Parliament resumed on Monday under novel circumstances. Some members participated by way of video link, while others from Victoria had to spend two weeks in quarantine in order to attend parliament. Those of us who attended Parliament House had to wear masks when we went to question time or when we went to visit the coffee cart.
Another thing that was apparent was that there were fewer people from the Department of Parliamentary Services around the building. The first thought was that they may be working from home but it was revealed by the Prime Minister that they had been seconded to Centerlink to help deal with people who were applying for jobseeker.
Labor has chosen this session of parliament to take up a range of issues: aged care; the economy; the problems of the Liberal party in Victoria; and industrial relations.
At question time Labor focused exclusively on aged care in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. To a certain extent, Scott Morrison pre-empted the line of attack in the House by making a statement to the chamber in the course of which he admitted that there had been failures in the protection of people in aged care for which he apologised.
In response to questions from the Opposition that sought to sheet home the blame for the 328 deaths in aged care to the Commonwealth alone, the Prime Minister responded by saying that the government had always had a plan for the protection of people in aged care contrary to the assertions of the counsel assisting the Royal Commission on Aged Care, Peter Rozens SC.
Scott Morrison said that the validation of the government plan was demonstrated by the fact that 97% of nursing homes had no COVID virus and 90% of Victorian nursing homes were COVID free. He said that he had expanded the membership of the council overseeing aged care and that they were constantly updating the plan.
Labor really went on the attack in the Senate, where the minister for aged care, Senator Richard Colbeck, sits. On Friday Senator Colbeck had a shocker of a day in front of the Senate COVID committee when he couldn’t remember how many people in aged care had died. Senator Colbeck was able to answer the questions this time but somewhat unconvincingly and only after looking at his notes.
Josh Frydenberg fared better in response to questions from his own side on the economy. He had a good story to tell. The effective rate of unemployment has fallen from something over 13% in July to 9.9% at the end of August. The recovery is strongest in NSW with 315,000 people finding effective employment since April. This compares with 149,000 in Victoria. Overall the number of people who have remained on jobseeker since April has fallen from 700,000 to 350,000.
Labor did not raise the issue of branch stacking by the Liberals in Victoria in parliament but it dominated discussion in the corridors. The alleged scandal arose out of a power struggle between the right and the hard right in the Victorian branch. The conservatives were branch stacking so that they could unseat the moderates in pre-selections. The hard-right thought these seats should go to them. The conservative power brokers said no, so the hard-right went to the moderates and spilled the beans. Then the matter was leaked to Nine Media. As a consequence, the so-called conservative organizer, Mark Baastian was forced to resign from the party.
Two conservative MP’s, Michael Sukkar and Kevin Andrews, have initiated Department of Finance inquiries into whether their taxpayer-funded staff were used for party political purposes and the Victorian branch secretary is holding an inquiry into the branch stacking allegations.
All in all the government didn’t lose any skin and Labor got some limelight, so both sides were reasonably content with the first day back at work.