Here are a few of my immediate impressions having just sat through the First Speeches given in the Senate today. First Speeches are a unique experience for a Senator. They are always attended and listened to by a majority of Senators, and by convention no one interjects. I can vouch from experience that this is about the only time this happens. Either no one turns up in the Senate chamber to listen to you, or they do but ignore what you say or they yell out at you while you’re still speaking.
Queensland Liberal Russell Trood is a university lecturer from Brisbane, whose great grandfather attended the 1891 Constitutional Convention. In effect, he was the person who won the seat which had been held by the Democrats in Queensland, thus delivering control of the Senate to the Coalition. The only press gallery people who came to watch this speech were Matt Price plus the usual representative from Australian Associated Press (AAP). A few Libs from the House of Reps – Chris Pyne, plus Qld Libs Ross Vasta, Andrew Laming and Steven Ciobo – also popped in to watch. He gave a fairly thoughtful speech. Unlike his Victorian colleague Michael Ronaldson last week, who ran the ‘governments are elected to govern’ mantra, Senator Trood spoke of the importance of the Senate operating as a House of review and holding the government of the day to account. He even quoted left-wing theorist Antonio Gramsci! Not surprisingly, he focused on international affairs and security but gave a reasonably balanced appraisal, noting the dangers of giving “Governments power permanently or without continuing parliamentary oversight” and gave a fairly downbeat assessment of the present situation in Iraq.
WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle was an official in the Transport Workers Union. It was fitting that he spoke on the day that many truck drivers rallied out the front of Parliament House to protest yet another piece of ideological extremism from the Government. These guys are independent contractors, yet the Government plans to pass amendments to the Trade Practices Act to ban trade unions from bargaining on behalf of small business owners. Apparently collective bargaining done by industry representative bodies such as the Motor Traders Association on behalf of petrol station owners or the Farmers Federation negotiating on behalf of rural producers is OK, but not trade unions working on behalf of individual contractors. Senator Sterle spoke about his life as a truckie and the value and importance of unions, along with the damage caused to families by the industrial relations changes made by the Court Liberal Government in WA back in the 1990s. Labor’s shadow treasurer, Wayne Swan, sat at the back of the Senate to watch the speech.
The Senator of the moment, Barnaby Joyce came next. None of the House of Reps Liberals there for Russell Trood’s speech had stuck around, but half of the Nationals caucus seemed to be there, including Mark Vaile, John Anderson, John Cobb, Warren Truss and Kay Hull. The media’s viewing gallery also had a reasonable collection of people. I counted 19, with Matt Price and AAP being joined by Margo Kingston, Crikey’s Hugo Kelly, Sophie Morris from the Financial Review, Andrew Fraser from the Canberra Times (not this Andrew Fraser), Phil Coorey from The Advertiser, Sam Maiden from The Australian, the ABC’s Catherine McGrath and the Herald Sun’s Gerald McManus.
Barnaby singled out 4 key issues that he said the Qld National Party’s took to the last election: overcentralisation of the retail market; mandated usage of ethanol in fuels; zonal taxation and core family values. He spoke of the need to give people more reason to live outside the capital cities and the inevitable problems of greater traffic and water problems in those cities if we don’t. He cited the problem of continuing our dependency on oil imports (as a lead in to the need to mandate ethanol). I don’t think anyone will get new ideas about what he is likely to do on some of the current issues of controversy, His only solid comment on Telstra was that “it is an issue in motion” and he also had a big dig at the Government’s position on VSU, but didn’t say how he would vote on it.
He mentioned God a few times and also said “abortion is the slavery debate of our time.” He was also the only new Senator (so far) who has acknowledged the work of the Senator whose seat he won, noting the efforts of the departed One Nation Senator, Len Harris and finished with a long quote from Rudyard Kipling’s well known poem, “If”. The text of Senator Joyce’s speech is available here.