AN embarrassed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has “read the riot act” to ministers absent from last night’s parliamentary vote causing the government’s first week in power to end in farce.
A number of government MPs, including senior cabinet ministers, gave themselves an early mark before parliament had ended its second day of sittings.
Their absence caused a historic loss and a hell of a lot of embarrassment for the Coalition, briefly handing over control of the house to the Opposition as Labor opportunistically called for a division late yesterday.
It’s believed to be the first time in five decades that a majority government has lost a vote in the House of Representatives.
Reeling from the error of his colleagues, Mr Turnbull this morning said the MPs responsible had copped an earful.
“A number of our members who should not have left the building, left the building,” he told 3AW radio.
“They did the wrong thing, they know they did the wrong thing, and I’ve read the riot act to them. Their colleagues will all read the riot act to them, they’ll get the riot act read to them more often than just about anyone could imagine.”
Name-checking Ministers Peter Dutton, Christian Porter and Michael Keenan, the Prime Minister went on to say the MPs involved had been “humiliated” and “excoriated”. He said the “free character analysis they’ll get from their colleagues will be very character building”.
So we get it, they’re in trouble.
But Mr Turnbull also directed blame at Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.
“Bill Shorten said he was going to be a different type of opposition leader. He was going to be constructive, he was going to be substantive, he was going to deal with the big issues,” he said.
“He was going to reach across the aisle to me and seek to solve Australia’s problems and what he’s done is played, essentially, schoolboy tricks and stunts in the parliament.”
The embarrassing blow began when the opposition tried to bring on debate in a bid to call on Mr Turnbull to establish a royal commission into banks. Labor then won three divisions in its attempt to expedite debate, taking advantage of the Coalition’s slender majority.
Speaker Tony Smith was also forced to use his casting vote — believed to be for the first time — on a procedural motion to allow the debate to be considered. Treasurer Scott Morrison denounced the move and accused Mr Shorten of taking political advantage.
“He is using a stunt to promote his stunt,” he told parliament. Mr Shorten said the royal commission was the last resort for justice for those who had been let down by the banking system.
“We may succeed tonight or not … we will never give up.” Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen urged the prime minister to give up the fight against a royal commission.
“Sometimes you just have to know when you’ve lost — sometimes you just have to know when it’s time to recognise reality … when it’s time to say ‘OK, I might have got this one wrong’.” Other Labor MPs were celebrating the victory on social media. “How is that stable majority government working out for you, Mr Turnbull?” frontbencher Mark Dreyfus tweeted.
Earlier, Mr Turnbull fended off Labor’s push for a banking royal commission by taking aim at Mr Shorten for a “hopelessly populist political campaign”.
Doubling down on yesterday’s parliamentary question time performance where he labelled Mr Shorten a “latter-day Jack Lang”, Mr Turnbull today branded the Opposition Leader “the image of liberty in that great Delacroix painting”.
“You see, Mr Speaker, I said yesterday that the Leader of the Opposition is like a latter-day Jack Lang taking on the banks, a heroic advocate for the people, taking on the big end of town,” Mr Turnbull told the parliament.
“I think he’s getting so carried away with himself he sees himself rather like the person, the image of liberty in that great Delacroix painting, the tricolour in one hand, the muscat in the other.
“There he is, trampling over the barricades, freeing the people, freeing the people from their wrongs, taking on the banks. Mr Speaker, this is a hopeless, hopelessly populist political campaign.”
Mr Shorten said he had today met with several people who had been treated unfairly by banks.
Macquarie MP Sussan Templeton used the experience of a couple called Dwayne and Jenny to ask Treasurer Scott Morrison why he would not back a royal commission into the banks.
But the question appeared to backfire when Mr Morrison pointed out the couple’s plight began when Labor was in government.
“I noticed in the members’ question that she referred to Dwayne and Jenny having been dealing with this for seven years,” he said. “This government has been in power for three years. Three years. Not seven years.”
With the royal commission narrowly avoided, Mr Turnbull insists his government is getting on with governing.
“We are running the country, we are in government and we are in power,” he said.
“We do have a majority in the House of Representatives and the only reasons Labor won those procedural votes last night is because a number of those coalition members had left the building when they should not have left the building.”