Where are the healers in this fractured parliament?
It’s rare for a Senator to visit the House of Representatives chamber. During my time in Parliament, I occupied the green benches for Joint sitting sessions (the visits of President Bill Clinton and the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair).
And I sat in the Senators’ visitors chairs to watch the historic stem cell vote in 2006. Since leaving politics, I have observed two key - and unexpected - speeches in that place. I’ve written about Craig Thomson’s mea culpa speech previously and, last week, I watched Prime Minister’s Gillard’s “herstoric” speech on sexism.
Much has been written about the difference between the Press Gallery’s take on that speech and the views of those who witnessed it. I was also struck by the dichotomy. Members in the Visitors’ Gallery watched in awe as Ms Gillard’s seemingly extempore speech unfolded.
The man next me said he wanted to stand up and cheer, while older citizens around me were chuckling and egging her on. Those who told me they had a different political view still expressed admiration for a sterling performance. Some even broke out in spontaneous, although slightly muted, applause on its conclusion.
People didn’t seem to be showing political allegiance; more expressing a feeling of “finally, she’s standing up for herself and showing us what she’s capable of”.
Yes, people grappled with the logic of condemning sexism and then effectively endorsing the former Speaker.
During my walk in the corridors that day, a number of Labor MPs expressed their disappointment - and anger - that the Prime Minister’s third point in her address was not an outright dismissal of the then Speaker. However, some MPs knew that plans were afoot, and that Peter Slipper was unlikely to last the night.
Liberal MPs cursed the PM’s erudite performance but lambasted her speech as ‘over the top’ (a line repeated by media). They knew that while the PM’s speech would get top billing on the news, it was the fact that Labor had opposed the no-confidence motion in Mr Slipper that would gain traction among voters.
That night, I was part of the Burnet Institute’s launch of a Fellowship in the name of the late Sir Zelman Cowen, former Governor General, distinguished lawyer, teacher and humanitarian.
Such events in Parliament House rely on short attention spans. Not because MPs aren’t capable of complex or sophisticated presentations, but because there is always competition for their time.
As three other events lured MPs presences (including singer Paul Kelly, a rural women’s awards dinner and a Telstra presentation), most events collapsed after 7pm as word filtered around that the Speaker was about to resign.
Tensions are running high in that building. Some may say “Twas ever thus” (especially when it comes to sexist taunts), but personality politics taints the atmosphere. As people fled various events (ours included), differing comments were proferred.
Minor party MPs headed in search of TV cameras, but most of my major party MP friends expressed their sadness that this is what it has come to.
At the Fellowship launch, the speakers - including Mark Dreyfus (representing Ms Gillard), and the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott - remarked on Sir Zelman’s reputation as one of the great political healers of our time.
There was little evidence of the politics of healing on that night.
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