View from The Hill

View from The Hill

The Turnbull government gets practiced at pivots

Malcolm Turnbull has implemented a ‘constituency Question Time’. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Malcolm Turnbull has unveiled changes to Question Time to give government backbenchers a new opportunity to pitch to their local audiences. It’s quite a clever tactic.

A “constituency Question Time” will see about five questions from Coalition MPs each parliamentary day when they can ask ministers about matters affecting their electorates and raised by voters.

These questions will come after the five standard “dorothy dixers” from the government side, which are supplied by the executive to backbenchers. We’re all familiar with the often mind-numbing genre, along the lines of “could the minister tell the House how he/she is promoting jobs (or repairing the budget, or saving the nation from terrorism)?”

“A daily backbench question time” was proposed by Christopher Pyne, now leader of the House but then an opposition frontbencher, in a 2013 speech titled “Restoring Faith in the Australian Parliament”.

With the election approaching, the local questions will be useful for MPs who want to tell their electorates how they are winning benefits for them. Such questions at present usually get squeezed out as ministers compete to spruik their bigger issues.

As Turnbull told parliament, “local issues are the bread and butter of every member’s job”. And, he might have added, some marginal seat-holders’ survival.

Of course these questions won’t be spontaneous. Coalition MPs will want to receive substantive answers. It would be counter-productive for these MPs to catch ministers flat-footed, without a clue what they are being asked about.

The change also has the advantage for Turnbull that it is a gesture of inclusion for his troops. Turnbull saw how Tony alienated many backbenchers, and the new prime minister wants to make sure his MPs stay close, especially when the honeymoon ends.

Labor sounded tetchy about the Question Time initiative. But the new arrangement (a trial from the next sitting week until year’s end) does not impinge on Labor’s questions. The opposition’s problem is how to win points in Question Time now it faces a prime minister who slips out of its grip every time.

Tuesday’s Question Time saw Turnbull once more executing his pivoting party tricks. While these political acrobatics have been on show plenty of times already, they continue to be effective.

The pivots come in two varieties: when the Turnbull government is pivoting from its Abbott predecessor – for example, going from being negative to positive about funding public transport – and when Turnbull has pivoted from his own former positions.

Labor, trying to discredit Turnbull over contradictions between his old and new stands, once again pursued same-sex marriage, where he has switched from backing a conscience vote to advocating a plebiscite, and climate policy, where he once was a critic of Direct Action.

But he is too agile for it.

In response to Labor’s Terri Butler, Turnbull saw only virtues in the same-sex marriage plebiscite he believed had so many problems when advocated by Tony Abbott. “On the hustings the honourable member will be saying to the electors of Griffith none of you should have a say,” he told her. “And your Liberal opponent will be saying, all of you can have a say.”

Other pivots were on display on Tuesday.

The Abbott government reviled the president of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs. These days Attorney-General George Brandis might be mistaken for her new best friend. At Brandis’ initiative, the two recently had coffee in Sydney. Appearing with Triggs before a Senate estimates committee on Tuesday, Brandis made it clear the government expected and accepted that the commission would have a different view from it on occasion.

Then there’s the pivot on financial advice. The Abbott government tried to water down Labor’s law protecting consumers but was thwarted by the Senate. In Tuesday’s response to the Murray inquiry into the financial system, the Turnbull government has promised to toughen standards for advisers.

Asked on Sky whether the government had got it wrong before, Treasurer Scott Morrison said he didn’t want to go over old ground – the important thing was to get it right now.

In the perfect pivot, yesterday is simply erased.

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