The usually unremarkable setting of a Budget estimates hearing was the scene for a heated slanging match between Liberals today as Minister Joe Francis and backbencher Rob Johnson traded insults over the corrective services portfolio.
The flashpoint came during a discussion about the predicted impact on the prison system of new laws setting hefty mandatory minimum jail sentences for violent or sexual assaults during home invasions.
Mr Johnson asked Corrective Services Commissioner James McMahon whether the Government, when predicting the impact of the laws on prison numbers, had also taken into account rising unemployment and “disastrous State and Federal Budgets”.
“Many of our people, particularly our young people, will have a far harder job to make ends meet and possibly turn to more crime,” he said.
Mr Francis said “being tight on money” was no excuse to go and break the law.
Mr Johnson, the Liberal MP for Hillarys, said he had never suggested it was, and told Mr Francis “that’s a stupid comment to make”.
“I’m saying it’s a fact that if people don’t have money, they are going to commit crimes and have you taken that into account,” he said.
At that point Mr Francis suggested Mr Johnson, police minister from 2008 to 2012 until being dumped from Cabinet, was yet to get over his demotion.
“Every now and then you meet the little person, the little kid at the school fete who let go of that balloon and they keep screaming saying ‘give me another balloon, give me another balloon’,” he said.
“You know, Member for Hillarys, you’ve just got to let go of the balloon sometimes.”
Mr Johnson accused Mr Francis of being childish and criticised him for an occasion when he gave snake lollies to media waiting outside a Cabinet meeting.
Mr Francis: "This from the guy who when he was the minister couldn’t remember the police assistance number."
Mr Johnson: "You’re dumb. I’m asking a question of the Commissioner, not you."
Mr Francis: "The point is, regardless of any impact, positive or negative, of a state budget or a federal budget on society it is no excuse for people to break the law. The member for Hillarys can go and apologise for those people as much as he wants but I make no apology for incarcerating people who break the law regardless of their socio-economic background."
Mr Johnson: "It was a genuine question, the Minister can’t answer it because he’s obviously not capable but I’m sure the Commissioner can."
Mr Francis: "The people I feel sorry for most right now are the people in Hillarys who have to put up with you for another three years, I mean seriously."
Mr Johnson retorted that he had more faith in the dogs owned by Mr Francis – a well-known animal lover – than he did in the Minister, prompting howls of laughter from the Opposition benches.
Labor MP Janine Freeman, who had the task of chairing the unruly hearing, instructed Mr Johnson not to abuse Mr Francis.
Mr McMahon brought the matter to a close when he told the hearing “the short answer to the question is no”.