Another week, another stuff up. Once again Malcolm Turnbull’s year of delivery has delivered a parliamentary prat fall.
This one was unprecedented, but not actually serious: for the first time ever, the government voted against itself. The mistake was quickly corrected, but there was considerable embarrassment in the process, an embarrassment compounded when the offending minister, Kelly O’Dwyer, was unable next day to explain the legislation of which she was in charge during the fiasco.
Naturally, the opposition hooted and even Turnbull had to acknowledge that Bill Shorten had a win, although he did his best to downplay it as being of no importance. The hapless O’Dwyer resorted to bluster: she accused her taunters of just playing games, which of course they were.
But this was the whole point: parliamentary question time is the venue for playing games. Indeed for many years, this is its sole purpose. Opposition members bait ministers, hoping to provoke gaffes or contradictions and on government backbenchers bowl up prepared Dorothy Dixers to enable ministers to attack the opposition.
It is all about scoring points – a game accepted by all concerned, about 70 minutes of rough and tumble before almost all the participants (and most importantly the media) leave the chamber and the real business of government can resume. Turnbull knows this, as all prime ministers must: this is the public arena where they must win or lose.
This is why he read the riot act, as he announced, after the first week of the current session when a number of his ministers took an early mark and the government lost a number of procedural motions and was only saved at the last gasp from the humiliation of Shorten passing a resolution to secure a royal commission into the banks.
As in the last week’s fiasco, this would not have been serious; the government would have simply ignored the resolution But Turnbull cannot, and will not, ignore the perception, which is that his government has lost control, that the parliament is being run by a bunch of bumbling dilettantes.
The problem is what he can do about it. He has tried chiding, demanding loyalty and unity, but that obviously hasn’t worked. He has attempted to impose demands for discipline, but it is clear that his chief fixer, the House leader Christopher Pyne, may well be an enthusiast for the lash, but has little dexterity in how to wield it.
So in the end it comes back to Turnbull himself. The first realisation must be that he is stuck with a pretty ordinary bunch of ministers. This is not entirely his fault; he can theoretically select them himself, but in practice factions, state loyalties, favours received and enemies rejected have had a lot to do with the mix. So the problem is what to do with them.
His instinct is not to micro-manage; he knows the awful example of the Tony Abbott-Peta Credlin regime. He would like to give them as much rein as possible – to treat them as adults. But the result has been, if not chaos, at least something of an ongoing dog’s breakfast.
The hard fact is that some of his troops cannot be trusted to tie their own shoelaces, let alone look after managing such complex tasks as agility, nimbleness and innovation – or even reading a parliamentary bill. Our Prime Minister has a problem – yet another one. Which is no doubt why he is determined to keep parliament sitting as little as possible. At least when they are away, the stuff ups are a bit less public.
Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist and formerly a senior member of the Canberra Press Gallery.