It was 4.30pm on Thursday when the first parliamentary week of the new Turnbull government started to go horribly wrong. In political terms, it was a bad day in the office.
Justice minister Michael Keenan had left to catch a flight to Melbourne before the lower house rose to end the sitting week and two more senior ministers Peter Dutton and Christian Porter had left the chamber when Labor leader Bill Shorten took advantage of the government’s one seat majority to mount an ambush.
The house traditionally adjourns at 4.30pm on Thursday to end a sitting week, but the ALP found it had a majority and voted against the adjournment. They went on to win two more procedural votes which took them closer to succeeding in their motion for a banking royal commission.
It took the casting vote of Speaker Tony Smith after immigration minister Peter Dutton had returned to the chamber for the fourth vote before the government managed to regain control.
Nearly two hours had passed and it was the first time a government lost control in 52 years. After Michael Keenan landed in Melbourne taxpayers picked up the tab for him to turn around and catch another plane straight back to Canberra to meet with the prime minister.
Earlier yesterday, Labor also had a small victory in the senate, with the government outvoted on a motion calling for the probe into the financial sector.
Coalition MPs have called Labor’s move a stunt and “silly buggers”, but it was a major embarrassment for a government that claims it has a “stable” majority and calls into question the abilities of Coalition whip Christopher Pyne.
Keenan apologised for his absence telling the ABC that he took responsibility for leaving, adding “it was a work-related matter but that’s obviously no excuse”.
“This was a stunt by the Labor Party who are far more interested in playing parlour games in Canberra,” he said.
“I have no doubt that will be a lesson, there’s a lesson for me and others and we won’t be having a repeat of that.”
This morning Pyne told the Nine’s Today breakfast show that yesterday’s vote “was a stuff up”.
“Those people who weren’t there learnt a valuable lesson, everyone learnt a valuable lesson,” he said.
“It’s a salutary lesson for anyone who went home before the House rose yesterday afternoon. I’m absolutely certain that they won’t do that again.”
Labor MP Wayne Swan said what happened demonstrated that the government was a “shambles”, while the manager of opposition business, Tony Burke said the incident made it clear the government “don’t have a working majority”.
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