First some background. The controversial Fire Services Bill was proving to be a problem for the Victorian Premier with several crossbench Upper House members opposed to the Bill, which would have brought about a transfer of integrated stations and some 1000 career firefighters into a new body, Fire Rescue Victoria.
One of those crossbenchers, Australian Conservatives' MP, Dr Rachel Carling-Jenkins was too ill to work on Thursday which gave the Premier a window of opportunity to get his bill passed as long as the Government refused a ‘pair’ for the ailing MP. Convention dictates that the Government will offer a pair, or seek a pair for ill MPs, like Senator Arthur Sinodinos in Federal Parliament or for childbirth or MPs attending funerals or State functions etc. Here the story gets interesting.
Pairs are usually sorted between the government and opposition. It is potentially an issue for the growing number of cross-bench MPs because it is not clear who they should ‘pair’ with – the government or the opposition. In this case however, it was clear. Rachel Carling-Jenkins was intending to vote against the Fire Services Bill.
The honourable thing to do was for Daniel Andrews to stand-down one of his MPs for the vote to balance the missing vote from Carling-Jenkins who says she requested a ‘pair’ - a story refuted by the Premier.
Instead, what happened was extraordinary. The Premier demanded that Parliament sit on Good Friday, for the first time, so he could ram the Bill through based on the unique circumstances that Carling-Jenkins’ absence had afforded him. In a world where not even the Australian cricketers are capable of acting with integrity perhaps we should not have been surprised that the Victorian Premier was so cold and calculating.
Enter the Victorian Opposition Leader, Matthew Guy who was presented with a challenging set of circumstances. He clearly had the numbers to defeat the Fire Services Bill right up until the moment when the Premier crossed the line from democrat to autocrat. What to do?
We all know what he did. Two of his MPs requested a ‘pair’ based on religious convictions and not feeling comfortable working on Good Friday. Daniel Andrews, perhaps surprisingly, acted in accordance with the parliamentary convention and granted a ‘pair’, knowing that he would still have the numbers to get his Bill through because of his earlier decision to cross the ethical line.
In the end he was outmanoeuvred and double-crossed by Matthew Guy who himself broke convention by sneaking his two ‘paired’ MPs back into the chamber to vote, despite having been granted a ‘pair’ to allow for their religious observance.
The Bill was defeated and Victorians (most of them anyway) could rejoice. The scheming and arguably dishonest Premier had been beaten at his own game.
That is where the Opposition Leader should have taken some advice and used the win to shore up his own credentials as a leader. Instead, having temporarily tasted victory, he turned it into the most foul-smelling defeat possible, with ramifications for Westminster based parliaments country-wide.
Ask yourself this. Can you imagine how the public would have reacted if Australian cricket captain Steven Smith had said he was ‘proud’ of his ball-tampering players because of their win-at-all-costs approach? But that is what the Victorian Opposition Leader said.
Matthew Guy should have heeded the advice of Karl G Maeser who said, ‘Be yourself, but always your better self’.
How different it would have been if instead saying that he was ‘proud’ of his actions he had said,
“I apologise for ignoring a long-standing convention in politics that has ensured fairness in our democratic processes for generations and I hope Victorians can forgive me for acting this way in response to an extraordinary set of circumstances.
“I have struggled internally to find the right balance between doing the right thing, which I always try to do, and folding meekly, given the onslaught of dishonesty shown by our Premier.
“Politics is a robust business and at times we can get quite fired up but there are rules and conventions that provide boundaries. The Premier broke through those boundaries in an attempt to ram through the Fire Services Bill by forcing the Parliament to sit on Good Friday while an opposing MP was too ill to attend and vote – a vote that would have ultimately seen the Bill rejected.
“It is time we hit the reset button and bring back some civility to Parliament. I would like to invite the Premier to sit down with me over a coffee and discuss, man to man, not Premier to Opposition Leader, how we can fix this mess that we have both created.
“I know that it will be a long way back, but it is important that we try, and important that we succeed.
Instead, the best Matthew Guy could manage was that he was “proud” to have broken the rules.
Poor fellow my country …