As the political clock ticks relentlessly, there is little time for substance over optics in parliament

<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

On the second last sitting day for 2023, parliamentarians filed into the House of Representatives to remember the late member for Dunkley, Peta Murphy. Many wore black. Many dabbed moist eyes. A beautiful floral arrangement marked the spot where only a few days ago the Labor backbencher had sat, ravaged by the cancer that claimed her life on Monday at the age of 50.

Politics is a savage business. Murphy was unapologetically human, and she didn’t mind who knew it. Self-deprecating and smart, Murphy was also visible through her suffering and struggles. She was dying, but rather than being defined by a disease, she wanted to model living well. Murphy’s defiance, the determination to contribute no matter what, with head, heart and without any fakery, endeared her to close colleagues and her political opponents.

So the mourning on Wednesday was deep, and it was genuine.

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As parliamentarians rose, one by one, with their tributes, many said they had hoped to have more time with Murphy. Jim Chalmers was one. “We knew every minute with Peta was a gift and not just because of her cancer,” the treasurer told the chamber. “We knew that every interaction with her was real … and cherished, we did not take her for granted. She didn’t have the luxury of time to stuff around … those clocks tick for all of us, but for some of us, they tick quicker. She had lots of wrongs to right, but not lots of time to right them.”

Those clocks are ever present. Parliament House conditions its occupants to be attentive to time. The building has more than 2,700 clocks, and they tick relentlessly. When the building is full, the sound of galloping time can be muted. But when the corridors empty at night, in the lonely hours, the relentlessness reasserts itself. Governments are always on the clock. Governments always want more time.

As MPs lamented the hours and days they didn’t get with Murphy, in another part of the building the government faced another kind of reckoning with time.

After the high court delivered its ruling last month that indefinite immigration detention was unlawful in cases where people can’t be deported, the Albanese government had hoped there would be time to work through, carefully, a substantive policy response to a landmark decision.

This was lunacy, as it turned out; in current conditions, absolute moonstruck madness. Madness, because we live in an age when the exigencies of politics and the basic tenets of governing are often found at cross purposes. Sometimes viscerally so.

Politics – a resurgent Peter Dutton, ropable Ray Hadley, a rampaging news cycle – demanded the government produce an instant response to a complex problem. “Winning the politics” in the wake of the high court judgment would have meant out-Duttoning Dutton. Out-Duttoning Dutton would mean going heavy on keeping people locked up, and going light on the rule of law.

Labor spent a fair chunk of time in opposition avoiding incoming wedges. Hold your nose and say yes to stage three tax cuts that blow a massive hole in the budget and predominantly benefit higher income earners. Say yes to Scott Morrison’s Aukus pact and avoid a vicious election campaign on national security.

But having secured government, this group hopes to govern. The alternative to governing is becoming obsessed with winning the dreaded optics, to the point where the institutionalised fakery sinks the whole ship.

And yet the optics must be won, because that’s the world we’ve made for ourselves, the protagonists and the theatre critics who rate performance. At the daily politics Oscars, spectacle is all.

When Dutton dialled it up to eleven after the high court’s ruling, the government persisted with its radical experiment in governing. Various frontbenchers made the case for resolving a difficult problem by orderly process.

When the mantra of think-before-you-act failed in the court of tabloids and talkback, the government lost its nerve and went half Dutton, rushing in the first tranche of patch-up legislation that may or may not align with the high court’s (at that time) unpublished reasons. Predictably, legal challenges ensued.

Going half Dutton would never subdue the angry spirits unleashed by Big Dutton Energy, even if the government would eventually reveal that the plaintiff whose case overturned indefinite immigration detention was actually in Australia because Dutton (when immigration minister) had allowed him to reapply for a visa after he was convicted of raping a 10-year-old.

By the time this interesting detail emerged, we were forty fathoms deep in stuff-up.

Then some of the people let out of detention after the court’s ruling were charged with new offences. Forty more fathoms.

So the lesson learned is a brutal one. There is no time to prioritise substance over the optics on a toxic issue that can be weaponised successfully against you.

There is zero reward for taking a moment to listen and think. Zero reward for respecting the cogitations of the highest court in the land.

This feels depressing, because it is depressing. Some days feel like we have entered engagement economy end times. Perhaps this is why the attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, exploded like a firecracker during a press conference on Wednesday.

A few minutes before he walked into the Blue Room flanked by Clare O’Neil and Andrew Giles, Dreyfus had been in the chamber listening to his colleagues farewelling Murphy. Dreyfus lost his wife to cancer just recently. The attorney general clasped his hands on his lap and looked resolutely into the middle distance as people farewelled Murphy after she died of breast cancer. Then he walked into a press conference.

A journalist asked whether or not the government owed an apology to people in the community that had been subjected to “misdeeds by some of these people” freed as a consequence of the high court ruling.

Dreyfus didn’t hide his lawyerly disdain. “You are asking a cabinet minister, three ministers of the crown, to apologise for upholding the law of Australia. For acting in accordance with the law of Australia. For following the instructions of the high court of Australia,” he said.

This was an utterly reasonable riposte in the world where substance informs actions. If the first law officer of the land won’t defend the rule of law from encroaching populism and post-truth, then who will?

Dreyfus was right to point out responsible governments should not instruct officials to act unlawfully, particularly in the light of recent case studies. Thank God someone is prepared to make this point.

But then things escalated.

“I will not be apologising for upholding the law,” Dreyfus thundered. “I will not be apologising for pursuing the rule of law.”

As the journalist intervened again, Dreyfus unleashed his big barrister energy. Both barrels.

“Do not interrupt,” the attorney general scolded.

“I will not be apologising for acting in accordance with a high court decision. Your question is an absurd one.”

Another lesson.

If a battle can’t be won by reason, it will not be won by disdain.