I wasn’t going to comment on the story about the Senate President ordering the removal of the baby of a female Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, who had brought her child in with her for a Senate vote. It just seemed so obviously an over-reaction by the President that I felt it barely merited comment.
The Senate President, Queenslander John Hogg, is a very decent man. While he is quite conservative in many ways, he is no aggressive culture warrior, so I was surprised to hear his reaction to this and assumed he might have just been a bit more irritable than usual, leading him to take an overly strict approach rather the good helping of common sense which usually applies in interpreting Senate Standing Orders. Irritableness often does increase in the stress of the final sitting fortnight at the end of a session, when sitting hours are usual longer and there’s pressure being put on to get a large pile of legislation passed.
But I happened to be driving a car around today so I listened to some radio and was astonished – not so much by people voicing agreement with the decision to order the removal of the baby – but by the vehemence and forcefulness of some of the comments from people who seemed to be outraged that a baby had been taken into the chamber in the first place.
This is far from the first time a baby has been brought into the Senate chamber during a vote. Apart from the occasions when former Senator Stott Despoja brought her young chamber in, I can well remember a Liberal Senator giving his final speech in the Senate in 2005 while his young daughter jumped around on his seat beside him the whole time without any objection being raised.
It would obviously be inappropriate to have children – or anyone else – wandering all through the Senate chamber while a matter was being debated, or even during Question Time when it would be impossible to disrupt proceedings because there’s already so much noise and shouting going on anyway. Pompous pronouncements that Senators should always be focusing on the matters being addressed in the chamber without the distraction of children are laughable – if not actually offensive when being made in relation to this issue. Far more disruptive and unparliamentary behaviour which is in technical breach of the Standing Orders occurs every day – particularly in Question Time – and all Senators, quite appropriately, spend most of their time out of the Chamber on other business unless they are directly involved in the matters being debated at the time. Any suggestion that it is inappropriate to have a child around in the building during sitting periods is ludicrous. Senators (and other MPs) already go through more than enough enforced extended separations from their children as part of doing their job.
But Senate votes are not a time when speeches or deliberations are occurring. They are in effect a break in proceedings while the formal vote of all Senators on a matter is being recorded. All that happens is Senators sit there – usually talking quite loudly amongst themselves – while two people at the front of the chamber cross their names off a list, according to whether they are sitting with the Ayes or the Noes for the question being voted on. Having a baby there is no disruption – even if it was crying, which I gather wasn’t happening in this instance, at least until she was removed from her mother’s arms.
As I said, there has been no objections when infants have been brought into the Senate chamber in the past. I am at a loss to see why past practice should no longer be seen to apply and I wonder why those who are now loudly saying such a thing is inappropriate have never said so in the past. But if the Senate President – or the Senate as a whole – suddenly feel they should ignore past practice and decide that such action is inappropriate under any circumstances, then the far more polite thing to do would have been to approach the relevant Senator afterwards and ask her not to do it again, rather than force the child’s removal in the middle of a division.