A Brief but Memorable Canberra Immersion

Like many Australians, I am never really surprised by the behaviour of politicians on both sides of the House in federal and state parliaments, where monumental back-flips, back-stabs and seize-the-moment stunts to boost polls and win votes often replace the serious agenda of running the country.

Sorry if that sounds somewhat harsh, but I do have some first-hand, behind the scenes experience.  Back when Julia Gillard was PM during the Rudd-Gillard- Rudd shuffle, I was head-hunted out of the blue to fill the shoes of an LNP member’s media officer when the regular head staffer departed overseas on long service leave.

I was as surprised as anyone and I made it clear I wasn’t interested in a full-time position. Reassurance came on the other end of the phone, “No worries, it will just be for a few months at this stage…”

I was still writing regular newspaper columns as well as getting plenty of news releases published for the recently-elected Member for Flynn, Ken O’Dowd, in my new role. It was a good, rewarding gig, Ken and I were on the same page with most issues, but my first visit to Canberra mid-winter was a real eye-opener. I couldn’t have chosen a better week, so let’s borrow the Tardis and wind back the clock to mid-2011.

The sheer size of Parliament House is awesome, you practically need a GPS to avoid getting lost in the endless corridors of power. So far I’ve managed to avoid that, but my visit was not incident free. Most, I can laugh about.

It starts with my trip from the Canberra airport past the frosted brown fields and leafless trees which make Queensland look like an oasis. We arrive at Parliament House where there is a great flurry of activity. There are numerous federal police cars, and on the green lawns, a mix of ADF personnel  hovering around rows of cannons.  What the …. ? I hadn’t expected a welcome quite like this.

My Asian taxi driver looks unconcerned so I ask, “What’s happening with the cannons?”

“What ? Cameras?”  Obviously he hasn’t noticed anything unusual.

“No, cannons. Boom! Back there, didn’t you see them?”

He shrugs, shakes his head and is more concerned with collecting his fare. I soon learn the cannons are for New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key who arrives in a seven-vehicle motorcade and receives a 19 gun salute before being serenaded by a military band playing Waltzing Matilda. Apparently 21 gun salutes are reserved for heads of state, but it was still a stirring greeting for the other John and me.

Then there are the security checks  similar to the ones at the airports on the way down. No problems for most people, just unload your metal objects and walk through the scanner. But not for anyone with a hi-tech titanium implant. Coming or going, I’m pulled aside for a personal scan.

After a long day admiring weird and wonderful art works and also actually working, it’s well into the night before I check back out through security and order a taxi. Outside it’s raining, cold, and down on the street below I see a cab waiting in the distance. As I approach, a huge figure with a Ned Kelly beard  looms out of the darkness. Is this the driver looking out for me? He walks closer.

“Are you the cabbie looking for me?” But as the words leave my mouth, I recognise him. 

“No mate, I’m not the driver, he’s still in the cab”. Oops, the larger than life figure was one of Australia’s most recognised local government leaders and part-time blues musician, the Sunshine Coast’s Regional Mayor, Bob Abbott, who was there for an important national Mayors’ meeting. Bob won the job as head of the amalgamated council with his catchy slogan, “Big Bob for a Big Job”. We probably both missed sunny Queensland right then.

Meanwhile, Key made history when he became the first New Zealand leader to address the Federal Parliament. Question time was postponed for his speech to a joint session of the Australian Senate and House of Representatives.

He told MPs that Australia has shown New Zealand a degree of loyalty and support that “only family can”.

“For that we are truly grateful. When an explosion ripped through the Pike River Mine in November last year you sent your specialist experts, your machinery and your hope.

“When the devastating Christchurch earthquake struck us in February, you came to our aid immediately, unreservedly and with open hearts.

“The deeds of Australia struck a deep chord with the people of Christchurch.

“When 300 members of the Australian Police arrived at Christchurch airport they were met by a spontaneous standing ovation.

“New Zealanders clapped for the Australian presence because it was such a moving and visual demonstration that we weren’t on our own. You had our back.”

Key thanked Australia on behalf of all New Zealanders.

“Your acts were living testament to the perpetual Anzac spirit…”

That was a great start, and to say my week in Canberra was an eye-opener is putting it mildly; like the lunch time meeting I attended in the main committee room, addressed by the Speaker Harry Jenkins and long-term Liberal MP Phillip Ruddock on the topic of “Parliamentary etiquette”. 

Really?  One of the points made was that the fine art of debating and public speaking seemed to be lost in the modern-day cut and thrust of politics, particularly during question time, and later I had the opportunity to judge for myself.

Actually, I found this highly entertaining. I was there when the Speaker rolled his eyes in desperation but couldn’t quite hide his smile as the group of controversial Independents all donned white cowboy hats when the Mad Hatter himself, Bob Katter, rose to speak on the serious topic of the live cattle ban to Indonesia.

I saw the Opposition Conservative  benches suddenly erupt in side splitting laughter after deputy Opposition leader Julie Bishop addressed a seemingly innocent question to Kevin Rudd on the eve of the first anniversary of his sacking as Prime Minister: “Will the Foreign Affairs Minister advise The House when he plans to return to Bougainville?” (I couldn’t tell if she winked, but she certainly smirked).

Kevin  ‘07 seemed to be in on the joke, which wasn’t immediately obvious to many – his pet name for The Lodge after his ousting by Julia Gillard was apparently “Bogan-ville” and he had a broad grin on his dial as he leaned casually against some despatch boxes on the centre table and launched into his reply about “furthering the peace process there” and “being very sensitive about any external interventions by well-meaning Australian politicians”.

Was there a hidden message? Maybe, and most on the Opposition benches seemed to get it. But there wasn’t any when the leader of government business in the House, Anthony Albanese, summed up his version of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s policy on the proposed carbon tax and just about everything else by leaning across the table and shouting, “No, No, No, No!”

More mirth towards the end when Bob Katter rose again to move a “censure motion” against the NRL for “showing Blues bias” in laying charges against  Maroons star, Johnathan Thurston for colliding with a referee. The Speaker smiled again as he ruled the motion lapsed for want of a seconder, while the Member for Flynn was rising to his feet in support. Thankfully, Thurston was later cleared.

Days later, in the taxi on my way to the Canberra Airport for the first leg of a flight back home, I was apparently mistaken for a politician. Did I have a white-haired doppelganger in the House? I hope it wasn’t Bob Katter…

“Did you MP’s accomplish anything worthwhile during the sittings this week?”

“Not me, mate. I was just there for the entertainment.”

One thought on “A Brief but Memorable Canberra Immersion

  • Daffy says:

    Brings back some memories.
    I was lassoed into the world of Parliament House when I got entangled with a particular lobbying effort. I visited a few times and had lots of fun as a ‘stranger’. Free booze too, which was a bonus. Even more entertaining were the dinners as we slinked off to a local restaurant where it was a game of spot the minister.
    But the real fun came when I worked for a professional membership society whose board decided that hosting a parliamentary breakfast (no, it was just a breakfast in the House) would be a great bit of lobbying to boost their profile.
    All the senior staff of the organisation collected at the ACT office. While the board pontificated on board things, we merely cooled our heels. I couldn’t believe the waste of money that represented. I thought of the members parting with their hard-earned for this caper. Why not practice for the lobbying, rehearse answering questions from the MPs who might be at our tables, and so on? But no!
    I went to the library and browsed some historic journals.
    When the day arrived we taxied from our hotel to the House, filed into the venue and were dispersed among the tables so we had two or three staff at each table. The other seats to be filled by MPs.
    As it happened the prior priming lobbying had not been conducted, so almost no MPs turned up. A few staffers did.
    The president of the society launched into her presentation. Twisting her head between the slides and the audience her first remark was ‘oh, they’re the wrong slides’. Then, ‘oh, no they’re not’. The clown show proceeded with self-centred emotional pleas that would suit the societies’ members, but of no interest to the handful of politicians who turned up for the no-charge-nose-bag.
    The interest in being told how good and useful the society and its members were was nugatory. We the staff pretended to be gate-crashers; at least we could thereby save some face.
    After this excruciating presentation, the staffer at my table turned to ask what it had been all about. I gave the official line, She raised her eyebrows and looked back to the circus in progress.
    There was one minister attending. He was kind. He suggested that some numbers might help. Trends: in the industry, deficiencies of public interest, size of this, that or the other issue and the industrial and social ramifications. The president was agog that numbers would have been important, thinking that the joy of the societies’ ideas would be enough.
    From that moment, I made my plans for a parachute.

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