It was the final day of the Parliamentary calendar this year. It could have been full of Christmas bonhomie but instead it hit rock bottom. It was nasty, personal and bitter with the two leaders tearing at each other like backyard fighting dogs.
No one was surprised. The close numbers in the Parliament have dictated that each leader has considered themselves alternatively one or two seats away from victory or oblivion.
The history books record it was like this in the later years of the Whitlam Government, when close numbers pushed leaders to go for the jugular.
Perhaps only the oratory was better back then.
Today began with the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott jumping squarely into the middle of the AWU affair by accusing the Prime Minister of breaking the law on the Today Show. It was a departure from his policy of letting his deputy Julie Bishop run with the claims. His Leader of the House Christopher Pyne followed up with a call for her to resign.
In an extraordinary move, the Prime Minister Julia Gillard suspended question time for 30 minutes to force the Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott to substantiate his claims.
The Leader of the Opposition willingly accepted the opportunity and for the first time in Parliament, we finally saw him – and not Julie Bishop – speak at length on the issue.
Abbott called for a judicial inquiry into Gillard’s legal work in establishing what she once called a “slush fund” for the Australian Workers Union.
Gillard told him to “put up or shut up”.
Julia Gillard in parliament today, image via news.com.au.
Abbott did not furnish anymore evidence during the debate.
The day began with a flurry of legislative activity, including the Prime Minister introducing the first bill relating to the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The house also debated gambling reform bill. To date, legislation passed in this hung parliament numbers the mid 400s.
But once again, the political focus was on the AWU affair. Abbott told the Parliament that he had been prepared to give the Prime Minister “the benefit of the doubt” but said it had now become clear that she had engaged in “unethical conduct and possible unlawful behaviour”.
Abbott accused the Prime Minister of setting up a vehicle for defrauding the AWU. He said she left the firm and the AWU dumped the firm. It was “highly unethical,” he said, for a senior lawyer to provide misleading information to a official body like the Western Australian Corporate Affairs Commission.
The Prime Minister had “stonewalled or engaged in unbecoming abuse” of anyone who questioned her behaviour, he said.
Finally Abbott urged the members of the Labor Party to consider the leadership issue.
“What sort of integrity do they require of the person leading the Party?
“This is not about gender, this is about character and you have failed the character test.”
In her reply, the Prime Minister said Abbott was having his own “Godwin Grech moment” a reference to allegations made against Kevin Rudd as prime minister which turned out to be false. The matter, in part, cost Malcolm Turnbull his Coalition leadership.
Gillard accused Abbott of running off to the media based on a Fairfax report which was subsequently corrected by that company.
It was, said Gillard, a reflection of his “lack of judgement” and that the best he could come up with in 15 minutes was “conduct unbecoming.”
“The Leader of the Opposition, who is a rash man, who has never worried about the facts, clutches for negativity and sleaze whenever he can.
“He is handcuffed to an allegation against me that I committed a crime and he has no evidence.”
“A decent man would recognise that he had made an error and apologise, but the Leader of the Opposition is not a decent man and he cannot be relied on to go to the facts of matter.”
She said he was not a man who would use his “brain rather than political brawn”.
So endeth the not-very-edifying Parliament for 2012.
*Gabrielle Chan is The Hoopla’s political correspondent. She is a journalist and author with more than 25 years experience, having worked most recently as a regular columnist with The Australian. She has previously worked for The Daily Telegraph, the ABC and the South China Morning Post. Gabrielle has written and edited Flickers of History, War On Our Doorstep and FEAST and is a member of the NSW Anzac Advisory Council. She blogs at www.gabriellechan.com and you can follow her on Twitter: @gabriellechan.