After its embarrassment of losing divisions in the first week of the new parliament, the Turnbull government was caught out at the start of the second week by not having any legislation for the Senate to consider.
But the government blamed Labor, saying the opposition was responsible because it had not passed through the House of Representatives two uncontroversial bills the Senate had been due to debate.
Government senators were forced to filibuster through Monday morning to cover the gap, leading to speeches full of much trivia and, in one case, a very embarrassing lapse.
Talking about the election Victorian Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie forgot both the name of her party’s candidate for Mallee (James Anderson) and where he lived (Tallarook).
“In the seat of McEwen we ran Andrew … Andrew, Andrew, Andrew … It will come to me.
“He runs a stock feed store in, sorry madam deputy president, in a place starting with T just down from Yea and Seymour,” she said.
As the government went to the address-in-reply to the governor-general’s speech to fill the time, Coalition backbenchers obviously were caught with little to say. They reprised the campaign, gave fulsome thanks all round for their re-election, and even reviewed what had been on television.
Queensland senator James McGrath said that last night he had watched Last Night of the Proms, “which is one of my favourite TV programs, every year … It was a fantastic spectacle. And what was great to see – that in this huge mass of people at the Royal Albert Hall that you could see the Australian flag flying proudly.”
Ministers, including Arthur Sinodinos, Marise Payne and Matthew Canavan, were forced to enter the debate so the chamber did not have to shut down.
Labor’s upper house leader, Penny Wong, told the Senate that for three hours speaker after speaker on the government side had been seen “in a desperate attempt to keep this chamber running until Question Time”.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said “nothing could be further from the truth” than the claim that the government had run out of Senate business.
He said the reason there was no legislation was that Labor had been playing petty games in the lower house with uncontroversial bills.
He accused Labor of speaking “out of both sides of their mouth”. They sought to frustrate in the lower house and then blamed the government in the Senate.
“The Australian people will see through the tactics of the Australian Labor Party”, as Labor displayed them day after day. The ALP could not rise above undergraduate student politics – however much Bill Shorten talked about co-operation, Fifield said.
The latest parliamentary tactical battle came as the government also had its divisions on same-sex marriage in open view. The Liberal conservatives are digging in behind their demand that there should be public funding for both sides in a plebiscite.
But Liberal backbencher Warren Entsch, a strong proponent of legalising same-sex marriage, trenchantly opposed public funding.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra