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News analysis

Australia's Turnbull is left red-faced by Labor ploy

Opposition's success in parliamentary votes last week exposes Aussie PM's thin majority

SYDNEY • In an unusual surveillance operation in Canberra last Thursday, the opposition Labor Party planted a "spotter" at the airport to report on the movements of MPs from the ruling coalition.

The crafty ploy proved highly effective as the operative was able to report that several coalition MPs had boarded planes and departed.

Back in the federal Parliament, just a short drive from the airport, this information was enough for Labor to pounce: It quickly called for several ballots, which it was able to win because of the absent MPs.

Labor won three successive votes as the government desperately called back its MPs, including one frontbencher who came rushing back from the business class lounge at the airport and another who broke off a live television interview.

Finally, the government restored its majority in the chamber but the damage was done.

The votes themselves were procedural and ultimately meant little, but this was a crushing symbolic defeat for Mr Turnbull.

It was a humiliating reminder that Mr Turnbull was left with effectively a one-seat majority in the House of Representatives following his narrow victory in the July 2 election.

As Labor was quick to point out, this was the first time in more than 50 years that a party with a majority had lost a vote in the chamber.

"If you can't run the Parliament, you can't run the country," a gleeful Labor frontbencher, Mr Anthony Albanese, told reporters.

Labor tried to use its short-lived majority to enact its plan for a royal commission into the banking sector - a move that the coalition opposes but which appears to have strong public support.

The coup occurred at the end of just the first sitting week since the election and appeared to demonstrate two challenges facing the ruling coalition.

First, its tiny majority will make it difficult for Mr Turnbull to fulfil his pledge to restore stability to Canberra after six years of near-constant political turmoil, which saw Labor leaders Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and coalition leader Tony Abbott dumped by their parties.

Second, the mayhem suggested that Mr Turnbull's coalition is severely lacking in the quality that it needs most to ensure it can run as a smooth-functioning government: discipline.

Mr Turnbull is keen to introduce an A$6 billion (S$6.2 billion) savings package but will need to swiftly focus on winning support from both the public and the Senate, where no party has a majority,

Instead, Labor's ploy suggested - as the commercial news broadcasters labelled it - that the government was in "chaos".

Veteran political commentator Paul Kelly said on Saturday that Labor had been able to "puncture Malcolm Turnbull's claim of a workable majority and stable government". "Labor's effort to generate the impression of a divided and unstable government has won fresh momentum," he wrote in The Australian.

"For the government, there is a frightening question: Can it recover or does Turnbull face a long road to decline and defeat as Labor controls the terms of debate?"

Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister was furious at his ministers and backbenchers who, as he caustically noted, left Parliament early because "they thought they'd get away with it". He admitted the loss of the votes in the Chamber was "humiliating" and warned MPs against future complacency.

It was, as the government claimed, a "stunt", but it proved highly effective. The coalition was seen as a "national laughing stock", according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

Some commentators noted Mr Turnbull may at least be heartened that the stunt occurred so early in the government's three-year term.

"The only upside for the coalition is that the 'stuff-up'... came so early in the term, underscoring the imperative for discipline," wrote Fairfax Media commentator Michael Gordon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2016, with the headline 'Turnbull is left red-faced by Labor ploy'. Print Edition | Subscribe