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May 9, 2012Opinion

Craig Thomson arrives at the cross bench at the start of question time on Tuesday 8 May 2012. Photo: Andrew MearesCraig Thomson sitting alone in question time yesterday. Photo: Andrew Meares

One of its own vied for attention on the government’s banner day, writes Tony Wright.

CRAIG THOMSON was the loneliest man in the House of Representatives on budget day.

Inhabiting what appeared to be a total exclusion zone on the crossbenches, far from the Labor colleagues who had protected him for years, the alleged rorter of $500,000 in union funds roused himself only to vote … for his own survival.

The Speaker, Peter Slipper, pleaded innocence of his own alleged transgressions and swept away to a future uncertain, leaving us no more than the memory of a billowing gown. The former speaker, Harry Jenkins, found himself voting against his own proffered return.

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Such a peculiar atmosphere. No mass shrieking, roaring and bluster, the usual stuff of Parliament. Instead, there was a fearful tension punctuated by ringing invective from the dispatch boxes about the plunging reputation of politicians and Parliament.

The budget papers may have been holding others in thrall behind locked doors across Parliament House but you would scarcely have guessed it in the House. The press gallery, normally all but deserted on budget day, was heavily populated by senior reporters lured by the heady combination of drama performed upon a high-wire.

Mr Slipper stayed only a minute or two, offering the Lord’s Prayer, a denial of the allegations of sexual harassment and misuse of taxi dockets levelled by a former aide, James Ashby, the plea that his attempts to reform Parliament had met approval from the broader public and a lamentation that it was ”unfortunate that trial by media has become the order of the day”.

The people of Australia, cried the opposition’s Christopher Pyne in riposte, viewed the Parliament with nothing but ”sheer horror and revulsion”.

He and his colleagues wanted to ”wind back the clock” to November 24 and restore Harry Jenkins as Speaker. And they wanted Mr Thomson suspended from Parliament for 14 sitting days, and then to return to explain himself in the light of the findings of Fair Work Australia, after which the House could decide his political fate.

The wire on which Julia Gillard’s government tottered was exposed for all to see when the MPs came to vote on the idea of winding back the clock on Mr Slipper. It was tied at 72-72, though falling short of an absolute majority, it was lost.

Independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor saved the day for the government, spurning Mr Pyne’s entreaties, though Andrew Wilkie backed the Coalition.

The attempt to toss Mr Thomson to the wind was lost rather more convincingly, 73-70, after a Coalition backbencher was thrown out for interjecting and Bob Katter didn’t vote at all.

Ms Gillard, having survived another day swaying on the high-wire, called off question time after two questions.

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