The new act in the Question Time pantomime: Federation and the GST

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Pantomime villain (Image via keoghcartoons.com.au)

The Abbott Government has finally revealed what it has long denied: the Plan B to its savagely unfair Budget raising the GST.

As I predicted in what now looks like a remarkably prescient piece written within three days of the Abbott Government being elected, a rise in the GST is coming. Despite being a clear broken election promise and still a vicious attack on the poor and underprivileged, it will nevertheless be used by Abbott as political camouflage as he works towards being re-elected in 2015.

In a way, having the Government change its tune ‒ even in such a predictable way ‒ is rather a relief, especially if you are one of the masochists inclined to suffer through Parliamentary Question Time.

That’s because every day Parliament has been in session since Treasurer Joe Hockey danced to ‘Best Day of My Life’ in May, Question Time has been a pantomime. A very bad pantomime — with the same script, choreography and cast of cartoonish villains every performance.

Here is the plot.

Firstly, the Opposition will ask a question of the prime minister about some aspect of its “unfair and inequitable budget”, to which Tony Abbott will stand beneath his heroic combover, with an oily unctuous look on his heavily polished face, smack his lips together a few times and talk about how the Budget for this or that is going up blah per cent this year, blah per cent next year, blah per cent the year after that and then another blah per cent in the year after that.

He will then sit down with a content look and lean over and talk to Manager of Government Business Christopher Pyne while the next question is being asked.

This question will be from some anonymous Liberal Party MP in the cheap seats, who will haltingly read a Dorothy Dixer ‒ or should we say a Peta Credliner ‒ directed at Joe Hockey on the subject of "fixing the budget".

Hockey will rise and, with an insincere smile half mooned over his full moon face, lambast the Opposition and the previous Labor Government for its incompetence, hypocrisy and reckless spending. Often, he will regale his braying backbenchers with a personal anecdote — perhaps a tale he concocted about some imaginary old age pensioner whom he says he met or who wrote him a letter; or some reminiscence about his family's small business; or some incident involving Bill Shorten in the last term of Parliament. He will mock, he will point at the Opposition, he will chuckle at his own jokes; he will, in short, ham it up like he is playing Ali Baba in a Christmas panto at Drury Lane.

At around about this time, the grim, scowling, beehive hatted Speaker will eject the first of many Opposition MPs under “Standing Order 94A”, which these days will pass by with barely a murmur.

The Opposition will then direct another question to the prime minister about the Budget, which he will answer after selecting the second page from his folder of Credlin cheat sheets. Abbott’s answer will consist of supporting Coalition policy by deriding some figure from the Opposition over their alleged previous support for the same, or a similar, policy position. For instance, should the question be about universities, Abbott will read something allegedly written by Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh when he was an economics professor to suggest he supported university fee deregulation. If the question happens to be about health, Tony will read something apparently said by Nicola Roxon during the Hawke Government a few decades or so ago. And so on.

Once he has completed this ritual, Abbott will John Wayne walk back to his bench, a familiar smirk plastered all over his sand-blasted face — the smirk he can’t resist revealing when he feels he has done something especially clever and sneaky.

Later in the day, after Question Time has been completed, whoever Abbott has so verballed will arise to correct the record with the Speaker, claiming to have been “grievously misrepresented”. This, however, will make absolutely no difference, because Abbott will similarly traduce them or their colleagues in exactly the same way the next day, and the next, and the one after that, and the one after that — and so on, and so on, and so on, and so on.

And Question Time will also follow precisely the same pattern every mind numbing, fist clenching, television screen endangering day.

The Opposition will ask its questions and Abbott and Hockey will answer them in the exactly the same way ‒ virtually word for word ‒ each and every time. Meanwhile, the most blatantly partisan speaker in Australian political history will rule innocuous questions out of order, make bizarre rulings to defend Government ministers and eject ALP MPs for fictitious infractions.

In between this, the Government will task backbenchers apparently possessing only a cursory understanding of the written English language to read out embarrassingly banal and/or asinine questions to other cabinet ministers in order of seniority.

Morrison will get his question on “border security” and “Operation Sovereign Borders”, to which this fine Christian fellow will spit and scowl his response to the “incompetent” Opposition like some mentally deranged demon.

Then Christopher Pyne, with a mock serious expression overlaying his habitually smug schoolboyish visage, will talk about how raising university fees will somehow magically open up universities to poor people. 

Lord Malcolm Turnbull will arise and, holding his right hand across his stomach like Napoleon on Elba addressing a few passing goats, wax grandiloquent about how copper wire is the shiny future of telecommunications.

Other ministers will then arise in the same order each day to give their same stock speech — Julie Bishop with her clipped hostility; metronomic Peter Dutton; bumbling Barnaby Joyce; fidgety, frightened Bruce Billson; tense, theatrical Sussan Ley. And others too uninteresting to mention.

Always the same. Always in the same order. The repitition of the same vacuous spin and dissembling, day after day after dull, intelligence insulting day.

It can only be designed to make people turn away from politics, because it does nothing to inform or illuminate our "democracy". It is enough to bring tears to a stone.

But now Credlin has, almost mercifully, added a new act.

Now, in response to questions about the Government’s obvious plans to raise the GST, Tony Abbott has this week arisen to intone solemnly about the need for a new debate about “reforming the Federation”. Something this 56 year-old man child says should be done “constructively”, in a “mature and measured fashion” and in a “spirit of bipartisanship”.

Yes, anyone who saw Abbott as Opposition Leader knows just how constructive, mature and bipartisan he can be.

It is a bad joke, naturally, but of course our mainstream media are accepting Abbott words credulously — some idiot at Crikey even praising Abbott for launching this debate.

The truth is, this has nothing to do with the “future of our Federation” ‒ Abbott couldn’t give a rat's clacker about states’ powers, except insofar as they limit his own ‒ but rather is a cynical ploy to raise revenue and put pressure on the Opposition.

It is passing ironic that a PM who, as opposition leader, derided the then Government for a carbon tax, which he described as a “great big tax on everything” ‒ which was anything but, given it only applied to big polluters ‒ now plans to hike up an actual great big tax on everything that was implemented by a government in which he was a cabinet minister.

To raise the GST, Abbott will first blame the Opposition for not passing the Budget. He will then gain the rubber stamp approval of the states – who will, of course, jump at any proposal to rescue their uniformly parlous financial positions – which he will hide behind, claiming the decision was an act of inclusive “federalism”.

This proposal he will take into the next election, claiming it is necessary to solve the debt that is ballooning under his profligate, war-hungry Government — but which he will, of course, all blame on the Opposition.

The tactics are fairly obvious.

And the electorate may well buy it at the next election, because a 2.5% rise may not seem to them so much — not when compared, say, against losing their dole, or paying a GP tax, or losing their disability support. And it will be accepted by Australia’s dull, complicit mainstream media and policy commentariat as the “least of all evils” and not a broken election promise at all.

The pantomime goes on. The act changes slightly, but the chorus line stays the same.

And the public shuffle out of the theatre vaguely dissatisfied, but none the wiser.

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