At a recent question time Bill Shorten asked Tony Abbott 13 times about his former assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos.
The longest answer, or more accurately non-answer, contained four sentences. And Abbott, unlike some of his predecessors, speaks in admirably short sentences.
In the same session, a Liberal backbencher asked Julie Bishop about Ukraine.
The foreign minister talked tough.
“I condemn in the strongest possible terms the use of violence against Ukraine and its citizens,” she said.
It’s hard to tell who was the more terrified – Abbott by Shorten or Vladimir Putin by Bishop.
In fact, Abbott seems to enjoy brushing Shorten’s questions – and some on other subjects received similarly contemptuous treatment – aside.
Only occasionally, the government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act is the best recent example, does he engage Shorten with civil and rational exchanges. And only once, amid the mockery over his revival of knights and dames, has he looked uncomfortable.
Generally, it’s as if Shorten is firing a peashooter at Abbott’s moated and crenellated battlements.
Abbott, of course, should feel comfortable as parliament ends its summer sittings.
With his handsome majority, there’s none of the nervy tensions and reliance on the dodgy and the flakey that dogged Labor’s second term. All his parliamentary frustrations, and they are big, come from the Senate.
Behind him, literally when in parliament, is a frontbench that’s exulting in payback after suffering six years of savaging from Labor.
Abbott can generally leave the gutter work and theatricals to the likes of Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey and Peter Dutton, while Malcolm Turnbull is a reliable stand-up comic. Sussan Ley is becoming an unexpected member of the hatchet brigade. If there’s to be a second woman in cabinet, she is a fair bet.
Governments have enormous built-in advantages in parliament and especially at question time. This arises partly from the numbers and partly from the rules.
There’s also the Speaker. Most oppositions profess to getting a raw deal from the Speaker who’s almost always from the party in government.
In Bronwyn Bishop’s case … Well, she’s got a bit in common with that South African referee who whistled the Queensland Reds off the park in their Super Rugby match in Johannesburg last weekend.
Bishop is becoming part of the story. Tony Burke, who wants her to stop attending coalition party meetings, says the way she presides over question time is beginning to look like a protection racket to shield Abbott from tough questions. Pyne accuses Labor of bullying her.
Burke and Pyne, as managers of opposition and government business, are occupationally prone to exaggeration and confected moral outrage. And it’s hard to think of anyone better able to cope with bullying than Bishop, a political warrior from way back.
Furthermore, although it’s easy to understand Labor’s frustrations with Bishop – especially her peremptory rejection of most of its points of order and her speed to expel its MPs – it’s not been all one-way traffic. Pyne hasn’t had a lot of success in having Labor questions ruled out of order.
In a way, the friendly pre-arranged questions from government MPs – the Dorothy Dixers – provide better insights into the government.
On this test, Abbott’s government is tightly choreographed.
Message is everything, and minister after minister will push it.
The common threads are the carbon and mining taxes. Every day, whatever else may be on the agenda, Labor’s perfidy in opposing the repeal of these dire taxes is hammered.
Sometimes there’s a nice fit. All this final week the coalition’s Western Australian backbenchers have queued to ask why Labor and the Greens should be voted into oblivion in their state’s re-run Senate election.
The answer, naturally, is those two “anti-Western Australian” taxes. You’d think they were spreading the black death in the west.
There’s also the daily game of let’s humiliate a former Labor minister.
Hockey’s specialty is Wayne Swan, Turnbull concentrates on Stephen Conroy and Dutton targets Tanya Plibersek. They can be amusing in a black sort of a way, but their political utility must be running out.
Scott Morrison has his own show which is little more than trumpeting yet another day without a people smuggler getting into Australia. By the end of the sitting it was 98 days.
Outside question time, the oratorical playing field is more even.
Labor has some useful speakers. Anthony Albanese can be withering on dubious government claims about infrastructure achievements, Burke is quick on his feet and Mark Dreyfus mixes aggression with gravitas.
Shorten himself is uneven. One of his best was his “flag waving, faux patriotism” counter-attack after the government went into paroxysms of outrage over Conroy being rude to the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders Angus Campbell.
He’s also given us some of the more startling images – like “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” (the government on Qantas jobs), “bargain basement, short-changers of children’s futures” (government school funding) and “wombolic” (Warren Truss).
But all the good speeches and amazing phrases in the world don’t alter the iron reality that the government always wins the vote.
Yet sometimes the government seems in no hurry to put its measures to the vote.
A recent example was a bill setting up Greg Hunt’s “green army” – young people who’ll be paid to get off the dole and work on small environmental projects.
Labor, though sceptical on the detail, wasn’t opposing this measure of, at most, middling importance. Yet three cricket teams worth of government MPs lined up to speak.
And, in the main, they just spoke about what it would mean for their electorates – a creek bank cleared here, a bike path built there.
That old American truism still applies. Never mind the pyrotechnics, all politics is local.