With public health measures shaping many aspects of our lives, it is no wonder that COVID-19 has altered the way politics is conducted.
‘Doing politics differently’ is no longer merely a “Green’s” slogan – the pandemic has further distanced parliamentarians from their electorates and their colleagues.
As the first week of the August parliamentary sitting month concludes, the Canberra bubble has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, bringing a slew of new restrictions to the course of business.
These heightened barriers have made conduits such as Question Time even more important for government communication with political, community and business stakeholders.
The team at Nexus has analysed the question times held this week to summarise the key performances and determine how each team could fare come the next election.
Following a joint statement by the Presiding Officers of building operations last week, this sitting week had “measures [that] are as strict as possible and align with previous arrangements implemented in early 2020 to minimise non-essential activity at APH while still enabling sittings to proceed”.
These restrictions came after weeks of speculation, following the current COVID-19 DELTA wave that impacted the eastern states. These restrictions came into effect on Monday 2 August 2021 and will remain in place until Friday 3 September. The restrictions include Australian Parliament House (APH) which is closed to the public, with access for Members and Senators in a ‘substantially reduced’ fashion.
For Question Time – socially distanced, mask-wearing Members, were joined by their stranded colleagues via teleconference, where the pandemic dominated this week’s questions. While the Opposition has continued to hold the government to account for the slow vaccine rollout, the recent payment-for-vaccine plan forwarded by the Hon Anthony Albanese MP has delivered the embattled government fresh ammunition against the Opposition.
QUESTION TIME KEY PLAYERS
The Hon Scott Morrison MP
The PM stood on an aggressive footing, beginning question time by using the Opposition’s talking points against the Labor Leader:
“Anyone who thinks that the Prime Minister has only two jobs is not up for the job,…. Anyone who has done this job or who seriously thinks they can do it understands that any prime minister has more to do than that.” [3 August 2021]
The Hon Scott Morrison MP has also sought to distance himself from members of the Coalition who favour a Laissez-faire approach to COVID-19. Speaking about Mr George Christensen MP’s alleged reluctance to wear a mask in parliament:
“I don’t share the views of the member for Dawson on that matter. And I’ve been very clear about that. But, I tell you what: in this country people have a right to free speech, and that is not something that the government is seeking to clamp down on. But it is important that people get the right information, and it is important that members of this chamber get the right information to people in their electorates… I would invite the Leader of the Labor Party, given he is inviting me to make these comments, to say the same thing about his Labor candidate for Higgins. He’s happy to have one of them talking down AstraZeneca vaccines….” [4 August 2021]
The Prime Minister (and his advisors) have not been idle in Kirribilli House or The Lodge; he has successfully blunted some ALP attack points by taking responsibility for the vaccine rollout and emphasising the leadership approach he has practised during the pandemic.
In any case, his adjustments in recent weeks may be his answer to declining public approval; whether he can address the trend will rely on his continued handling of Australia’s new normal.
The Hon Barnaby Joyce MP
Settling in as Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon Barnaby Joyce MP has continued in his maverick tradition, poking fun at the Opposition leader after his ‘secret trip’ to a Queensland coal mine:
“…the member for Grayndler, the Leader of the Opposition. He was in Moranbah but no-one would ever have known. He was like the long-grass person. He was hiding in the long grass. You wouldn’t have known about him unless you tripped over him. He didn’t want any cameras there.” [3 August 2021]
Posturing for the next election, the Nationals Leader sees his stance against the Opposition as instrumental in preventing slippage to Labor in some marginal seats.
In addition, his parliamentary colleagues elevated the Deputy PM with the expectation that he would more effectively counter the Opposition, especially during the theatre of question time.
In these respects, the Hon Barnaby Joyce MP is well-practiced in campaign mode and the often adversarial electoral politics.
The Hon Anthony Albanese MP
Coming back from weeks of campaigning, the Hon Anthony Albanese saw to keep pressure on the government, following the slow vaccine rollout backlash.
“My question is addressed to the Prime Minister. The government promised that aged-care workers would be fully vaccinated by Easter. Does the Prime Minister take any responsibility for the fact that this still hasn’t happened?” [4 August 2021]
“My question is addressed to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister had two jobs this year: fixing the bungled vaccine rollout and creating a safe national quarantine system. Don’t the widespread lockdowns since this parliament last met show that the Prime Minister did have these two jobs and that he failed at both of them?” [3 August 2021]
“My question is to the Prime Minister. Why did the Prime Minister repeatedly tell Australians that getting vaccinated is ‘not a race’?” [3 August 2021]
“My question is to the Prime Minister. Will the government roll up its sleeve in the race to vaccinate the nation and adopt Labor’s proposal for a one-off $300 payment to every fully vaccinated Australian?” [3 August 2021]
The latter comment speaks to a marked change in opposition tactics in the last few weeks. Following the abrupt jettison of unpopular tax reform, the Opposition has seen to reshuffle its policy approach.
Suggesting a payment for vaccination – akin to similar initiatives in North American jurisdictions – wedges the LNP on the rollout while positioning Labor as an alternative government.
Some analysts see this shift in opposition tactics as a signal that Labor will prepare for an early 2021 election; whether this momentum can be kept up as vaccination rates rise remains to be seen.
The Hon Jim Chalmers MP
Most notably, the Opposition called in the Shadow Treasurer the Hon Jim Chalmers MP, to action several attack questions designed to raise his public profile and to facilitate his role in the upcoming election:
“My question is to the Prime Minister. If incentives are a vote of no confidence in the Australian people, why does the plan that he released on Friday of last week specifically mention ‘encouraging uptake through incentives’?” [3 August 2021]
“My question is to the Treasurer. How many billions of dollars a week are being lost from the national economy because the Prime Minister failed to do his two jobs—rolling out the vaccine effectively and creating a safe national quarantine system?” [4 August 2021]
Labor Leadership Team must walk a delicate tightrope, as the leadership dynamic of the ALP has considerable internal pressures. It was such a tension that saw the downfall of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government, and the Opposition is keen to learn from that period.
The Hon Jim Chalmers MP has created a compelling voice for himself, complementing rather than competing with the Hon Anthony Albanese MP. Such cooperation will be instrumental if the ALP is to re-gain government at the next election.
The Hon Tony Smith MP, Speaker of the House
As a retiring member, the already well respected and balanced speaker has continued to earn his well-deserved reputation. Some notable quotes from the last two question times include:
“For those who are interjecting, I can hear the noise and that’s disruptive but I will just give you some comfort: no-one can understand what you are saying with your mask on. The Deputy Prime Minister has the call.” [3 August 2021]
“You can keep talking but your microphone is off.” [3 August 2021]
“I remind the member for Dawson of the statement I made yesterday. It couldn’t have been clearer. We’re asking all members who are not participating in the debate to wear a mask here in the chamber and in other areas in the building. The Prime Minister has the call.” [4 August 2021]
“The Treasurer will pause. The member for Rankin looks confused. Let’s be very clear about this: if you start throwing political accusations around, they’re going to bounce back.” [4 August 2021]
Only time will tell if the current restrictions have made his thankless job easier or harder.
Is there a method to Question Time, despite the public’s belief that it is a disappointing display by elected representatives? Regardless, the highly orchestrated brinksmanship games played by both sides can often reveal more than is intended.
The Coalition has developed a viable defence against the most effective ALP attack points, suggesting that recent polling has played on the minds of key figures within the Coalition.
From the other side, Question Time has revealed that Labor is gearing for an early election. These new policies must now face both public and government scrutiny in the coming weeks – it appears that the $300 vaccine payment may come to hurt the Opposition more than the Coalition.
Question Time has changed, but its importance has not waivered. Questions Without Notice give citizens and stakeholders insight into the inner workings of our democracy.
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