Parliament is being pushed to breaking point

Amid the absurd and tasteless scenes enacted in parliament yesterday, serious economic questions were struggling to get a hearing.

Listening to Anna Burke's voice crack during question time yesterday made me ashamed – for our political leaders and for my own industry, the news media. We all need to take very seriously what she said.

The Deputy Speaker had interpreted a Coalition heckle "this is not about your dead friend" as being a reference to ALP MP Greg Wilton, who committed suicide 12 years ago. Media reports today suggest that the reference was in fact to the 'dead' career of the member for Dobell, Craig Thomson.

Burke said: "Having met with Greg Wilton's sister over the weekend, I am a little sensitive, as many would appreciate, to any mention of my dead friend. I will not have it thrown around this House."

A moment later, in response to a point of order, she said: "I was not making the comment to anyone individually but to the entire parliament. There are quite a lot of references and issues that nobody in this place may think are issues but certainly Greg's family are finding as such. I am just cautioning us all to be a bit more considerate."

Burke's statement was a nod to comments from Liberal backbencher Mal Washer (and commentators elsewhere) suggesting that the frayed mental state of Craig Thomson was being driven, by vitriolic attacks, dangerously close to breaking point. Pollies and journalists need to remember that for the individuals concerned, this is not a game.

But that tasteless heckle was not the only unedifying moment in the day's proceedings. The first half hour of sitting saw not one, but two divisions on a gagging motion proposed by Leader of the House Anthony Albanese. Throw a few more tax dollars on the fire.

Later, Andrew Wilkie read out a heckle he'd jotted down, again from the Coalition side: "Go back to Tasmania and rot!"

And then there was the undignified scramble to leave the House of Representatives by manager of opposition business, Christopher Pyne, and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, when it dawned on them that Craig Thomson had taken a seat alongside them to oppose one of the gagging orders.

Thomson's vote is 'tainted'. Judge Tony Abbott has heard all the evidence and his decision is final. Simple as that.

That, of course, is a deep perversion of our long-refined processes of representative democracy and the judicial system. The voters decide who gets to cast votes in the house, and it looks as if Craig Thomson will have every right to do so up until the next election.

As for the Coalition ploy to run out of the chamber whenever Thomson warms one of their seats, one suspects Thomson himself might do a little fancy footwork in the dying seconds of any vote – it's just a couple of loping steps to join the Coalition side. I suspect Thomson can become the cat amongst those pigeons more quickly than Pyne, Abbott or anyone else can take up a perch in the advisors' box, which is the only other place they are safe from having their vote counted.

Absurd, all of it.

Meanwhile, at least one of the issues being raised by the opposition deserved a far greater airing than the tit-for-tat conflict allowed.

Joe Hockey was trying to quiz Labor on its raising of the federal government debt ceiling from $250 billion to $300 billion (of gross debt). As I have written recently (Swan's dangerous debt game, May 10), this has indeed become a genuine issue (unlike some of the beat-up stories told by the Abbott opposition in relation to issues such as the carbon tax, the mining tax and the NBN).

Labor has so far won the debt debate by producing a neat chart showing our net debt as tiny in comparison to the levels found in other developed nations – the US, Japan, Spain and Greece.

That mollifying chart does not account for several factors:

Australia's private debt stock is high (as multiple of incomes), and secured against a housing market in which prices are slipping month after month. At the height of the GFC, there was a colossal transfer of private debt onto public balance sheets around the world at short notice when 'black swan' bank bailouts were triggered. We all hope that kind of collapse doesn't happen in Australia, but continuing to increase federal government debt long after the GFC stimulus splurge is over is tantamount to thumbing one's nose at recent history. What policy makers might one day choose to call 'black swan events', should actually be part of today's risk mitigation.

Then there's state debt. All state governments, Labor and Coalition, are at it – borrowing ever increasing amounts to offset diminished revenue streams. Later today the South Australian state budget is expected to include a peak net debt figure more than double the previously expected figure of $4.2 billion. That's the way debt blowouts work – you tell yourself "I won't use my credit card again when I hit $10,000", but once that ceiling is breached ("It's not my fault – my car broke down!") this figure quickly becomes $12,000 or $15,000 or whatever it takes.

And hanging over it all is the federal government's structural problem with tax revenue (structural because the imbalances relate to an apparently long-term mining boom).

GST revenue is down because of low consumer confidence and the rush to buy more cheaply from overseas-based websites (some are reportedly offering fraudulent invoices to help customers evade the GST payable on purchases on $1000 or more).

Corporate taxes are down in the 90 per cent or so of the economy outside the resources sector. And even personal income tax is taking a hit from growing numbers of lay-offs or increasing use of part-time and casual workers in non-resources sectors.

In short, if these revenue streams were growing in a healthy manner, we wouldn't have a 'debt problem'. Because they are not, we do.

All of which gives pause for thought – is this the reason Julia Gillard was out last night reminding miners that: "Governments only sell you the right to mine the resource ... A resource we hold in trust for a sovereign people. They own it and they deserve their share."

Yes, and you Prime Minister, negotiated a weak resources tax that won't do enough to top up what the other haemorrhaging revenue streams are losing.

We might not have heard Joe Hockey calling for a higher mining tax yesterday, but he deserved more clear air in which to raise the debt ceiling issue.

These debates need to be heard, but they won't be unless the petulant and quite distasteful bickering seen in parliament again yesterday is toned down. Anna Burke deserves praise for reminding us all of that.

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