Peter Dutton made aggressive attack his trademark style as a cabinet minister and is keeping that up as Opposition Leader in an attempt to put Labor under pressure. Albanese responds with force. He grew up in the hard world of the Labor factions and had to stick up for himself as a leader on the left who was usually outnumbered by his rivals on the right. The factional fighter is on display every day in question time.
Tactically, the Coalition is trying to find its feet after a brutal defeat while Labor is warming up. Dutton has asked repeatedly about whether the government would deliver the $275 cut to electricity bills it forecast in its energy policy. Finally, on Wednesday, Albanese responded with details of the blowout in wholesale prices under the previous government. The Labor tactics squad needed time to prepare its answers.
Does this matter? Yes, because question time remains the dominant forum for a direct, face-to-face contest between the two parties of government. But question time is not the only forum that counts.
The first practical outcome of this parliament, at least in the sense that it matters outside the building, was the passage of the Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment (Royal Commission Response) Bill 2022 on Tuesday. This is the first bill passed by both houses in the new parliament. It sets up a new funding instrument for aged care providers, authorizes the health department to issue “star ratings” for residential aged care homes and has a code of conduct for providers and workers. It was inherited from the previous government and is only the first step in Labor’s aged care plan: a separate bill to ensure 24/7 care and more nursing staff has gone to a Senate inquiry. The key point is that useful work is already underway.
The pivotal vote this week, however, was on climate change. A significant majority in parliament agreed, by 89 to 55 votes, to enshrine an emissions reduction target in federal law for the first time. The government’s 43 per cent target for 2030 is now law. This was not a seismic outcome, because Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen had said he could cut emissions even if the bill was blocked, but it marked an easing in hostilities on climate.
The climate debate at around noon on Thursday included practical agreements on amendments from Labor, the Greens and independents. Bowen rejected some amendments, such as a call from Greens leader Adam Bandt to cut emissions by 75 per cent, but agreed to others.
The independents had their concerns heard. Monique Ryan gained an amendment on accountability and ambition on behalf of another independent, Kate Chaney, who was absent with COVID-19. Zoe Daniel gained Labor and Greens support for an amendment that left room for deeper cuts. Rebekha Sharkie moved an amendment about regional Australia on behalf of Helen Haines, also absent with COVID-19, and had it passed. Allegra Spender had an amendment passed to make sure advice from the Climate Change Authority would be taken into account on government policies such as fossil fuel subsidies. Kylea Tink had supported an amendment for the public release of climate change advice. Steggall gained support for an amendment on scientific advice.
None of the votes changed the essential feature of the bill: the target of 43 per cent. And the House overwhelmingly rejected, by 122 to 9 votes, a Greens amendment that said not one new coal, oil or gas project could commence. On this point the Greens were joined by Zoe Daniel, Sophie Scamps, Zali Steggall and Andrew Wilkie. Two other crossbenchers, Monique Ryan and Allegra Spender, voted with the majority. The independents did not vote as a bloc, let alone a quasi-party.
Labor has a majority in this new parliament and Albanese will use that majority when he wants – as he did when he cut staff numbers in the crossbench offices. He will be ruthless when the occasion demands. He will be inclusive, however, when he can afford to be. The vote on climate change was civil and practical. It offered the biggest signal so far on how this parliament will operate.
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