A funny thing has happened in question time: Tony Abbott, despite provocation, has answered a series of Labor questions with consideration.
The prime minister usually treats hostile questions with dismissive brevity.
But Labor’s first five questions on Tuesday, all on changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, were treated as if parliament was a place for civil debate.
It wasn’t as if Labor’s questioning was gentle. Mark Dreyfus set the tone from the start by accusing the government of giving the green light to bigotry.
Christopher Pyne protested that this was personally offensive and a disgraceful slur, but Bronwyn Bishop let the question stand on free speech grounds.
Abbott then, and on the follow-up questions, was all sweet reason.
The government was trying “in good faith” to get the balance right; it was giving the red light to bigotry but removing the amber light on free speech; the best counter to a bad argument was a good one, and the best antidote to bigotry was decency.
It was only on the sixth question that Abbott counter-attacked, and then only because Bill Shorten gave him an opening by asking why removing anti-racism laws was given such high priority.
Abbott pounced with a familiar burst on his real priorities, scrapping the evil of carbon and mining taxes.
After that it was all down hill.
Pyne, who had a busy day even by his hyper standards, oozed around the moral high ground by saying “more in sorrow than anger” that disgraced former Labor MP Craig Thomson had been sentenced to jail.
It was a sad day for parliament and a particularly sad day for the Labor Party, he said, valiantly hiding his enjoyment of the sadness.
Joe Hockey, reacting to Chris Bowen’s charge of “cooking the books” to inflate the debt and deficit, provided a gourmet’s view of Labor’s fiscal management.
Wayne Swan had over-cooked them. Then Bowen piled on the horseradish and barbecue sauces.
“The Labor Party cooked the books and the rest of Australia got food poisoning,” the treasurer declared.
The Speaker and Dreyfus were back in the action after Kate Ellis interjected and Bishop asked if she wished to leave the chamber now.
“No, I’m quite enjoying it,” Ellis rashly replied – and was immediately expelled.
Dreyfus, amid Labor protests, tried to make a point of order but was immediately sat down.
“You haven’t heard me,” Dreyfus protested.
“I don’t need to,” Bishop responded.
Dreyfus protested again: “You can’t possibly tell what I’m going to say. You need to listen. It’s your job.”
And that was the end of his question time.