analysis: In Anthony Albanese’s first Question Time as PM, it took just minutes for Peter Dutton to take the gloves off

by Brett Worthington

It took just six minutes for the fireworks to start.

Anthony Albanese, the nation’s newly installed Prime Minister, was among the last to arrive in the House of Representatives for his first grilling in Question Time.

Sitting opposite him was his new sparring partner, a stony-faced Peter Dutton, the man tasked with navigating the Coalition through its first stint in opposition in almost a decade. 

“I wish him well as Leader of the Opposition and I hope he stays there for a very, very long time,” Albanese said as he took his first question from Dutton at 2pm.

Dutton picked the behaviour of a militant union, the CFMEU, and some of its officials as the focus of his opening questions and was quick to hit a nerve.

By 2:06 the gloves were off.

Peter Dutton and Anthony Albanese stand and talk at each other across a table in the house of representatives
It didn’t take long for the two leaders to clash in question time.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

“If he wants to name someone and ask if I’ve met with them, he’s perfectly entitled to,” Albanese said.

“What he’s not entitled to do is to engage in that kind of smear tactic which is what that question represents.”

“Have you met with these officials who have been charged with sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape?” Dutton shot back. 

Just minutes into the new era and it was looking a lot like the Question Times that have come in the years before. 

The May election featured a teal wave of women independents being swept into the parliament, prompting calls that the hyper-masculine environment of the parliament needed to change. 

By 2:19, and after another question about the CFMEU, this time from deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley, the PM’s volume hit a new level as he took aim at those opposite him.

Peter Dutton holds one finger up while sitting in the house of representatives
Peter Dutton questioned the government about Labor links to the CFMEU.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Dutton, the ex-cop turned immigration, home affairs and defence minister, has long promoted himself as a strongman. Tough on the border and tough on China, he’s made a business out of having a spine of steel.

It’s why he once joked he was now able to smile when he first sought to be Liberal leader in the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull in 2017.

It was perhaps ridiculous to have thought Dutton would be anything but a fierce interrogator of Labor.

After all, old habits die hard.

You just needed to look in the parliament yesterday to see just that. 

Dutton needed some reminding that he no longer had a seat on the government benches.

Walking into the Senate alongside Albanese for the opening of the parliament, Dutton followed the Prime Minister towards the government seats.

Walking behind him was the Deputy PM Richard Marles, who gestured to the other side of the chamber for the Opposition Leader to find his new seat. 

There were, however, kinder moments in the first question time, including the new Nationals leader David Littleproud crossing the chamber to speak with Albanese’s partner and son. 

New parliament posturing

After a decade of Coalition-rule, all sides are using these first days of the parliament to posture and set a path that the next three years will follow.

Labor has promised its new tone in parliament would be more family friendly and improve the treatment of women.

It is also introducing 18 pieces of legislation, picking those that put in lights its priorities — climate action, overhauling the aged and child care sectors and paid leave for people experiencing domestic violence. 

The climate push — to enshrine in law a requirement for Australia to reduce emissions by 43 per cent by 2030 — looks set to be the first contentious issue the new government will have to navigate.

Teal independents gather around and listen to Zali Steggall in the House of Representatives
Zali Steggall is proving a mentor for the teal indepedents who have followed her into the parliament.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Labor doesn’t need the crossbench in the House. It governs in majority and can pass bills without support.

But keeping the teals happy and in their seats will go a long way to keeping the Coalition out of power.

There were signs earlier in the day how that will work. 

The OG Teal, Zali Steggall, who entered parliament in 2019 after toppling Tony Abbott, is fast looking like a mentor for the seven other teals who have followed her into parliament.

Serving as a bridge between the new and old crossbench members, and the crossbench and the government, she is fast showing she will play an influential role in what a united crossbench can achieve. 

Tony Burke and Zali Steggall talk in the House of Representatives
Zali Steggall and Tony Burke spoke while the House of Representatives considered new rules.(ABC News: Matt Roberts )

There have also been changes to the crossbench in how it can use question time, including reducing the time those MPs get to ask questions (it was raised by 15 seconds under the former government to appease Bob Katter’s long-winded questions).

Its first victim was the man himself.

“There was a question in that but barely,” new Speaker Milton Dick said as Katter, now the longest serving MP in the House, kept talking after his time had run out. 

Where Labor needs the crossbench is in the Senate.

If Labor is to get its way it in legislating the emissions target, it needs the Greens to get on board. How the Greens will ultimately vote remains unclear.

But signals are already coming from new ACT independent senator David Pocock and the Lower House teals that they’ll be pragmatic legislators.

All want more from the government on climate but appear willing to bank legislating the 43 per cent target (and getting something) before pushing the government for more.

Peter Dutton was quick out of the blocks in saying his Coalition wouldn’t back the emissions target, angering some of his own crossbench for their not being a party discussion on the matter.

His early posturing is one of not giving an inch.

Thinking it was going to be any different is a sign you haven’t been paying attention.