The word "farce" is thrown around a lot these days when talking about the federal parliament. On Friday, the use of that term was justified, as 150 members of parliament were asked to stay on for an additional day in Canberra but ended up sitting in the House of Representatives for less than 40 minutes.
Parliamentary sitting weeks usually run from Monday to Thursday. This week is the last sitting week before a four-week break, with the very next scheduled sitting day being May 9 -- the day of the federal budget. In order to deal with some contentious and high-profile bills before the long break and before the budget, the government successfully passed a motion to keep the House of Representatives and the Senate sitting until at least Friday.
The proposal to amend the wording of section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act failed on Thursday night, but a bill did pass which makes procedural changes to how the Human Rights Commission deals with complaints, including those under 18c. The government's signature company tax cuts were also meant to be voted on, but the debate continues in the Senate continues up to publication time. However, debate is not continuing in the House. Why? Because despite asking 150 MPs to stay in Canberra for an additional night, the House sat for less than 40 minutes before the government sent them home.
After a long sitting fortnight in Canberra, most MPs would have been looking forward to being back at home on Friday. Instead, they had to hang around for far longer than many of them would have hoped. The House of Representatives was summoned back to the chamber at 2.10pm on Friday, 21 hours after than the normal Thursday finishing time of 5pm.
Bells summoning the MPs to the chamber ring for four minutes, whereupon the Speaker of the House enters and the business of the day begins. At 2.15pm, some procedural matters had to be dealt with first.
"It's not too late to be thrown out, it might be Friday," the speaker joked, before correcting himself.
"I thank the leader of the opposition, you'll find when he reads the hansard, it's actually still Thursday."
Next, the bill amending the Human Rights Commission's procedures was brought before the House. Manager of government business Christopher Pyne moved that a vote on that bill be brought on immediately, but the opposition protested, saying they wanted to debate the bill.
After a series of votes -- called 'divisions' -- the government managed to gag debate on the bill and quickly bring it to a vote. It passed. With that, Pyne moved another motion; that the House immediately adjourn.
"Can I thank colleagues on both sides of the house but particularly those on the govt who stayed in such large numbers. Obviously quite a few members of the opposition have left without leave but I thank my colleagues for their cooperation and forebearance," Pyne said in a parting jab at the Labor side, as the opposition jeered.
At 2.49pm, the vote came back successful. Nearly 22 hours after the House would normally adjourn on Thursday afternoon, the chamber was finally adjourned, for the sake of 34 extra minutes of sitting, waiting and counting votes. Labor members mock cheered Pyne and the government side as the chamber split up and returned to their offices, clapping and calling out.
The government's decision meant MPs could collect an extra day's worth of travel allowance (currently $276 a day); that the taxpayer had to shell out for another day of accommodation and expenses for MPs to do literally nothing besides sit in a room and wait as bells rang, clocks ticked down and votes were counted; that MPs and their staff lost a day with their families.
Labor leader Bill Shorten and MP Tim Watts called out the government for the tactics soon after on Twitter.
However, treasurer Scott Morrison soon held a brief press conference to give some explanation as to why the day was so ludicrously short; that is, the company tax cuts did not need to be considered by the House, due to a little-known rule that the Australian Tax Office can implement changes even if bills are only passed by the Senate.
"Yesterday, I received advice from the Australian Taxation Office that it was not necessary for the House of Representatives to remain in order for them to implement any changes that would be determined by the Senate in relation to the Enterprise Tax Plan. This is a fairly standard procedure," Morrison said.
"The upshot of all of that is that any arrangements completed by the Senate would be able to be acted upon by the ATO, following a statement by me as Treasurer, that the Government would be supporting those amendments."
So that's where we stand, as of Friday afternoon. The Senate continues debating the tax cuts, with the government anticipating a positive result at some point; the government brought back 150 MPs for 35 minutes, which included no debate and just a few procedural votes; and the treasurer is using a trick in the rulebook to get around having to debate the tax cuts in the House.
What a crazy end to another wild week in the nation's capital.
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