John Singleton, “Is there an MP in the House?,”
Australian Playboy, July 1979, pp. 62-66.
I should have known what it was going to be like as soon as I lobbed in the joint.
It’s Wednesday night about 9.30 and it’s freezing cold and there aren’t any cabs (which is always the way in the nation’s capital), and when a cab finally does arrive after about 15 frigid minutes the cab driver won’t give me a lift because he wants to go to the other side of the town on the lake.
Not being one to be easily aroused ever again or any more, I smile and wait 20 minutes for the next cab, which takes me to Noah’s Lakeside, which is a terrific motel but also the wrong one as I am booked into some other Noah’s. Anyway, one thing leads to another and I eventually get to the right Noah’s, which looks very much like the accommodation spin-off of the Hole in the Wall.
I have a room on a corner where the lights shine all night and the blackout blinds don’t work, and there is a black and white TV in the corner and even the Amco Cup doesn’t come on until 11pm and then only the second half. You can imagine without a great deal of effort the intellect of anyone who would go out every three years and tell buckets of lies and kiss a million crying babies to get to live here permanently. It can’t be the place. It must be the thrills of Parliament you think, but wait.
First thing in the morning I order tea and get coffee, and I order a cab which doesn’t arrive and, forgetting the details, I make it to The Bulletin office to meet Australia’s leading authority on politics and one of the world’s leading authorities on chain smoking, one of Australia’s very, very few worthwhile legends, Alan Reid. And Alan orders me some tea which also arrives as coffee and briefs me in his office. Well, it’s not exactly an office. There is one room about the size of an average suburban lounge-room and in it are Peter Harvey and the Channel Nine crew and all their equipment, and the staff from the Women’s Weekly as well as 60 Minutes and The Bulletin. It is sort of like 20 people battling among one hundred years of accumulated files to find somewhere to sit. Anyway, Alan continues to brief me and the great moment arrives for revelation to come to me. The bell goes and Peter Harvey takes me up to the Press Gallery, which sits over the top of the bodies of the great minds which control the destiny of our nation and our lives.
Some guy walks in carrying a gold wand and then in comes who else but the mediocre man himself, Sir Billy Snedden, all done up in a wig and black university gown and even frilly lace bits sticking out of his cuffs. He looks pretty serious about the whole thing and he sits in this big wooden throne, and there are two guys trying to dress like him but not quite as flash who sit in front of him, and everyone who is anyone is there.
Looking down on the right you’ve got Malcolm Fraser and his gang. They all look very well groomed and healthy and very navy blue with pin stripes, and on the left are the challengers.
One the Labor side, Billy Hayden looks very much like a Liberal backbencher trying to make it in with Malcolm, and the rest look decidedly more human than the Liberals. Sort of a few more beers and a bit more knocking around and looking a whole lot more friendly and down to earth and all those sorts of things.
Anyway, the great day starts.
Sir Billy says a prayer real serious, just like at a funeral, and everyone stands up and looks real serious just like at a funeral which it finishes up being, but not as much fun, which we will quickly get to.
Anyway, after the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, not to mention the Queen, have all been paid their respects, it’s time for everyone to get up and say what a really top bloke the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Bhutto, is, or was, at least, until recently hanged by the neck until he is no longer available for comment.
Our Prime Minister reads his spontaneous thoughts off a sheet with very big type on it. Bill Hayden says it all again, but his notes are handwritten at least. Maybe he even thought it all up himself. And then Leslie Johnson, the famous Labor Member for Hughes, jumps up and says how proud he is that he has led a delegation to Pakistan and spent “almost an hour” with Mr Bhutto himself and in person (prior to the hanging), and that Mr Bhutto has reassured him personally about the faith he has in the future of Australia, which shows you what it must be like in Pakistan.
And then the irrepressible Liberal publicity machine from Tassie, Mr Michael Hodgman, gets up and says his Bhutto press release for the next morning’s Hobart Mercury and Launceston Examiner, and then famous Quiz Kid Barry Jones gets up and tells everyone how much he knows about these political associations, even down to a quote by someone famous whom I have naturally never heard of, and political commentator Mungo MacCallum is quick to mention that he has got the quote wrong in any event, about which I haven’t got a clue and which I can now add to the list.
Then, naturally, everyone stands, which probably doesn’t help Mr Bhutto all that much, and now it’s on with the absolute highlight of the day: Question Time, when people from both gangs stand up and our Speaker (which is really a funny title for referee), Sir Billy Snedden, seems to take it in turns for the Labor gang to ask embarrassing questions of the Liberal-CP gang. Then the Liberal guys ask themselves questions which have a knack of being available for answer at length and even in prepared form. Now, remember, this part of the day is only 45 minutes long and everyone had told me this is the bit, the highlight, and this is roughly how it goes this day: Malcolm gets asked if he has made a speech to the filthy multi-national mining companies and told them that if we tried to pretend that oil prices aren’t going up all over the world that we’re pretty stupid, and Malcolm lets it be known that this is pretty accurate.
Andrew Peacock is asked if it’s true that the Soviet Union is building up its fleet in the Indian Ocean, and Andrew says that it is correct and natural because there is a fair bit going on in the Indian Ocean, and then he quotes some figures about Yank boats, too, and he looks about the most unworried man in the world.
Then a curly one: Tony Street gets asked why Woolies have broken some guidelines and given the storemen and packers some extra brass.
And Tony Street says he will, or may, or something, get the Prices Justification Tribunal to report on whether this can have any effect or maybe set up an inquiry, and fascinating it really is.
Billy McMahon asks how come when he was Prime Minister, conciliation and arbitration were supposed to be separated, and who is screwing it up and why isn’t he Prime Minister or at least Treasurer again, anyway? And someone says he will look into it.
Labor’s Dr Richard Klugman gets up and heaps a whole lot of garbage cans over medical funds and finance companies, especially ones being run by directors likes the ones at ASL.
And the good referee, Sir Billy, says that he can’t ask that because everyone knows the directors he is referring to and that the question must be put on notice.
And Billy Hayden says, well, if that’s the case the other mob can never ask questions about unions because everyone knows who runs them, too, which seems like a bloody good point to me. And I fair dinkum saw it with my own eyes that Billy thinks it all up for himself, no prompting, no notes from anyone. Right off the cuff. Good on you, Billy Hayden.
In any event, Klugman asks exactly the same question with a few words missing and no one answers it. Which all goes to prove you can only sling dirt on notice, not without, which might make sense to someone, but certainly not to me.
It’s all pretty exciting, and the only time anyone gets happy at all is when someone brings up road tax, and Transport Minister Peter Nixon sticks it into the other gang about how Joh Bjelke-Petersen has shown how to handle the problem. We get rid of road tax. Even Malcolm, yes Malcolm Fraser, beams and looks around the room and facially sticks it to everyone from the other gang that his political mate Joh from up north has shown that Neville Wran hasn’t got a clue.
And how come Wran rushes through all this emergency legislation to take away licences and destroy the trucks of self-employed truckies when he hasn’t done a thing about all the strikes and chaos brought about by the unions?
Anyway, it appears that everyone is pretty pleased with themselves about Joh on the one side and decidedly displeased on the other. No one has asked any questions worth answering, and no one has given an answer worthy of a decent question. So our leader gets up and says words to the effect that that’s enough of all this nonsense. And so Question Time, the most compelling time in the House, is now over. I know I missed a few questions but I’ll put them in quietly just so you know exactly what you didn’t miss.
Lionel Bowen said you shouldn’t believe what you read in the papers, with which I had a mighty sympathy at the time. Hayden declared that petrol was going up and this meant petrol companies were making more money, and Wal Fife (why did the NSW Libs ever let him go?) boasted proudly about the number of PJT inquiries which, seeing Malcolm Fraser’s only promise when he first got in was to get rid of it totally, was all very fascinating.
But after Question Time and from here on in, to be frank, it gets even less mind-bending. For a start, every politician immediately leaves the joint and so does every journalist except me, who doesn’t know any better, and a young bird from one of those syndicated businesses who also sits there all day alternating, on the hour, with a young bloke — no doubt to save them from jumping over the railing; and not a bad jump it would be at that.
The Leader of the House, Ian Sinclair, says he wants to present a report on the thing both gangs agree on entirely — a new $151 million Parliament House (how anyone can set a budget — remember the Opera House — when the designs haven’t even been called for is a mystery that only someone who has no concern for money could ever hope even not to understand). He moves that the report get printed and the ayes have it, even though not one representative says aye and no one says no.
Mr Sinclair also moves that the House have a break until May, and again the non-existent ayes have it. Personally, I was hoping that it would break immediately, but this was not to be. Because then the empty house empties even further as we move into a thing called a Grievance Debate.
On reflection, this is where the nonentities of Parliament can get up and speak for a maximum of 10 minutes (which also turns out to be a maximum of 10 minutes) on any subject that takes their fancy.
And they know that their voice is going to be broadcast live right across Australia to at least 100 people, including their mum and dad, and, even more importantly, members of their pre-selection team. It’s like allowing the drop kicks to let off steam without harming anyone.
Instead of getting stuck into their own Ministers they can act all grown-up, as if they really had a role to play in the parliament.
Remember, there is a State election on in Victoria so, naturally, a Labor Member gets up and says that the Victorian Government are a lot of crooks, and if the Corporate Affairs Commission looked into the way they worked they’d all be locked up. He says everyone knows you can’t get a contract in Victoria unless you kick the election fund tin, and how come they’ve got over a million left after the last election and how come all the directors of the ASL have been involved on their finance committees?
Predictably, some Liberal member gets up and says he has never heard such snide innuendo and that the Hamer Government is totally without sin, and then reads out about the schools and hospitals and unemployment and, you know, all the stuff. Which is fascinating for the nine ALP Members and six Lib/CP Members still in the House. And, obviously, all said to get reported in tomorrow’s Melbourne papers, which it doesn’t because someone from North Melbourne looks like missing two matches with a sore thumb.
Mercifully it is at last 12.45, and the hard-worked Members break until 2.30 for a well-earned lunch break. Peter Harvey and I lunch at The Lobby, which is a very popular restaurant for those who frequent Parliament House as it is the only restaurant within walking distance, which is just as well for The Lobby because it’s not your actual triple A for service or food.
Before the service even starts to stop, Peter Harvey is called back for a press conference where Peter Nixon tells the media what he is going to tell Parliament after lunch: no more emission controls, stuff all that pollution crap, we’re using too much petrol as it is. That’s the drift. Great, I think, at least there’ll be a good stink this afternoon.
Wrong. After lunch Lionel Bowen gets up and carries on with all the traditional stuff of A MATTER OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE which boils down to the fact that we still haven’t given Queensland back to the Aborigines. And now presenting: The Government Business. Phil Lynch starts by reading out a report on our great tourist industry. He tells us how everyone leaving Australia is going to sell the joint because we’ve got beaut brochures prepared, and he says it might or might not work but won’t cost that much, anyhow, and it’s really up to the State governments, if you want to know the truth. But just in case anyone ever does decide to visit here, we’re going to need better hotels and that, and what a great job the Select Committees have done.
Then Barry Cohen gets up from the other side and spends all his time agreeing with everything Lynch says, except that he adds a few words of wisdom of his own. Like, his mum and dad went around the world twice, and everyone thought how lucky they were now that everyone is going overseas, what with jet travel and everything. Boy, it’s an exciting time in tourist history. But he can’t go along with all this talk about penalty rates because he’s got a motel at Gosford or somewhere (because he doesn’t want to name him), and he’s actually seen his books and penalty rates are a drop in the bucket, and that’s what the boss of Travelodge said, too, which proves it conclusively once and for all.
No one brought up the fact that penalty rates don’t cost you anything if there aren’t any staff to pay them to, and in the end Barry Cohen says it’s good but not good enough and, just as a throwaway, explains to all and sundry that he doesn’t think the Gold Coast is really as beautiful as northern Queensland or even the NSW Central Coast, which happens to be his electorate. But the Gold Coast is “elegant”, which is at least the first thing I have learned so far.
Then Peter Nixon gets up and does his bit, but there is no blue because the only guy from the other side is someone I’m told is a Peter Morris by name, who is all on his own.
So when Nixon sits down Morris gets up and says that Nixon is selling out to filthy multi-national car companies, and if we really want to conserve petrol (this is fair dinkum what he said) we should get rid of power steering, automatic transmission and car air conditioning.
Well, this is all pretty thought-provoking stuff, and then it’s time for Kevin Newman, the Minister for National Development, to get up and tell us that never has a country developed so fast but, unfortunately, he reads a fair bit faster than our national development, so that I can’t hear a thing he says.
The only Labour Member asks if he can slow down, and the acting deputy assistant Speaker (because well before this all the grown-up Speakers have gone) agrees, and Newman then speaks slower for about two sentences before returning to his usual pace, which would leave a race caller for dead. Then the sole Labor Member calls for a quorum because, by now, there is only him on his side and a further four or five on the other side.
So the bells ring, and in about 10 minutes the House has got some people in it and they continue the conversations they’ve been having outside inside, and Newman starts reading faster than ever before so the Speaker asks everyone to shut up so they all leave again, and Newman finishes his speech. Labor’s Paul Keating says he has never heard such nonsense, and then the Prime Minister lets it be known that everyone should be happy that Western Australia is 150 years old, and it is time for the Members to take another well-earned break.
I now adjourn with Mungo MacCallum to the Non-Members’ Bar which is, amazingly, a bar for Non-Members, and I then have a long series of discussions in the off-the-record department with the journos who cover Canberra day in and day out, and then let it be known to me what has already become obvious — that Parliament is really now a toy played with by politicians for their own publicity purposes.
A place to bring up scandal without fear or fact or any action possible.
A place to embarrass and defile.
A place you have to go to get the money and other bills passed which are already decided and debated in another place.
An anachronism which isn’t even amusing or charming or treated with respect by its members.
And when I returned briefly to take a look at the evening performance, where an empty House saw more Bills read and adjourned, I thought of all the hundreds of school children who had been led in in groups, one after the other, that day to sit there bored and horrified by what was not going on, and I hoped that some of them might realise that there has to be a better way, so that when their time comes to have a say they will remember that edifying day.
The day when they saw something from the dim, dark, distant past clog and clutter the present, and a future that Parliament just isn’t structured to comprehend, but only to stifle and obstruct.
And, off the record, later when I spoke to the journos and the Members from both sides of the House I realised that almost everyone agrees but really couldn’t care less because the hours are good, the perks are great, the money isn’t bad and the power is irresistible.
I understand that Ministers can’t sit through the House every day or even more than a tiny part of it because they wouldn’t have time to do any work, prepare any Bills or discuss anything in any way intelligent. I understand all that, but if that is the case I cannot understand the charade.
But at least I can understand why, after 10 years in Canberra, Mungo is mangoes.
This has been John Singleton reporting from Parliament House, Canberra, 1901. Except that it’s 1979.
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