While the first ACT Assembly had its moments, it never stooped to the level of shame of the Federal House of Representatives in its last sitting week in May.
The Assembly in 1991 had a No-Self Government Party-cum-Liberal Speaker, David Prowse, announcing that he had been bitten by a monkey and feared it was rabid, a No Self-Government Party minister Craig Duby with responsibility for transport who had refused to be breathalysed and an Abolish Self-Government Party MLA, Dennis Stevenson, who had been sleeping in his office.
Despite these antics, the first Assembly achieved a considerable legislative program and, despite the challenges, also forged a workable set of standing orders and procedures that have held the local parliament in good stead over the last couple of decades.
Liberal Christopher Pyne’s bolt from the floor of the Federal parliament and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s undignified and unsuccessful attempt to follow illustrate that the opposite is happening in the House of Representatives. Instead of processes improving, they are moving from bad to worse. It would be easy to suggest that it is all about Craig Thomson. It is not. It is about a government clinging to power and an opposition that will do anything to wrest it from the government.
Is the Tony Abbott who attempts to flee the chamber on a minor point of procedure (and fails to do so) the statesman that we want to see as our Prime Minister? This was not a couple of backbenchers. It was the would-be Prime Minister and a very senior front-bench shadow minister. The real problem is that they believe their own rhetoric. They have been arguing that the Prime Minister should not accept the vote of someone who their own kangaroo court processes have found guilty of behaviour inappropriate to a parliament.
Abbott criticises the behaviour of Craig Thomson, but does not look at himself and the role that he has played in creating what one backbench Liberal described to me as the “toxic atmosphere” of the current parliament.
When WA Liberal backbencher, Mal Washer told the ABC’s “7.30” that he was worried about risk of self-harm with Craig Thomson being pushed so far, he really exposed the level of nastiness that has become so pervasive in the current parliament.
Washer is a GP who, for decades in politics, has not hesitated to look out for the health of his parliamentary colleagues. His comments should come as no surprise as he is interested in a parliament that is a contest of ideas between people who are respectful of each other’s’ opinions rather than a simple, unadulterated struggle for power at any price.
The attempt by Abbott to respond in the parliament to the challenge laid down by Washer was pathetic. He attempted to argue that he had sympathy “at a human level”. Actions speak louder than words. Thomson has the right to presumption of innocence until such time as a properly constituted court finds him guilty of an offence. He is simply a tool by which Tony Abbott thinks he has a chance to win power without having to go to an election.
The shenanigans of the last parliamentary sitting expose the real personalities of the players just as they did in the first ACT Legislative Assembly. Craig Thomson is caught in the crossfire and is being dragged into a political abyss. It will be interesting to watch who gets dragged there with him.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.