Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s intention to give notice of a no-confidence motion when Parliament returns this week has always been a potentially messy business.
A brief explanation: the government controls the Notice Paper in the House of Representatives. This is the document which outlines the order and timing of debate, including the order of legislation.
Whilst there are set times when the Opposition can bring on debate on particular issues (such as in regular Matters of Public Importance), if it wants to move a specific motion it needs to first move a motion for the Suspension of Standing Orders.
Abbott attempted to do this during Question Time on March 21, whilst the government was preoccupied with the leadership spill that wasn’t. He sought to suspend standing orders in order to move: “That this House declares no confidence in the Prime Minister.”
The motion was carried by 73 votes to 71 but was defeated because a suspension of standing orders requires an absolute majority of 76 votes.
Abbott then announced that he would give notice of a no-confidence motion when the House resumes tomorrow. He didn’t say whether it would be no-confidence in the government or the prime minister. The difference is technically significant but may not necessarily be crucial to the outcome of any vote.
What all of this means, in practice, is that Abbott can give notice of his intention to move a motion but unless he has the numbers in the House to bring on an immediate debate it is in the government’s hands as to when, or if, the motion is brought on.
It is, or should be, inconceivable that a government would not immediately bring on for debate a motion of no confidence in itself. There is, afterall, no more important motion that can be moved in the House of Representatives than one which expresses a want of confidence in the executive.
The House sits this week and then adjourns until May 27, to allow the government to get out in the electorate and sell the Budget. Having announced their intention to move no-confidence, the Opposition could look silly if the week ends without such a motion being put forward.
Abbott’s Budget Problem
However, tomorrow night’s Budget exposes the Opposition to accusations of sabotage and irresponsibility were it to give notice of the motion when the House first sits. Even if moved after Treasurer Wayne Swan has delivered the Budget, there is the problem that a no-confidence motion would take precedence over all other business and could run for several days.
Whither the Budget?
Another important consideration for Abbott is the time set aside for him on Thursday evening to reply to Wayne Swan’s budget speech. This speech is televised live and gives Abbott a free kick at the government and the chance to dominate the media coverage on Friday.
You would have to think that the government’s response to the tabling of a no-confidence motion on Wednesday or Thursday would be to cancel Abbott’s Budget reply speech. They could rightfully argue that a no-confidence motion takes precedence.
With an election due in four months, thirty minutes of free television time is a gift Abbott is unlikely to want to surrender.
The Opposition’s awareness of this was apparent in the dissembling by its Manager of Business, Christopher Pyne, over the weekend. “The Coalition will move a no-confidence motion when the time is right,” Pyne is reported to have said.
What to do?
Looking Back To 1941
The only historical guide we have is the motion that brought down the minority Fadden government in October 1941. This is also the last time Australia had a minority government.
At 3.13pm on Wednesday, October 1, 1941, the Leader of the Opposition, the ALP’s John Curtin, rose in the Committee of Supply in the House of Representatives to speak on the proposed 1941-42 Budget.
The Committee – in fact, the whole House sitting as a Committee – was considering the first item in the Estimates, namely the provision of 8,470 pounds for “salaries and allowances” for the Senate.
It was still two months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. Hitler’s 267-day bombing blitz of the United Kingdom had already ended and no-one was in any doubt as to the seriousness of the conflict.
Curtin’s opening words were to say: “What we have to consider in this budget is, in effect, the problem of the ways and means of war. I put it in that way because I think it is desirable that the whole world — and more particularly our enemies — should know that whatever may take place in this Parliament this week will not in any way affect the complete unity of the Australian people, or the determination of this Parliament as a united body to prosecute the war to a successful conclusion.”
Curtin then delivered a long speech canvassing a wide range of issues, from the conduct of the war to child endowment and old-age pensions. Despite the temptation for each generation to see its problems as unique, Curtin’s reference to “equality of sacrifice” is as relevant today as it was then.
At the end of his speech, Curtin moved an amendment to item number one. The amendment sought to grant the money but demanded that the Budget be recast “to ensure a more equitable distribution of the national burden”.
The Committee Chairman, John Prowse, the Country Party member for Forrest in Western Australia, ruled the motion out of order. Quoting May’s Parliamentary Practice, Prowse ruled that each grant of money in the Budget is by a distinct motion which can only be agreed to, reduced, negatived, or withdrawn. No conditions or expressions of opinion can be attached.
Prowse said: “I suggest to the Leader of the Opposition that, in order to effect his purpose, he should move that the amount be reduced by a nominal sum.”
Curtin thereupon moved: “That the first item be reduced by one pound.”
The House then adjourned. When it met again the following afternoon, the Prime Minister, Arthur Fadden, spoke at length in response to Curtin. A de facto no-confidence motion was being debated.
The House met again on Friday, October 3, for more debate. There were bitter accusations and recriminations over the treatment of the former prime minister, Robert Menzies, who had resigned under duress just five weeks earlier.
At one stage, Menzies roused himself to plead: “I wish honorable members would leave me alone. It is a most unpleasant experience to be exhumed.”
At 4.15pm that Friday, a division saw Curtin’s amendment passed by 36 votes to 33, with four members paired. The two independents, Arthur Coles and Alex Wilson, had brought down the government by shifting their support from the conservatives to the ALP.
Fadden announced that “the Government desires an opportunity to consider its position” and the House adjourned until the following Wednesday, October 8.
When the House next met, Fadden had surrendered his commission and Prime Minister John Curtin rose to announce the formation of the first Labor ministry in ten years.
This is the only occasion on which an Australian government has been defeated by a de facto no-confidence motion in the House.
Perhaps there is a model in the 1941 debate for Abbott to follow this week.
A Possible Abbott Strategy
- Allow the Budget to proceed as normal tomorrow night.
- Let Wednesday pass with maximum media coverage of the Budget. Treasurer Wayne Swan will also speak at the National Press Club on this day.
- On Thursday night, Abbott rises to give his Budget reply speech in the House. At some point, he moves an amendment similar to Curtin’s. Alternatively, he could simply move no-confidence in the government and demand the debate proceed immediately.
- Abbott recounts the government’s budgetary mis-management, quoting extensively from its own words over the past couple of weeks. He challenges the independents to cross the floor and join with the Opposition, again reminding the electorate that the crossbenchers are the only reason the government remains in office. He demands an immediate election.
- When the House next meets, either in special session the following week, or on May 27 as scheduled, the motion to bring down the government will be debated in all its ugly glory. If the Opposition handles it well, they could dominate the news coverage.
- At some stage, probably in the week leading up to May 30, the motion will in all probability be defeated. Mind you, misadventure, treachery, bad luck or incompetence – things you can never rule out with the Gillard government – could see the motion carried. Then the government would be out and we can all cross September 14 out of our diaries.
What is the rationale for this scenario?
There is no reasonable expectation that a no-confidence motion will succeed. It will not be supported by the Greens member, Adam Bandt. The rural independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, seem rusted on. Like Bandt, they have a signed agreement with Prime Minister Gillard. They’ve come this far in nearly three years that there would be little to gain from destroying the government now.
The putative independents, Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper, can be expected to support the government since it is the only way they will retain a parliamentary salary for the next few months before they are consigned to the political dust-bin. Neither has any interest in assisting the Opposition.
Andrew Wilkie’s position would be of interest but Slipper’s support would cancel out any vote by Wilkie to defeat the government.
In other words, the motion could pass but most likely wouldn’t.
Thus, a no-confidence motion really forms part of the Opposition’s campaign strategy leading up to September 14. Gillard has thoughtfully gifted them the chance to plan the occasion down to the last minute.
The Opposition needs nothing more than an atmosphere of crisis and a sense of parliamentary instability to be the winners in this scenario. Even to lose the vote is to win since it allows Abbott to remind the voters of the government’s record and who supports it in the parliament. It allows him to derail the government’s selling of the Budget.
The government has been dead in the water for the past two years. It may pretend it is governing at the moment and it may hope that DisabilityCare and agreements with state governments over Gonski school funding will help it at the election, but the Budget shambles of recent weeks has only further damaged its reputation. The deficit of trust, authority and competence has never been more profoundly obvious.
It is in Abbott’s political interests to not disrupt the Budget and then to tie its contents to an all-out parliamentary assault on the government – AFTER he has delivered his speech on Thursday night.
It is, of course, possible that I have overlooked some important procedural rules in my scenario. Messrs Abbott and Pyne might even have a better idea. Nevertheless, I was mad enough to think that Gillard would announce the election date in January, so I could be on a roll.
Use the comments box below to ridicule me if I’m proved wrong at the end of the week.