November 26, 2010 5:14 pm

Up a gum tree

Canberra’s House of Representatives seems to have totally lost the plot: the whips and party managers choreograph everything – even much of the rowdiness
 
Julia Gillard

Julia Gillard, Australia’s prime minister, governs with help from a Green and three independents

The seeds of the Westminster model of democracy have been transported all over the world, often for the blooms to wilt in stony ground. But here, on the far side of the world, the Mother of Parliaments found the country generally regarded as its favourite daughter and aptest pupil.

Nearly 110 years since Australia formally became a nation, the trappings of the Commons are still replicated in the bush capital, Canberra, amid the murmur of the currawongs and the scent of the gum trees. It’s point of order this, and Mr Speaker that; ministers lounge on green benches, just as they do in London; there is a sergeant-at-arms and Black Rod; a mace and despatch boxes. There is also a similar culture of pointless vituperation.

Now Canberra has even copied Westminster’s newest and most unfamiliar innovation. In August, three months after Britain acquired a hung parliament, Australia did the same, for the first time in 70 years. Next May Britain may return the compliment by adopting the Australian electoral system.

Since the Aussies are currently running the most successful economy of any western democracy, it might seem a sensible place from which to borrow ideas. But Australia’s current prosperity is based on flogging its natural resources to the eager Chinese: it can’t be anything to do with its politicians.

I have seen a few crazy parliaments. I have watched the Israeli Knesset, where one extreme would happily exterminate the other – and the Dáil in Dublin, the only known gathering of inarticulate Irishmen. I have seen the empty shell that constitutes the US Senate. I have done time at the Commons, and been appalled by the pathetic lack of individuality of the whipped curs. I thought I was unshockable. But Canberra’s House of Rep­resenta­tives is the worst. These curs only snarl as instructed.

Some of the kindly journalists in the Canberra press gallery asked me what I thought. This being a country that prides itself on candour, I told them. They looked at me as though I were crazy. “You should have seen it a few months ago,” they said. “It’s improved no end.”

The improvement is a direct result of the election in August, when the Australian Labor party, led by Julia Gillard, the country’s first woman prime minister, lost its majority: it won 72 seats in the 150-strong House of Representatives, compared with 73 for the more right-wing Liberal-National party coalition under Tony Abbott.

However, Gillard outfoxed Abbott in the post-election negotiations and now governs with the help of the solitary Green MP and three of the five independents, who insisted – as part of the deal – on reforms to parliamentary procedure.

Far more than Westminster, Canberra revolves around Question Time. In the Commons, different ministers answer on their subjects on a rota, with the prime minister being grilled for half an hour once a week, or at least lightly browned off. It’s not normally well plotted or scripted but it usually provides some element of political theatre. And the individual departmental sessions sometimes even have moments of serious interrogation.

But something was lost overboard when this ritual was transported southwards. The antipodean version lasts an hour and a half, starting at 2pm, every single sitting day. Every MP is expected to be present throughout, especially the two front benches, since any minister might be called on at any time. Theatre? Only of the absurd. Almost every single word is scripted, and Australia seems to have completely lost the plot.

 
Australian parliament

The opposition front bench – not listening to the debate

Mercifully, the Australian parliament sits for only about 80 days a year (the human brain – and bottom – could hardly tolerate much more). Ministers face two main types of questions: aggressive opposition questions that usually conclude, “Isn’t this yet more proof that the government has lost its way?”; and what are known as “Dorothy Dixers” – rhyming slang for “sixers”; ie a soft delivery the minister can smash over the boundary for six. But in Canberra, unlike Westminster, there is virtually no other type of interrogation: no constituency special pleading, and certainly no attempt to elicit information.

The whips and party managers choreograph everything – even much of the rowdiness. The speaker, Harry Jenkins – a well-liked, soft-spoken Labor MP – presides over it all with an air of affectionate exasperation. “In the Commons you really don’t want to get on the wrong side of the speaker,” said one expat observer, “but Harry’s just like me trying to discipline my kids. He has to say things four times before they accept it and go away grumbling.” Indeed, I even saw him resort to the naughty step, ejecting the opposition business manager, Christopher Pyne. No one was shocked or bothered, least of all Pyne.

In theory, Jenkins can call any questioner he likes, but he never gets the chance. “Only one person at a time ever jumps up,” he says sadly.

This debased version of politics is a longstanding tradition. One of the independents, the rural right-winger Bob Katter, was first elected as a National MP 17 years ago. A whip soon asked if he’d mind asking a question. “I said ‘Beaut. I’ve got a real ripper.’ He just shook his head. ‘Nah, nah, mate. You don’t understand. That’s not how it works.’ And he gave me a bit of paper. ‘This is your question.’ I didn’t bother asking one for the next six years.”

MPs are traditionally beholden to their own intra-party factions, with power brokers – generally referred to in the media in terms more appropriate to Mafia dons – exercising extraordinary levels of patronage. MPs can be barred from thinking for themselves on even the most profound areas of personal belief: the government has even been trying to maintain party discipline on its stance against gay marriage.

And in the hung parliament, pairing has been virtually abolished for the duration and so MPs in effect are put under physical constraints. One Labor MP was grudgingly allowed to absent herself to have a baby, and life-threatening illness – though greatly discouraged – might just about be an acceptable excuse for non-appearance, but that’s about it.

In any case, Canberra not being the world’s most thrilling capital, temptations for escape are limited. The parliament building is large and comfortable, and the MPs’ offices are commodious, although – in keeping with Australia’s changing priorities, the non-members’ bar has been replaced by a crèche.

Parliament was built in 1988, to replace the old, inadequate but splendidly resonant cockpit of a legislature that had done duty for 61 years. The new home was intended as a signal of Australia’s growing self-confidence: it was ambitiously built into a hillside, given a partially turfed roof and an 80m-high flagpole on top. The theory was that the people should be seen to be able to walk all over their representatives’ heads. Until a post-9/11 security rethink, the locals could even jog over them.

The reality has been somewhat different. The building is unnecessarily huge – one theory is that Australia wanted to leave room for the New Zealanders, in case they ever begged to be taken over – and discourages mingling of any kind.

“I think it’s a very poorly designed building in terms of what it says about Australian democracy,” says political scientist Peter Chen of the University of Sydney. “It stratifies the executive from the backbenchers; the sweating classes who service the building from the professionals; the people from the insiders.”

To a surprising extent, Canberra is only a part-time capital. Not everyone cares for Washington DC either, but at least ambitious politicians who gravitate there tend to stay. When the Canberra parliament packs up on a Thursday night, almost everyone involved heads for the airport.

John Howard, prime minister for 11 years until he was ousted in 2007, based himself 180 miles away in Sydney. Ben Chifley, the Labor PM of the late 1940s, lived at the Kurrajong Hotel when he had to be in Canberra – and, in those pre-en suite days, could regularly be seen padding down the landing to the bathroom. Even now, ministers normally base themselves in their parliamentary offices or in their constituencies (known as ­“electorates”) and – out of session – civil servants must routinely fly across the country to brief them.

In this vast landscape, the system makes some sense. Barry Haase is the Liberal MP for the Western Australian electorate of Durack, an obscure name that disguises an area six times the size of Britain. His seat was, until a recent redistribution, somewhat larger than that. Haase’s own home town of Kalgoorlie was among those moved out of his patch, so he now lives 600 miles from his electorate office as well as 2,000 miles from his desk in Canberra. He reckons to spend 70 nights a year at home and, not surprisingly, is now estranged from his wife of 30 years. “You can’t be away that much and not have consequences,” he says.

Under all the circumstances, Australian democracy is a kind of miracle. The country has a remarkable respect for the rule of law and a great sense of civic responsibility (greater than Britain’s, I would say). Quietly, good work does get done in parliament – speaker Harry Jenkins insists – although much of the legislative scrutiny is done by the less powerful Senate. The federal structure ensures that the decisions that affect people’s daily lives are largely made by the individual states. And the glory of Australian politics, according to John Uhr of the Australian National University, is cabinet government.

Ministers’ offices occupy one wing of the parliament building. They have frequent formal meetings, and their proximity reinforces a sense of informal collegiality. “It’s still the lifeblood of the system,” says Uhr.

Kevin Rudd, Gillard’s predecessor, was perceived to govern by clique rather than consensus, and got away with it while he was ahead in the polls. When the political wind changed earlier this year, he was shafted in an instant.

For those of us more attracted by drama than constitutional niceties, this is the real lifeblood of Australian politics: the thrill of the spill. And in this one great matter, MPs do have untrammelled power, and by golly they use it: the Liberals are on their fourth party leader in three years; Labor has had six in the past decade. A prime minister might be hobnobbing at the White House one moment, and gone within hours. The contrast with the British Labour party’s inability to end Gordon Brown’s train-crash leadership is stunning.

The insecurity of power is reinforced by the layout of the parliamentary chamber. Instead of nestling alongside their colleagues on the front bench, the leaders sit alone at the despatch box, on swivel chairs, unable to glimpse the darts being aimed from behind.

Unless they swing round, which Tony Abbott does all the time, turning his back on the PM to confer with his colleagues – especially when she is speaking, a gesture of contempt that would be recognised among primates. There is indeed something rather simian about Abbott: he is a hulking fitness fetishist-cum-exhibitionist, often photographed in the skimpy swimming trunks that Aussies call “budgie-smugglers”. The other week he was spotted running through the parliamentary corridors, past the coffee shop, in his tight black shorts: “It was like watching evolution in reverse,” said one latte drinker.

Abbott’s attitude to Gillard is understandable. She enters the House with a strange waddle, as though she were a stringed puppet (perhaps with one of the faction leaders doing the pulling). Her accent is the least euphonious variant of whining Strine, and the content of her answers mind-numbingly repetitive. I heard her accuse Abbott of opposing with “three-word slogans” at least six times, which in itself constitutes a three-word slogan.

And it is not only Abbott who has stopped listening. Unless called on to answer for his department, ex-PM Rudd, now the foreign minister, sits through the whole of question time, head down, working through a thick dossier of papers. The imposing and bullet-headed schools minister Peter Garrett, former lead singer of Midnight Oil, maintains a bemused expression, as though he were a visitor from another, more articulate galaxy. At one stage, I thought the families minister, Jenny Macklin, had taken out her knitting, though she turned out to be wiping her glasses at inordinate length. Nearly all the backbenchers who, unlike their betters, have the benefit of desks, were reading, texting, writing or talking.

The system seemed desperately in need of reform, but that’s exactly what has just happened. Questions are now limited to 45 seconds and answers to four minutes. Four minutes is a short time as a warning of nuclear destruction; it’s an eon when listening to Julia Gillard.

“If you had seen it before, you’d understand what’s been achieved,” says Rob Oakeshott, the independent whose vote was crucial in returning Gillard to power and one of those imposing change. “Before, she might have been standing up for 20 minutes and talking about whatever she wanted. The speaker has actually sat the prime minister down and said ‘You’re not being relevant.’ That hasn’t happened in a hundred years.” One other aspect of reform is that the minor parties are allowed to get a word in edgeways – but only after 3pm, when the main television broadcast has finished.

Australia is a forthright, pertinent, humorous, successful country and you would think it would have a parliament that reflects all that. Not for ages, according to Jack Waterford, doyen of the Canberra press corps: “We haven’t had a truly high-class parliamentarian since Gough Whitlam.” And Whitlam’s prime ministership ended 35 years ago, which is a helluva time in the context of this country’s history.

Harry Jenkins hopes that the reforms will outlast the peculiar circumstances of this parliament: “I’m hoping my role in the change will be making sure this is change that can’t be unravelled.” That might not be easy. Barry Haase, member for the wide-open spaces, is chafing in opposition and thinks the new rules make that worse. “Previously at least it was a circus. At least it was disruptive. At least it was stimulating and interesting. Now it’s just more constraint, and it’s not positive constraint.”

Australia has been attached to two-party politics for more than a century, ever since the early prime minister Alfred Deakin said that having three parties was like playing cricket with three elevens. However, Gillard presides over a country with a greater than normal contempt for its political classes. This is partially masked because voting is compulsory, a sign of deep insecurity, of the politicians’ fearfulness of the response they would get if they let citizens vote with their feet.

The Australian alternative-vote electoral system, which Britain is contemplating (ranking candidates 1, 2, 3 etc instead of marking one with a cross) is somewhat easier to justify. But if Britain is heading to Australia for the answer to its political difficulties, it may be a bloody silly question.

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