I noted the other day in the story about the Government losing an amendment to the Leader of the Opposition’s motion in Private Members’ Day and the motion going down altogether.
Apparently, this was because Carolyn Le Couteur sided with the Libs on a crucial planning motion and because the vote was tied, the Government’s motion went down. The vote was 9 all. So how did a tied vote ever happen?
Wasn’t the need for an uneven number of seats supposed to fix that?
Well, it all comes down to the negotiation of “pairs”.
This is the convention whereby one side of the chamber agrees not to vote on issues when a member of the other side is absent. For example, if a member is away due to illness, the other side will “pair” that absent member.
It is also a convention that ministers are given a pair to attend ministerial business where they have no choice but to be absent, for example an interstate multi-jurisdictional ministers meeting or COAG.
These pairs are organised by the respective Whips and is one of the reasons that the Whips are to behave civilly and respectfully towards each other.
Often Whips are the only opposing members who can talk to each other and it’s this line of communication which keeps the gate open for negotiation on ticklish issues. In my time this was the case in the earlier years and was notably absent in the latter years with those opposite to me having no respect for the conventions.
Dare I say it, but I think they really had no notion of parliamentary process, procedure or conventions and thus acted politically at all times and didn’t see the need to be a conduit for open dialogue. Indeed, in one spectacular instance, those opposite abused this convention.
Looking at the first sitting period (and last for 2016), there were revealed some staggering instances of abuse of public interest. Three of the Liberals (out of 11, ie nearly 30%) decided to attend the CPA conference in London. Unreal! I hear that it was Labor’s turn in the roster to go but thought better of it because of the need for them to be present in the Chamber to respect the new members’ inaugural speeches and to take part in the debates. So much for the Libs’ respect for their new MLAs.
But Mrs Dunne, as acting Treasurer of the Australian delegation (due to the pulling out of the Commonwealth from the CPA, leaving the states to stay in loose coalition) decided she needed to go. She’s not the Treasurer of the CPA, just the Oz bit. The similar story for another of the Libs and the third used the roster as an excuse to go. Mrs Dunne could have done the job of all three but no way José.
And she does have form for going on junkets!
So in the pairs department, Labor has respected the convention and said that three of its members, while taking part in the debates, would not exercise the vote, thus making the Chamber 19 votes, comprising 9 Labor, 8 Liberals and 2 Greens. All good so far…
So Minister Rattenbury needed to be elsewhere and not in the Chamber… which meant that the numbers reduced to 18. But what of a pair for him to attend the ministerial meeting? He’s a Green! No pair was in operation for him!
Well the convention is that the parties give each other pairs, and it is usually only the Government and the Opposition which engage in this process. So if Ms Le Couteur was to be away, no pair would be in operation. But Mr Rattenbury is a Cabinet Minister and thus part of the Government.
The Westminster convention is that the Opposition gives the Government pairs for ministerial duty and in the Commonwealth Parliament, the Opposition Labor Party gives a National Party minister a pair because he is part of the Executive. So what happened in the Legislative Assembly?
When the vote for the LDA motion and its amendments was called, the number was 18 total votes, Le Couteur sides with the Libs and the vote was tied, being declared in the negative.
The reasons for the absence of a pair for Mr Rattenbury are the following. The Opposition decided that as he was not a Labor member, no pair would operate, in other words they disrespected the convention on ministerial duty; nobody thought of it, showing incompetence or ignorance of parliamentary convention, or both; the Government Whip did not see it as her duty to look after a Green minister, a dereliction of duty to the Government.
Conspiracy or incompetence? Go with incompetence in the main…
It is also possible that the Government thought that Minister Rattenbury would make the vote as his plane landed in sufficient time for him to get to the Chamber. This is incompetence. Provisional pairs are negotiated which come into effect if the minister does not make it and are rescinded when he turns up in the Chamber.
My thoughts are that a combination of all of the above are responsible for the motion going down and bringing embarrassment to the mover of the motion, Mr Coe and to the Government through its leader, Mr Barr.
The Whips are not experienced enough and conversant enough with the conventions and the rules of parliamentary process to have an instinct hone to know when to apply the pairs for protection and political advantage. And the leaders didn’t see political opportunity when it hit them in the face.
Think about this. If Mr Rattenbury had been given the pair, the Government would have had the numbers and the motion would have been defeated without the Government losing face. Also, given Le Couteur was siding with the Libs, the motion should have been put at a time when Mr Rattenbury was present. He would have been faced with ugly choices.
As a Cabinet minister, and even though it was Private Member’s Business brought on by Mr Coe, Mr Rattenbury would have been bound to vote with the Government due to Cabinet solidarity (or break that convention) to support the Government under attack from Coe. This would have also meant a split within the Greens and political capital available then.
Coe should have postponed the motion. He would have been able to debate his position on the LDA, show a split in the Greens or a split in Cabinet.
The Government should have arranged a pair for Mr Rattenbury and didn’t, showing its own political incompetence.
Members of Parliament are not allowed to be sweet and gentle people all the time. Parliamentary positions are there for specific purposes, and that is to enhance the work of the Parliament. That was not well served this time.
New members should never be made Whips. Whips are supposed to be as well versed, some say more well versed, than Presiding Officers.
What transpired in the first and last sitting day of the 9th Assembly for 2016, was the stuff of rank amateurs, from the top to the bottom. They should all learn from that most famous Chief Whip, Francis Urquhart in The House of Cards.
Pictured above, a still from Netflix Original series House of Cards.