What The Hell Happened In Parliament Last Night?

Coalition chaos, embarrassment as Malcolm Turnbull loses historic vote

02/09/2016 7:02 AM AEST | Updated 02/09/2016 8:57 AM AEST
Fairfax Media
Labor's Anthony Albanese stares down Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday night.

With parliament only sitting for four days a week, Thursday is usually like Friday for our nation's federal politicians. Usually. That wasn't the case yesterday, when Labor realised a few Coalition members had gone home early and pounced on the rare numbers advantage to win several votes in the House of Representatives -- the first time a majority government had lost a vote since 1962, according to the Opposition, and a major embarrassment for the government in the first week of the new parliament.

Politicians often just run down the clock on Thursday afternoons, filling in time until they can vote for the House of Reps to adjourn for the week. Some don't even hang around that long, nipping off early to catch flights home or hit the highway to beat the traffic.

That was the case on Thursday night, with senior government members like Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, Justice Minister Michael Keenan and Social Services Minister Christian Porter missing from the house as the afternoon wound down. Labor, having done a quick count of the numbers, took advantage and voted to keep the House of Reps sitting late into the afternoon and into the evening.

They won the vote -- "The last time a majority Government lost a vote in the House was 1962 (except just now)", a Labor spokesperson gleefully told media -- then another division, then another division, and almost succeeded in ramming through a motion calling for a Royal Commission into the banking system, the cause Labor has almost exclusively devoted its week's work to pushing.

Eventually, enough government members had hurtled back to the chamber to win a vote to adjourn the House, but not before some incredible pictures of the concern, confusion and embarrassment on the government benches -- and the obvious delight from the opposition -- had been captured.

Canning MP Andrew Hastie was one of those reeling after the unexpected tactics from the opposition.

"I don't know who's to blame but certainly we need to be more disciplined... it's beholden to every member of parliament to be there and ready to vote," he told media last night.

Manager of opposition business and one of Labor's chief parliamentary tacticians Tony Burke warned the government: "It doesn't stop tonight. There's no chance the government is here for another three years".

Friday morning was a humble one for the Coalition. PM Malcolm Turnbull accused Labor of playing "schoolboy" games, but admitted he would "read the riot act" to his party.

Christopher Pyne, the manager of government business and the man most squarely blamed for the embarrassing numbers mix-up, told Today that it was a "stuff-up".

"It's a salutary lesson for anyone who went home before the House rose yesterday afternoon. I'm absolutely certain that they won't do that again," Pyne said.

Keenan, one of those responsible for the temporary numbers deficit, was also humble on ABC radio. He claimed he was heading for a flight to Melbourne after receiving "late breaking mail" regarding a significant operation by the Australian Federal Police, but said that was no excuse.

"I take full responsibility, it was my decision. All members of parliament should always be available for votes in the House of Representatives... I won't be missing any in future," he told Radio National.

"It was a decision I shouldn't have taken, it was a work related matter but that was no excuse."

All members of the Coalition are trying to paint it as a "stunt", but no doubt there will be urgent memos going around the party today reminding members that they are required to stay until the parliament is officially adjourned, and to turn up for every vote. Treasurer Scott Morrison certainly got the message, running out of a Sky News TV interview on Thursday night after the bells in Parliament House were rung for a division vote.

But now what? In the grand scheme of things, this Thursday night drama didn't mean much. Labor didn't win the vote for its Royal Commission, but their "stunt" got the job done -- that job being, embarrassing the government and Malcolm Turnbull in the very first week of the new parliament, and raising questions over the stability of the Coalition's razor-thin one-seat majority. It certainly won't give the Prime Minister any confidence.

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