It was no surprise to see the blow torch applied to the Chief Minister Andrew Barr this week in what turned out to be a stormy sitting of the Legislative Assembly.
After a week of criticism over his infamous I hate journalists comments and perceptions that he disrespected Canberra’s older citizens, the Opposition was bound to follow up with as much pressure as it could bring to bear on what they hoped would be a beleaguered leader.
First, there was Tuesday’s censure motion over Mr Barr’s speech to communications professionals, watered down by the Greens, and yesterday (22 March) the Assembly, again thanks to the Greens, found the Chief Minister had breached standing orders in relation to a round of committee head-butting last year with its Liberal chair Jeremy Hanson.
This was the exchange that the Liberals pulled from the record for its attack on Mr Barr:
THE CHAIR: Chief Minister, if you can just stick to answering the questions rather than trying to make allegations.
Mr Barr: You do not get to tell me how I answer questions, Mr Hanson.
THE CHAIR: I get to run this committee and I am asking you—
Mr Barr: For the time being, yes.
THE CHAIR: Was that a threat?
Mr Barr: It is, yes.
THE CHAIR: You are making a threat to me, are you?
Mr Barr: I am, yes.
The Liberals’ Andrew Wall said in a statement that Andrew Barr was a man under pressure. “He hates scrutiny in the media and he hates scrutiny in parliament. Levelling threats against another sitting member for scrutinising the Government is just another tactic employed by the Chief Minister to drown out dissent,” he said.
After a morning of debate the Chief Minister withdrew his remarks but the Greens, donning the cloak of the Assembly’s honest brokers, voted with the Liberals to find Mr Barr in breach of the standing orders and the matter being referred to the Administration and Procedures Committee, where Mr Barr could be found in contempt of the Assembly.
The Liberals, no doubt cock a hoop, aren’t waiting for that, issuing a statement saying Mr Barr had already been found in contempt. They will take heart from their week’s work that finally the Chief Minister and the Government have lost its aura of invincibility, even if it took a couple of own goals from Mr Barr to do it.
But it was exactly the kind of political point scoring and parliamentary brawling that the public finds a turn-off, and ironically a classic example of what the Chief Minister had highlighted in his critique of the distorted media coverage of the Assembly.
And while the Liberals were celebrating, Minister Meegan Fitzharris was out on radio talking about light rail, cemeteries and other issues – what Labor would say are the things that really matter to the community.
The Greens are hoping to come out of it all as the guardians of democracy and parliamentary standards, taking aim at Mr Hanson’s behaviour as committee chair as well.
“While Mr Hanson’s conduct was not formally found to breach standing orders, they were certainly not befitting of the behaviour that our community expects of our elected representatives,” Greens leader Shane Rattenbury said.
“The Greens stand for the integrity of our democracy. That’s why we’re pleased today to have called for strengthened dispute resolution measures for Assembly committee proceedings.”
Greens MLA Caroline Le Couteur took aim at the two antagonists’ displays of masculine dominance in what is supposed to be the civil realm of committees.
“It is not appropriate to use aggressive, ‘alpha male’ behaviour in our Assembly, including in our committees,” she said.
“For those who need clear direction to this effect, there is an opportunity for our Assembly here to clarify appropriate methods of dealing with unparliamentary exchanges, particularly in the committee process.”
Good luck with that. Now that the Liberals have tasted what in the grand scheme of things may be a tiny victory, we can expect continued attacks on the integrity of the Chief Minister in an attempt to bring him down.
Mr Barr’s advisers would no doubt be telling him to exercise more discipline and focus on the Government’s agenda and the coming Budget.
The Liberals would like to think the Chief Minister is now damaged goods. He may be wounded, he may be frustrated or even wondering whether it is all worth it, but the Chief Minister remains a formidable performer in the small pond of ACT politics, no matter what some may think of his policies.
The challenge for the Liberals is to be more than just a one-trick pony and present some sort of cohesive positive agenda instead of the generally reactive, fragmented and negative approach it normally takes. And whether its continued conservative stance on social issues will ever appeal to the ACT electorate.
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