39 hours in the Senate
Last Thursday in the Senate, in a moment of tiredness, I admitted I’d had an interesting life before becoming a senator. After my election, I said, it’s been all downhill.
Running an agribusiness consulting company, helping farmers with everything from sheep dip to fertiliser to vaccines, plus patching up sick animals: these may not seem particularly thrilling, but they’re at least useful. At the end of most days, I could say “I achieved something”. In politics, I can go a whole week and wonder what happened.
Like the last week.
When I arrived in Canberra on Monday, I knew the week would be a circus over the Senate Voting Reform Bill. What I didn’t expect was that we we’d still be considering it after lunch on Friday. We sat for 39 hours, the longest continuous sitting in Senate history.
First came the government’s “time management” motion, requiring us to sit until the Electoral Reform Bill, plus 10 others, had been considered. The Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir immediately sought to move a motion replacing electoral reform with the government’s Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) Bill as the week’s key bill.
Despite arguing this bill was critical to its legislative agenda, the government – with the Greens’ support – gagged debate and voted down Ricky’s motion. This was the first of Ricky’s many forays into the week’s politics and policy, proving he is far more competent than some of the nameless backbenchers in the major parties. He’d make a great Labor member for the seat of Gippsland.
As for the Coalition voting against its own ABCC Bill, at the time this seemed bizarre. Reinstating the ABCC is long-standing government policy, was an election promise and the Liberal Party has been dreaming about it ever since the Gillard government abolished it. This week’s announcement that the Senate will be recalled to consider the bill now explains why it voted as it did.
I moved a motion adding a same-sex marriage bill to the list of bills to be voted on that week. In the chamber, I managed to finish a short speech while being yelled at from all sides. It was like orating in the middle of a tornado.
I chose the Greens’ bill rather than my own to give the Greens an opportunity to achieve same-sex marriage with their own bill – some Greens didn’t like my Freedom to Marry Bill – with feedback via indirect channels suggesting Nick McKim, Sarah Hanson-Young and Robert Simms were interested.
Doing his best to feign outrage, Greens leader Richard Di Natale said his party always supports marriage equality – just not today. He posed six questions to Labor’s Penny Wong, but then the Greens joined the government and independent Nick Xenophon to vote down my motion, preventing her from giving a speech in reply and ensuring she won’t be getting married any time soon.
This was extraordinary. If my motion had succeeded and the Senate had considered the same-sex marriage issue, I believe it would have passed. It would also have presented the Prime Minister with an opportunity to be “agile” and pursue same-sex marriage through the House of Representatives, instead of through a costly and acrimonious plebiscite.
The Greens successfully moved to take over Labor’s “private senators’ time” on Thursday, so the Greens’ same-sex marriage bill could be debated instead. This meant it was only considered for a little over an hour, and could only come to a vote if debate were gagged and Senators prevented from expressing their views. I knew this; Labor knew this; the Greens knew this. That explains why, when the Greens did try to gag debate to bring the bill to a vote on Thursday, only the Greens, Ricky Muir and I were in favour.
While I have a firm policy of never voting for a reduction in liberty (and thus always voting in favour of same-sex marriage), it was obvious there would be a lot of senators wanting a say. It was idiotic for the Greens to believe they could force a vote after such a short debate.
The Senate sat until just after midnight.
On Wednesday, during a brief pause in debate on electoral reform, I gave a speech on Australia’s deteriorating financial position and alarming similarities to Greece. During question time I asked the Minister for Finance, representing the Treasurer, whether Australia would ever see a budget surplus again. He gave an answer to a different question.
Debate resumed later in the day, pausing for new Liberal Senator James Paterson’s excellent first speech. I do hope he sees the light and joins the Liberal Democrats. Debate on electoral reform continued into the night.
THURSDAY (ALL DAY AND ALL NIGHT) AND FRIDAY (ALL DAY)
On Thursday morning I tried again to move an amendment to the government’s time management motion to allow full consideration of the Greens’ bill on same-sex marriage. Once again the government gagged debate, with Greens’ support.
Debate resumed on electoral reform later in the day in the knowledge it would continue until the bill had been decided. Labor was hoping to force the government, with Greens’ support, to gag debate. And yet, despite voting to gag debate on their own bill, the Greens told the government they would not support using the gag on this bill.
With Rambo-like resolve, Mathias Cormann vowed to stay as long as it took. There was also something Rambo-like in his unswerving determination not to answer the question as to whether how-to-vote cards promoting “Just Vote 1” would be legal.
A filibuster is a test of endurance, and most parliaments have them from time to time. They involve debate for a prolonged period in an attempt to frustrate the government, use up all available time, or weaken the other side. Labor knew that unless someone moved the gag, debate would eventually have to stop. However, they were also determined to ensure this did not occur early Friday morning so the government couldn’t simply announce on the morning news, “we won”.
Thus began a night of interminable speeches, many profoundly boring but with occasional moments of hilarity. While few senators were in the chamber, most of us watched from our offices. Some slept on couches, on the floor, or in chairs. Several times during the night we were called to vote when Labor moved debate be suspended. The government was having none of it.
I slept for perhaps 10 minutes, interrupted by division bells. I was in the chamber when Stephen Conroy named the front parties established to assist Lee Rhiannon’s election to the NSW parliament in 1999. I heard Sam Dastyari’s description of Richard Di Natale’s fashion shoot with GQ Magazine, labelling him “the Black Wiggle”.
I heard Glenn Sterle talking about his colonoscopy and, tired as I was, I laughed when Doug Cameron quoted Monty Python’s “I fart in your general direction”. I didn’t laugh at walking photo opportunity Nick Xenophon turning up in embarrassing, vomit-suit pyjamas for what became #SenateSleepover.
By mid-morning it was clear the gag would not be moved. Labor allowed matters to progress to committee stage, when amendments are debated. I moved a number of amendments which would have improved the bill, to no avail. Labor and several other crossbench senators did the same. The only amendments that passed were those from the government and Greens.
One of Labor’s amendments was to incorporate the Greens’ political donations policy into the bill. Its rejection showed both donations reform and same-sex marriage are less important to the Greens than getting rid of their minor party competitors.
In fact, until they voted against donation reform (and people realised how cynical they are), I was accused – repeatedly and with defamatory crudeness – of “pulling a stunt”, of being “put up to it by Labor”. The NSW Greens – on their official Facebook page – asserted I was opposed to same-sex marriage. False and malicious attacks are apparently acceptable when the Greens’ hypocrisy is exposed.
As it happens, I wasn’t a party to the decision to filibuster although I was happy that it put the dirty deal between the government and the Greens in the spotlight. Nobody has ever argued that Senate voting reform was not needed, but the government’s changes will merely replace one set of problems with another. Entrenching the Greens is one of them.
So now we have Malcolm Turnbull citing Senate voting reform as a “significant government achievement”. Forgotten are bracket creep, our spending problem and the “economic narrative”. It’s all about “clearing out the crossbench”, as if somehow giving the Greens and Xenophon the balance of power will make the Senate more compliant.
And if there is a lesson out of all this, it is to show how Labor is the only major party that understands the art of persuasion. It can do something neither the Greens nor Coalition can: negotiate. Whatever the merits of its policies, it is inconceivable that Labor in government would have set out to replace the crossbench with its political enemies due to an inability to bargain.
As I said, all downhill.
From the Australian Financial Review, 24 March 2016.