Last week we had a refreshing first sitting week of the year with political hostilities put on hold while all members of parliament came together to honour those affected by the national bushfire emergency including the victims and rural fire service volunteers.
Those preferring the Canberra political blood sport were not long disappointed, with the Nationals and Greens both conducting leadership ballots.
Hot off the heels of weeks of difficult headlines, sustained pressure on Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie, and even a 100 year anniversary of the foundation of the Country Party, former leader Barnaby Joyce challenged the Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack’s leadership of the 21-strong party.
The final body count saw Mr McCormack stave off this challenge, an unverified but very possible 11-10, and Mr Joyce’s strongest backer, Senator Matt Canavan, joining the ousted Bridget McKenzie on the backbench. The Cabinet reshuffle that followed saw big wins for McCormack backers with Darren Chesters winning the Veterans Affairs portfolio and Keith Pitt gaining Resources, Water and North Australia.
Following the Cabinet reshuffle, the Prime Minister announced the establishment of an independent standing National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. The office would have the powers of a permanent Royall Commissioners to compel evidence and summon witnesses and report to Government while being able to investigate individual cases of suicide and working alongside state and territory coronial offices.
Meanwhile, Richard Di Natale announced he was resigning from the leadership of the Greens and from the Senate. The Federal Member for Melbourne Adam Bandt was elected unopposed as Greens leader marking a departure for the Australian Greens in the nation’s parliament, going for the first time with a lower house MP to lead them. Senators Larrisa Waters and Nick McKim join Mr Bandt as deputy leaders.
The Opposition used Question Time and the full suite of parliamentary vehicles and tactics to prosecute the Coalition Government and Prime Minister over the handling of the bush fires over the summer break, the ongoing sports ‘rorts’ saga and the Australian Federal Police dropping its investigation into embattled Energy Minister Angus Taylor. The combination of Labor and the Senate crossbench successfully moved for an inquiry into the administration of the sports grants program under Bridget McKenzie and Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lamb moved for a production of documents order for the advice given by the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and former Chief-of-Staff to Scott Morrison, Phil Gaetjens, that disputed key findings of the independent Auditor-General.
The backdrop to the first sitting week was the unfolding drama and growing administrative concern that is the national response to the spread of the coronavirus with news coming late in the week that the Federal Government was looking to expand quarantine facilities to a 3500-strong worker camp in the Northern Territory to cater for the cohort of Australians being evacuated from China’s Hubei province.
The start of the second parliamentary week has seen a warm bipartisan welcome for the Indonesian President Joko Widodo who addressed both houses of parliament, followed by a tumultuous contest for the usual coronation that is the election of Deputy Speaker with ex-Nationals rebel QLD MP Llew O’Brien getting crossbench, Labor and some National MP support to beat Nationals MP Damian Drum.
The week’s legislative highlights include debate on the following bills:
- Treasury Laws Amendment (Research and Development Tax Incentive) Bill – in the House
- Treasury Laws Amendment (Reuniting More Superannuation) Bill – in the House
- National Consumer Credit Protection Amendment (Mandatory Credit Reporting and Other Measures) Bill – in the Senate
Cornerstone on the Return of Parliament and the Year Ahead
Cornerstone’s co-chair Simon Crean:
“Bushfires and the coronavirus will set the agenda for coming weeks. The issue around the adequacy of response and impact on the economy will see the contest around climate change and economic management, national security and Federal/State relations start to hot up.
“Both issues [coronavirus and bushfires] will have huge impacts on the economy. Together with the ongoing drought and the impact of the earlier floods the costs of recovery are huge as well as the loss of revenue and business activity across all sectors.
Cornerstone’s Co-chair Peter Hendy:
“The Morrison Govt should spend the early part of the year rearticulating its economic strategy and not fall into the trap (as it has on occasion) of focussing on ‘setting (political) tests for the Opposition’.
“Depending on how the issue develops in the next few weeks there may be the need for even greater focus on combating the coronavirus.
“Lastly after promising to relook at the matter, the Prime Minister will be expected to say more on climate change and energy policies.”