This is a description of the final stages of the Senate debate on the government’s radical workplace relations change as I witnessed it from my seat in the Senate chamber.
At 4.30pm today, the guillotine came down on the Senate, and votes were forced on all the amendments which had been circulated but not yet moved or debated.
What this meant in practice was that votes were put without debate as following:
The remaining 64 Democrat amendments as a block – voted down on the voices;
The remaining 8 Greens amendments as a block – voted down on the voices;
The remaining 17 Family First amendments as a block – voted down on the voices;
that the items and sections of the Bill opposed by the Democrats, the Greens and Family First stand as printed – passed on the voices;
The remaining 241 government amendments – passed on the voices;
The Government’s 4 amendments to remove items – passed on the voices;
These votes all happened in the space of 5 minutes.
The final votes on each of the 5 Schedules of the Bill were held separately after a brief debate about whether they had to be put as one or could be voted on separately. While this was happening, we could hear the sound of some fairly fierce storms and rain on the ceiling of the Senate. Then some of the main chamber lights went out, leading to the ‘debate’ being continued in a gloomy half-light. This led to some thin jokes being made about the wrath of God and the like, although I found it a bit hard to get amused.
Because the House of Reps is not sitting today and presumably because it is such a significant and historic legislation, there is a good crowd of people in the public gallery. Many of them are obviously union supporters and found it hard to remain silent while some of the speeches and dissembling answers from the government Minister were being made.
There were two formal Divisions on the 5 separate Schedules contained in the Bill. Each passed 35-32, with Steve Fielding from Family First not voting.
The final Third Reading speeches started at 4.55pm, with the chop of the very last guillotine on the final Third Reading vote to come down at 6pm.
Senator Penny Wong spoke for Labor. She is usually well across the issues she has to deal with, and she outlined the various defects in the Bill and the misleading rhetoric of the government quite well. Her statement that “we may lose this vote, but we will not be beaten” drew applause from the gallery, which still contained about 70 people (along with about 5 in the press gallery, including the independent journalist Margot Kingston – read her account of this afternoon on her site). This was immediately followed by more thunder and another dimming of the lights. Senator Wong responded to this by saying “the lights may go out, but they won’t go out on the Labor movement”, and spoke some more about the strenth and history of the union movement, which people on her side found fairly stirring.
Senator Michael Ronaldson from the Liberals followed. He had a jibe at those in the gallery who had applauded, which is fairly symptomatic of the aggressive approach he often takes. His speech showed pretty clearly how much this is about ideology – continually emphasising that there are now more small business people than there are members of trade unions. Whilst this is not a fact which should be ignored, I really can’t see how it is relevant to the legislation – unless your motivation is really about weakening trade unions and your belief is that trade unions are inherently bad or economically damaging, rather than being focused on trying to get a fairer, stronger economy.
Senator Andrew Murray from the Democrats came next. He attacked the legislation as being conservative and faith-based. He outlined some of the history of the Democrats’ role on industrial relations, which has been to take a middle path between the passionate ideologies that still drive this debate from the Labor and conservative sides. He didn’t talk at all about unions or the union momvement, he talked about the importance of a balanced and fair system, and his grave concern that this legislation was a major departure from that. Even though he didn’t mention unions, he gained a good round of applause from the growing number of people in the public gallery – now up to around 100 on my count.
Senator Fielding from Family First came next. He outlined why he couldn’t vote for the Bill, saying that what ever good it may do, it will be outweighed by its negative effects – repeating his familiar catchphrases that ‘we work to live, we don’t live to work’ and that the Bill is ‘not about work and family, it is about work or family, which is a choice that no Australian should have to make.’
Senator John Faulkner gave a very strong and passionate speech which was short and to the point. His verdict – “It stinks”. He paid tribute to all the workplace conditions which had been won by trade unionists over decades, and was clearly angry that much of it was now going to be torn down. Not surprisingly, this drew the biggest applause from the gallery.
Senator Ron Boswell started by acknowledging the hurt and feeling of the Labor Senators and some in the gallery. I thought this was a good thing to do, although he then went on to compare it with the hurt he felt when the Native Title legislation went through and the damage he said it did to rural Australia, which didn’t go down so well. I thought the thrust of the point he was trying to make was good, although he did it in a way which kept pushing the raw nerves he was trying to show sensitivity towards. In acknowledging how people who represented trade unions would be upset, he spoke about his role representing small business and country people who supported these sorts of changes. To me, this kept repeating the mistake of seeing workplace laws as a battle between small business and unions, which I think is backward looking, although given that this is the workplace model the government is now imposing on Australia, perhaps it is a case of back to the future.
Senator Rachel Siewert from the Greens came next. She suggested the one group who would benefit from the legislation was lawyers and criticised the poor process involved. She also pointed out it will harm people rather than unions and praised the protection that unions can provide.
Queensland Liberal Senator George Brandis came next, drawing on Senator Faulkner’s speech and painting a picture of the Labor Party being tied to a shrinking union movement that is becoming a part of the past and how Labor is stuck with a narrowing base. He did make a good point by quoting from a very similar sounding speech Senator Faulkner made to the Workplace Bill from 1996 and pointing out that all his dire predictions did not come to pass. I would agree with that, but as Senator Murray said in his contribution, that was due to the 176 amendments the Democrats made to that Bill, and this new Bill goes far further than even the original unamended version from 1996. Senator Brandis’ speech was similar in tone to the one he gave when the legislation to sell Telstra was guillotined through – about this being a historic moment and how the Labor Party were on the wrong side of history.
Senator Chris Evans from Labor finished it off, with just one minute left. His short contribution made a very salient point, which was that none of the government speakers actually defended the Bill, retreating to the safety of rhetoric.
As we got close to 6pm, a few more journos came into the press gallery viewing area, with 12 present to watch the final vote. I counted 110 people in the public areas of the gallery at the end when the division was called and the bells rang for the final vote.
A couple of people in the gallery called out for Barnaby to cross the floor, but there was never any chance of that happening. He sat in his place along with all the others, and didn’t even have the protective guard next to him which has been present on a few occasions in the past to make sure he didn’t shift.
Steve Fielding moved from his seat and sat next to me, but sadly it was still one person too few to defeat the Bill. He mentioned how it was a historic occasion and noted how I was tapping away a lot on my computer. I told him his words were being put straight online for history.
The Bill passed 35 votes to 33. Boos and cries of “shame” rang out briefly, and then everyone charged out the door to catch their flights. Within a minute the place was almost deserted. Even historic moments still only last for a moment.
In a bit of extra symbolism, those Senators who had the main carriage of the legislation for their respective parties in the debate on Friday were not able to have any time off for lunch, as this was not scheduled in the extra sitting hours the government forced on the Senate. It is also mucked up the childcare arrangements for at least one Senator.
Because the government’s guillotine also involved Friday’s sitting hours being extended an extra two hours through until 6pm, this threw out all the flight schedules for everyone to get back to their families for the weekend. Unlike what can happen for most other Australians who are forced to work back late on short notice, the government is able to organise special flights, so I will be able to still get a direct flight back to Brisbane on one of the so-called VIP RAAF planes. There is a similar flight going to Adelaide and Perth, and another to Melbourne and Tassie. I’m not sure what the extra cost of this will be, although in recent times the Senate has required the government to table regular reports on the cost of so-called special flights, so we will find out eventually. Because of the late departure, coupled with delays caused to the regular commercial flights from the storm, if it hadn’t been for the special flights, many of us would have had to stay an extra night in Canberra.
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