I have two girls in primary school. Along with their science projects, their times tables and reading courses, they participate in a lifeskills program. Some of the subjects covered there include how to deal with bullying and conflict resolution. Most importantly, they are taught some common courtesies of human interaction – not interrupting when someone else is talking, not trying to shout people down, listening and responding well to what they are hearing.
It all hangs on one word – RESPECT.
This morning Senators Stephen Conroy (he much-maligned Minister for Communications, Broadband and the Digital Economy) and Barnaby Joyce (Shadow for Regional Development, Local Government and Water) were guests on Sky News’ AM Agenda show. The plan was that reporter Ashleigh Gillon would first interview Conroy about the growing pressure on the government to release the NBN business plan, and later bring Joyce into the conversation.
Joyce had other ideas.
Conroy was in the middle of answering a question when Joyce decided to barge in. The studio microphones picked him up at first, but he could be clearly heard, raising his voice to drown out both Conroy and Gillon. For his part, Conroy seemed happy to sink to Joyce’s level, and in short order an orderly interview degenerated into a shouting match peppered with ridicule and stinging insults. Gillon tried repeatedly to regain some sense of order, pointing out that ‘Gentlemen, if you keep on talking at each other but not listening this isn’t going to work’.
Both men completely ignored her. Judging by the grins on their faces, they were both enjoying themselves far too much to worry about little things like courtesy, and the fact that they were live on a national TV program. It was a points-scoring match, nothing more, and frankly, a very poor example.
It’s called bullying – and Ashleigh Gillon was caught in the middle, doing her best to control the situation and being completely disrespected by both Conroy and Joyce.
Luckily my kids were already on their way to school, so I didn’t have to explain to them why they needed to respect each other when grown-ups – our elected representatives, no less – were ‘allowed’ to be as rude as they like. But they’ve seen Question Time before, and they’re well aware of the fact that our Parliament is, at times, a barely-controlled brawl.
And speaking of Question Time … maybe it was the long break between sessions, but so far this sitting we’ve seen MPs being warned, and – in the case of Christopher Pyne, Shadow for Education – actually ejected from the chamber. Speaker Harry Jenkins has delivered lecture after lecture reminding members that it is not simply a courtesy to listen to someone in silence, it is the rule – Standing Order 65(b). He might as well be reading from Alice in Wonderland, for all the notice people take of him. At times, even, members he’d just reprimanded jumped up to argue with him.
While all that was going on, both Opposition and government engaged in the same kind of ridiculous point-scoring we saw with Conroy and Joyce today. Gillard mocked Abbott, Pyne insulted Gillard, Hockey and Albanese traded verbal blows across the table, and Julie Bishop hissed
The Speaker has powers that people like Ashleigh Gillon don’t. He’s able to penalise MPs for this kind of behaviour, and while reluctant to apply those penalties, he’s shown he will do so given sufficient provocation. Being ejected from the chamber is no light thing – it shows up in Hansard, and it’s a black mark against the MP in question. It should be a form of public shaming, that someone is unable to control themselves long enough to take part in an orderly process. To look at Christopher Pyne and the Opposition yesterday, however, you could be forgiven it was all a big joke, and that Pyne was simply going to get a cup of tea.
And when these members return to the chamber? They go right back to the same verbal sparring, disrespect and rowdy behaviour.
Right now we’re waiting to see the vote on Greens MP Adam Bandt’s motion to get members to canvass their electorates on same-sex marriage, as well as some votes on whether we’ll finally find out the NBN business case and get better funding for mental health. All pretty important stuff.
And what happened? Pyne jumped up with a motion that two other motions be voted on – one of which would push the same-sex marriage vote back even further – and spent nearly ten minutes sniping at the government, accusing them of deliberately leaving those motions off the agenda. Anthony Albanese, acting as Leader of the House, returned fire with mockery and more stupid points-scoring. Already it’s become so heated that the Speaker has had to rise in his place – which is a signal to the chamber that everyone better shut up right now – and both Pyne and Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop have been reprimanded.
It’s a pretty clear signal that what’s important here is not the substance of the motions, but whether either of the major parties can get in a few barbs and make their opponents look stupid and/or corrupt.
None of this is clever. It might be mildly amusing at times (we do like a well-delivered put-down, after all), but it’s no way to run a country.
So we wait, until they’ve run out of points to score and finally get on with some actual governing. Meanwhile, it might well behoove the major parties to listen to the words of a song that my children learned as part of their lifeskills program – and maybe spend a bit of time thinking about the kind of example they set, and whether they are proud of how well they are conveying the message that what matters is not substance, but the ability to browbeat and insult your opponent into silence.