Australian opposition vows to disrupt parliament on Fridays

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Discontent with parliament having to sit on a Friday without question time, the Australian opposition parties (comprising the Liberal/National coalition) vowed to continue disrupting Friday sittings until the government bows to its demands. The vow follows a sitting on Friday where the House of Representatives descended into chaos. The opposition says it is protesting against the Friday sittings, which were ordered by the Rudd government to "allow for greater scrutiny and accountability".

The opposition is furious that the sittings will not include question time, have no proper votes and do not record quorum, allowing the Prime Minister and senior ministers to skip the session. The government dismisses this by saying that Friday is a day for private member's business and gives backbenchers an opportunity to be heard.

Steven Ciobo (Liberal, Moncrieff) moved a motion that there should be question time held every Friday, which led to the opposition moving a motion of dissent against speaker of the house, Harry Jenkins (Labor, Skullin).

After the vote on the motion of dissent was deferred, Mr Ciobo continued to argue for his motion after being requested to return to his seat. He was eventually asked to leave the chamber, but refused to do so and was escorted out by the Serjeant-at-Arms. Tony Abbott (Liberal, Warringah) was then ejected for an hour after he accused the speaker of acting "dishonorably" and refused to take his seat. Interjections by opposition MPs continued during a discussion about increasing organ donation rates, with the speaker losing control and suspending the house for 15 minutes.

When parliament resumed, proceedings soon degraded again, after a life-size cardboard cut-out of Kevin Rudd was brought into the chamber by opposition MPs. Luke Hartsuyker (National, Cowper) used the prop during a discussion about the Rudd government axing a planned Centrelink call centre in Coffs Harbour. Mr Hartsuyker told parliament "We want the Prime Minister here. I want Kevin Rudd to hear what 150 jobs...".

Mr Hartsuyker was then ejected after refusing to take his seat at the direction of Deputy speaker, Anna Burke (Labor, Chisholm) who also demanded that the prop be removed. Ms Burke then removed Joanna Gash (Liberal, Gilmore) for making an offensive remark about the chair of the chamber. After more complaints from opposition MPs, the house was adjourned for a second time.

Upon resumption of the house, Speaker Harry Jenkins told MPs they risked facing community condemnation unless they restored the dignity of parliament.

"I understand that some members have concerns about the arrangements of Friday sittings," he told the house.

"If our house is to expect the community to have confidence in it, all members should conduct themselves with decorum and dignity regardless of their views about particular matters - including the conduct of business on future Fridays."

The opposition has remained definant, promising to disrupt future Friday sittings. Manager of opposition business, Joe Hockey (Liberal, North Sydney told journalists that "Unless the government does something about their conduct in the parliament, they will continue to have us press for a question time every Friday,"

"This will make a point - we don't want cardboard Kevin here, we want the real Kevin Rudd."

The Manager of government business, Anthony Albanese (Labor, Grayndler said the opposition had "reduced to a rabble attacking the good order of parliament".

Mr Albanese then said that former Prime Minster, John Howard never attended parliament for private members' business when it was held on Mondays. He then said there had been "no significant change in the way parliament has operated".

Albanese insisted the new parliamentary sitting schedule did not disadvantage the opposition because it included more sitting days and question times than the previous government averaged. "The changes gave all MPs, particularly backbenchers, the opportunity to put forward their ideas," he said.