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Paul Bongiorno: Business as usual in Canberra – so much for a kinder, gentler politics

Winston Churchill once observed that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried”.

He wasn’t reflecting on Australia’s version of the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, but the final sitting fortnight of Parliament in Canberra before the long winter break goes close to fitting the bill.

This is not to naively ignore that the essence of our system is contestability.

We have an official leader of the opposition and in line with the tradition in Westminster the two despatch boxes in the House of Representatives are two sword lengths apart.

Thankfully the bloodletting over the years has been metaphorical rather than physical, but real harm is still done especially when ethical conventions are trashed in the quest for partisan political advantage.

Political own goal

The pursuit of Finance Minister Katy Gallagher was always a shabby political exercise – it ignored the impact on victims of sexual assault by raking over the coals of the Brittany Higgins rape allegation based on the improper leaking of confidential court documents for no purpose other than to “take paint off Labor”.

That last observation was made by a senior Liberal MP to the Australian Financial Review.

The MP was quoted saying: “It’s their Parliament. It’s their murkiness. Their ministers have been accused of politicising a sexual assault. Their ministers misled Parliament.”

lidia thorpe

An emotional Senator Lidia Thorpe makes further allegations of sexual assault and harassment at Parliament.

But the tactics blew up in the Opposition’s face when one of their own, Senator David Van was accused in the Senate of having sexually harassed Senator Lidia Thorpe three years ago, about the same time the Brittany Higgins claims were dominating the headlines.

Now the focus shifted from Labor “conspiring” to pursue the Morrison government over a cover-up to the Dutton opposition having to deal with a cover-up of its own.

Peter Dutton’s attempts to brush off the Thorpe claims were struck a mortal blow when Amanda Stoker, a former LNP senator from his home state, accused Van of groping her at Parliament House in 2020.

Stoker also confirmed she had informed her senior colleague, Senator Michaelia Cash, at the time.

Another unnamed former Liberal female MP, according to Dutton, also made allegations of improper sexual behaviour against Senator Van.

Dutton unilaterally decided to kick Senator Van out of the Liberal party room while making the silly claim that he was “not making any judgment on the veracity of allegations or any individual’s guilt or innocence”.

Actions have consequences

David Van

Senator David Van feels he has been denied natural justice.

Stoker, a lawyer, says she doesn’t know “what process was adopted to ensure there was natural justice for Van”.

On the weekend the embattled senator gave an unequivocal answer: There was no natural justice.

He quit the Liberal Party in disgust, citing “a wholesale disregard for due process and natural justice in regard to allegations made against me, which I deny”.

On Monday in the House the Opposition dropped off the Gallagher/Higgins “conspiracy” while in the Senate there was a question about the confidential payout to Higgins based on another leaked court document outlining her original claim for compensation.

Coalition’s not alone

Taking paint off Labor isn’t the sole preserve of the Liberal and National parties, the Greens in this sitting period are proving every bit as oppositional.

An attempt by the government to have its $10 billion housing future fund bill dealt with in the Senate was blocked by the Greens and the Coalition.

The Greens are demanding Albanese “show leadership” and organise a rent freeze with the states before they will pass the bill.

The PM accuses them of using the issue “to build profile”.

Manager of opposition business Senator Anne Ruston taunted the government for not negotiating better with the Greens, and said Labor had lost control of its legislative schedule.

Ruston’s reasons for the Liberals not supporting the fund is pure politics.

She says the fund is Labor trying to keep social housing off the budget’s bottom line to achieve its much-touted surplus.

No mind is paid to a government trying to repair the budget by setting up another enduring way to fund social housing into the future while dealing with a record deficit bequeathed to it.

Albanese target

albanese cost of living voice

PM Anthony Albanese

Ruston’s taunt that Anthony Albanese was “gambling on the stockmarket” rings hollow when you realise the nation’s biggest Future Fund was established by the Howard/Costello Coalition government.

All of this didn’t stop the Senate passing the referendum-enabling legislation but not before Opposition senators condemned the Voice as the Prime Minister’s initiative.

Ignored is the nationwide process that saw Indigenous delegates at Uluru design the sort of constitutional recognition they thought practical and appropriate.

It is clear defeating the referendum is as much about damaging Anthony Albanese as anything else.

Talk about business as usual.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with more than 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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