One of the stranger aspects of life in the Parliament, particularly in contentious periods like the current one, is that one minute you can be sitting in the Senate chamber, filled with outrage at what is being done by the Government and/or the Opposition, or being subjected to an aggressive personal outburst from someone, and the next minute you can be side by side in another context, having to be nice to each other.
During the final stages of the workplace debate, the chamber had many more Senators in attendance than usual. This, combined with the passions about the subject and the major changes that were occurring, meant there was a lot more anger and emotion about than usual.
On that final Friday of debate, I followed most of the proceedings from my office. This meant I was regularly muttering and grumbling at the television about the garbage that I thought the government’s Minister, Senator Abetz, was spouting as he kept putting the government’s position. He was there throughout virtually all of the debate, so I had to hear his voice very often. Apparently some of his colleagues have described him as “having a voice like a dripping tap”. Of course, I wouldn’t say such a thing myself, especially as I’m not usually the most gripping of orators (indeed Elliot Goblet’s speaking style has been compared favourably with mine more than once). However, when you have to listed to the voice all day and that voice is usually saying things that you think are rubbish, it can all get a bit aggravating.
I’d gone to the Senate chamber to hear the final Third Reading speeches being made, but I nipped out the back of the chamber during Senator Ronaldson’s speech to go to the toilet. When I went, who should be there but Eric Abetz. Engaging in small talk in situations like these is not usually my strong point at the best of times. However, we manage to exchange a few sarcastic jibes about whether or not it was a dark day for democracy without being too spiteful.
As soon as the final Senate vote was taken, everyone was quickly out the door and queuing up for cars to the airport – people from the winning side talking in a self-satisfied way about a great victory, and those from the losing side shaking their heads and muttering about what a terrible day it was. Within 30 minutes, about half of us who had been sitting on opposite sides of the Senate chamber during that final vote – feeling either triumphant or mournful – were gathered together in the waiting lounge at the Airforce base, waiting for our VIP flights to leave.
There were three flights – one going to Adelaide and Perth, one to Melbourne and Tasmania, and a third going to Brisbane. It had been quite a huge storm that had just blown over, which I hadn’t fully appreciated sitting in the Senate chamber. It turned out the rain I had heard hitting the roof high above was actually hail. There was still a fair bit of rain and wind activity around when we all took off – if any of those planes had gone down it would have led to a very large number of casual vacancies in the Senate. The one the Queenslanders got was the smallest plane, a nine seater with 7 Senators on board.
So there we all were – about 45 minutes after the final vote that concluded a week’s worth of ferocious accusations and strong and (usually) genuine emotions – 3 Labor, 2 Liberal, 1 National and a Democrat Senator all crammed in on our own in the cabin on the way to Brisbane.
Although it’s a bit strange, we manage to get on well in such circumstances. I genuinely believe the workplace changes that have now been passed are extremist and risky at best, and find it hard to see how they can possibly produce any outcome other than a decline in incomes and/or quality of life for many Australian families, particularly among those who are already more disadvantaged. I also find it hard to see how any objective person who actually looked at the details, rather than just relying on propaganda or ideological theories, could believe anything much different. So when you’re stuck in small cabin with three of the people who have just voted to allow this change to happen, it is bit strange to be chummy.
However, the alternative of sitting there silently scowling at each other or getting into fierce arguments is not realistic – and way too stressful. We do have to continue to be able to work with each other on other issues in the future. And while I wouldn’t say it about every MP or Senator, I guess the ones I was on the plane with are mostly decent and pleasant enough as people (except when they’re voting for horrible laws – grrrrr). At the end of the flight, we all went our separate ways – probably once again cursing to ourselves about all the terrible things the others had done and how hopelessly misguided they are.
PS Readers will no doubt be reassured to know that even on VIP/RAAF aircraft, we still have to use those plastic knives that irritated Amanda Vanstone so much.
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