conceded that the events were a stuff up, but denied he had given the three Ministers permission to leave.
Attorney-General George Brandis labelled the whole episode a Labor Party stunt. He told the ABC, “It was a political stunt that Bill Shorten decided to pull and he got away with it because there was indiscipline on the part of a small number of my colleagues. That shouldn’t have happened.”
It’s not uncommon for an Opposition to go into hibernation after an election loss. A period of navel gazing and introspection plagued the Liberal party after 2007, and it took the ALP some months to find their feet after 2013.
This time around. The Opposition has no intention of resting on their laurels.
Bill Shorten shot out of the blocks in January this year, announcing new Labor policy to tackle negative gearing. For nine months, Labor has done nothing but build momentum.
Malcolm Turnbull is struggling to maintain control of his party room, with a backroom revolt on the Racial Discrimination Act coming out of the Liberal Party this week. The revolt, led by controversial South Australian Senator, Cory Bernardi, was supported by a number of conservative Government MPs and Senators.
Some are predicting this Government will last less than six months. Clearly, the Opposition doesn’t disagree, and for the moment, the ALP intends to keep the pressure on the Government.