The government has ended its first parliamentary week deeply embarrassed after losing a number of House of Representatives votes because of complacency and bad management.
Labor members had given the impression they would agree to the House adjourning at the normal time of 4.30 on Thursday, so several ministers left and one Liberal backbencher reportedly went for a walk.
Seizing its opportunity, the opposition quickly resurrected its push for a royal commission into banking. Its banking motion had been defeated in the House on Wednesday but passed in the Senate on Thursday.
With numbers depleted, the government lost its narrow majority and was defeated in three votes. In the fourth, Speaker Tony Smith had to exercise his casting vote to continue the debate, allowing the government more time to round up its people. Finally it mustered enough and the debate was adjourned.
The shambolic end to the week left Labor taunting the government over the Prime Minister’s confidence about his majority.
Manager of opposition business Tony Burke said: “Malcolm Turnbull told Australians he had a ‘very solid working majority’. It took just two sitting days for this stable majority to collapse. Malcolm Turnbull is the first prime minister of a majority government to lose a vote in the House in over 50 years.”
NSW Liberal Trent Zimmerman summed the situation up when he said: “It’s not the type of thing you want to have happen in the first week.”
The shemozzle has reflected badly on the highly experienced leader of the house Christopher Pyne and the government whips, all of whom should have been more careful in ensuring that Coalition MPs stayed ready for any last-minute tactical ploys by Labor.
The incident has demonstrated that the government will have its discipline continually tested by an aggressive Labor party.
Bill Shorten told the House: “We will never, never, never give up seeking justice for the victims of banks and financial services. We will never, never, never give up seeking a banking royal commission.”
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra