Labor and the Greens have teamed up in the upper house to slam the government’s leadership chaos as a “national embarrassment”, even as fresh reports emerged of yet more instability.
Question time in the Senate took on unusual significance on Thursday – complete with national TV coverage – after the government cancelled the lower house question time, to avoid an embarrassing spectacle.
The back-up question time became a farce, after a slew of resignations reduced the government to a three-man show.
Senator Simon Birmingham was burdened with almost every ministerial portfolio, including Senate leader, helped by Nigel Scullion and, surprisingly, veteran colleague Barry O’Sullivan, who was drafted from the backbench.
Highly visible on the backbench were former upper house leader Mathias Cormann, former deputy leader Mitch Fifield, and former jobs and innovation minister Michaelia Cash, who had dramatically defected to the Dutton camp earlier in the day.
Even as the debate proceeded, fresh reports emerged that the list of Liberal leadership contenders had grown to include Julie Bishop, along with Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton, with Malcolm Turnbull refusing to resign.
Labor’s Penny Wong interrupted question time to move a no-confidence motion, later defeated, which also demanded a fresh election be called by 5pm “so the people can decide who runs this country”.
“You have forgotten every Australian but yourselves,” she thundered to the almost-bare government benches.
She joked that the government was now “so devoid of talent” that its most senior minister was Nigel Scullion.
“Really? Where are we? Where are we?,” she said.
“If you can’t provide that leadership, instead of running away from Parliament and turning up here with this huddle of ministers that you have been reduced to, you should resign.”
The most passionate speech was delivered by Greens leader Richard Di Natale, who slammed the leadership chaos as a “national embarrassment”, a “disgrace” and “utterly shameful”.
“We now have the prospect of Peter Dutton or Scott Morrison as the next prime minister of this country. Now, things are pretty crook right now but they are going to get a hell of a lot worse,” he roared.
“I fear for those people in this country who have come from overseas where we are going to have an election that focuses on race, that fans the flames of racism and division.”
Senator Birmingham mounted a valiant defence by reciting a long list of the government’s legislative achievements.
“This Liberal national government has delivered good policies and strong outcomes in spades,” he said, to roars of laughter.
He derided the motion as a “political stunt” and even returned the retired “debt and deficit legacy” slogan.
And he insisted there would be no early election, with the poll to go ahead “next year” as planned.
He was joined by Senator Scullion, who took offence at Labor’s “arrogant sneering” at his promotion.
His colleague, Senator O’Sullivan, did not join the defence. His only contribution to the sitting was to frequently interject to ask for quiet, because of a hearing issue.
Mr President, I suffer from a condition called sensitive ear syndrome and this is becoming a workplace health and safety issue for me with the noise coming from the other side. I would ask they just tone it down, please.”
One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, Australian Conservatives leader Cory Bernardi, and independents Derryn Hinch and Tim Storer refused to back the motion, thereby dooming it to fail. But they did join in the criticism of the leadership chaos.
“The Liberal Party will sort out their leadership, but we are still working,” she said.
In a rare moment of levity, Senator Hanson confused the no-confidence motion with a censure motion. She corrected herself, after Labor raised a point of order.
“I will take it back. I was wrong. It is not a censure motion, but a no-confidence in the government,” she conceded.
The Centre Alliance used its two votes to abstain.