The Turnbull government needs to wake up to itself, fast.
Fresh from embarrassing scenes just over a week ago that saw it lose three votes on the floor of the House of Representatives in a row, government senators returned to Canberra, bright and bushy-tailed on Monday morning, to debate…nothing.
Well, not exactly nothing, but pretty damn close to it.
Queensland senator James McGrath spoke about his love of the Australian flag. Fellow Queenslander Matt Canavan talked about the importance of roads. Tasmanian senator Jonathon Duniam, desperately filling for time, promised not to offend anyone. Victorian senator Bridget McKenzie praised a defeated Nationals candidate in the seat of McEwen – but forgot the bloke’s name.
The average Senate backbencher pockets about $200,000 a year. That’s before loadings, allowances, committee chair jobs. If the senator’s office is situated over on the blue carpet of the ministerial wing, you can add tens of thousands extra in pay, perks and conditions.
For that sort of remuneration, Australians might rightly expect that their senators, supposed champions of their state, actually, you know, do some work.
Instead, we got hours of legislative Spakfiller, a lot of sound and a little fury signifying nothing.
Government Senate leader Mitch Fifield’s excuse that Labor had played politics in the House of Representatives and delayed passing non-controversial bills that would then come through to the Senate chamber for debate was just that – a lame excuse.
Imagine that? Politicians play politics (shock, exclusive) to make the other side look bad. Imagine that? Hold the front page.
In reality, Labor’s chamber games were entirely predictable – just as they had been in the House in the last sitting week – and again, the government was caught short.Labor’s Penny Wong hit the nail on the head when she accused the government of having “no plans and no ideas…they’ve got literally nothing to talk about”.But don’t just take Labor’s word for it.
Government MPs are joking about the lack of a second term agenda.
Liberal legend John Howard urged Malcolm Turnbull on Sunday to take up tax and industrial relations reform as a second term agenda.
And most damningly, in the last sitting week, every member of the Coalition Senate backbench bar one signed a petition calling for Turnbull and his team to revisit changes to section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act.
Putting aside the merits or otherwise of the debate about 18c, that petition underscored the fact that government senators are, at present, underemployed and overexcited about issues that are a distraction from the main game – Turnbull’s “jobs and growth” mantra.
There are a couple of green shoots on the horizon – Treasurer Scott Morrison is inching towards striking a deal on the $6 billion omnibus savings bill with Labor.
But one bill does not a legislative agenda make.
Its plans to restore the construction watchdog and establish a Registered Organisations Commission in the coming months – by no means guaranteed passage – will hardly occupy the next three years.
Meanwhile, the government is at war with itself over the same-sex marriage plebiscite, with outbreaks and arguments over funding for the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns, the wording of the questions, and a grandstanding crossbench and opposition MPs all too happy to introduce private member’s bills (again) to make the law change.
The glacial process of drafting the details of said plebiscite – said to be ready to go to cabinet only on Monday night, more than a year after it was first flagged by Tony Abbott – again makes the point that this is a government good at the go-slow.
Turnbull and his team need to find an agenda and prosecute it.
The government needs some wins, and not just of the Sam Dastyari, self-inflicted wound variety and passing some legislation would be a good start.
Because at the moment, the Turnbull government is being outmaneuvered, outthought and outgunned.