AWOL Lawmakers Put Aussie Leader on Back Foot After Vote Chaos

  • Opposition takes control after Cabinet lawmakers leave early
  • Labor claims Turnbull is in government but not in power

Australian ruling party lawmakers eager to start their weekend early have dealt a blow to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s assurance his government has a working majority after a razor-thin election win.

When parliament was due to wrap up on Thursday after its first sitting week since the July 2 election, the opposition Labor Party realized some government members were already leaving Canberra. As the prime minister glowered, Labor won three procedural votes and sought to squeeze through a motion demanding a widespread inquiry into the banking industry.

Labor leader Bill Shorten, who was narrowly defeated on the motion as government lawmakers rushed back to the parliamentary chamber, claimed it was the first time an Australian government had lost a vote in the house in more than half a century.

Turnbull hit out at his lawmakers, including Cabinet ministers, who had left early, saying that they had “embarrassed themselves” and the government. “They know they did the wrong thing,” he said in a radio interview Friday.

Bad Look

The chaos is a bad look for Turnbull as he seeks to convince Australians he is in charge and capable of pushing through his legislative agenda, including measures to rein in the budget deficit. The drama reinforces a view that the former banker’s government is dysfunctional, said Norman Abjorensen, a political analyst at the Australian National University.

“It’s extraordinary and it looks extremely amateurish,” said Abjorensen. “Australians will be worried that if that’s a microcosm of how the country is run, it’s a pretty bleak outlook. It’s not rocket science to muster the numbers to win a vote when you’ve got the majority.”

The election saw the government’s tally of 90 seats in the 150-member lower house cut to just 76 -- a majority of one. The result was criticized by some members of Turnbull’s own Liberal-National coalition, who are threatening to rebel against his plan to crack down on retirement perks for the wealthy, as well as his push to allow a national ballot on whether to legalize same-sex marriage.

The chaos showed the government is “in office but not in power,” Labor lawmaker Tony Burke told reporters on Thursday.

“This has been a salutary lesson,” Justice Minister Michael Keenan, one of the coalition lawmakers who missed the vote, said in a radio interview on Friday. “Every member should be available for divisions at all times. I’ve spoken to the prime minister and he’s made his view clear to me that that is unacceptable.”