May 29, 2009

Props in parliament — a short history

Julie Bishop, Turnbull’s deputy, was on the ABC Friday morning claiming it was naughty of Rudd to use props and it was something the saintly John Howard never did. Rob Chalmers says otherwise.

Props -- stunts, for the use of -- are in the news. In Parliament the Speaker Harry Jenkins is in a bit of a quandary. It's alright for the Prime Minister, in the House of Reps, to hold up an enlarged photo of building projects under "the Australian Government’s Nation-Building for Recovery Plan." However, it’s not acceptable when the burly Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey unfurls a three metre series of five panels saying rude things about our PM. The large photos waved around by Rudd are designed to embarrass. They show projects in the electorates of Opposition MPs who are delighted they are being built, but who voted against the money to build them. Malcolm Turnbull himself turned up at a ceremony in his Wentworth electorate marking the beginning of one of these projects. On Thursday, Rudd was at it again with large photos (designated in parliamentspeak as "props".) This time Hockey was ready for him and unfurled, with the help of several of his colleagues, his five-panel monster prop. The Speaker would have none of this and ruled that a prop could only consist of one page, placard or sign. Using the edge of the dispatch box, Hockey struggled to tear his prop into single bits until his colleague, Tony Smith, provided a pair of scissors. Julie Bishop, Turnbull’s deputy, was on the ABC bright and early this morning claiming it was naughty of Rudd to use props and it was something the saintly John Howard never did as Prime Minister (watch here). Your correspondent disputes this and remembers Howard on occasions holding up newspaper pages. And in Opposition Howard held up a large placard -- a map of Australia, coloured brown -- purporting to show that under Keating’s native title legislation, Aborigines would take over 78% of Australian land:
"The Aboriginal people ... have, the potential right of veto over the development of 78 per cent of the land mass of Australia. Now, that is a very simple message. I think the Australian people will understand that message."
The Speaker, like all Speakers before him, cannot take on the Prime Minister. Thus, he let Rudd hold up the photos this week and then had to agree to allow Hockey to also hold up single pages of his fold out. (Incidentally, Hockey achieved his aim, since photos of the fold out was featured on TV and in Friday morning newspapers). All this again brings home the point: until the House can appoint an independent Speaker, as happens in the mother of parliaments, the House of Commons, the Speaker can never be neutral and fair. The first Speaker in the Howard era, Bob Halverson, took Howard at his word when he declared before the 1996 election that the Libs would appoint an independent Speaker. Halverson proceeded to be very fair and even allowed supplementary questions, the practice in the Senate. Howard then forced his resignation and to shut him up, appointed Halverson as Ambassador to Ireland and the Holy See. Props are not allowed in the Senate and the President always rules them out of order. The difference in the Senate is the numbers. The President always comes from the Government side of the Senate, but fortunately, most governments don’t have a majority. This ensures fair rulings from the President, since if he/she give unfair rulings, the Senate itself can overturn them. Your correspondent sees nothing wrong with props. Although not from the Westminster system, the US Congress allows props. Members of both Houses can even use a stand designed to display graphs, which speakers use to elucidate a point. Anything, which improves the quality of debate, is worthwhile. Rob Chalmers is the editor of Inside Canberra.

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4 thoughts on “Props in parliament — a short history

  1. Evan

    A picture is worth a billion politicians’ words

    Rob, I am with you on this, I think the props are good, and I think that it has been the absence of charts and images that has provided the most irritating wriggle room through which the debate often becomes uninformative, via the vagaries of our otherwise wonderful spoken language.

    I think more of this will enable the differences in policy approaches to be graphically illustrated, presented and tabled.

    This would be a good one… the growth of household debt of average Australians from 200 billion at start of the Howard government first term and the steady upward growth to the 1.1 TRILLION dollars (when Howard was so elegantly defenestrated from his own seat); which year by year compares very neatly with the Howard Government gouging that produced the growing massive surpluses that robbed the same Australians and their children of decent schools, universities, hospitals, aged care, mental health institutions and continues to rob the dignity of homeless, aged, and infirm former taxpayers.

    Am I missing something? Governments aren’t supposed to be in surplus are they? We elect governments to spend the taxes on the agreed needs of our nation. All this hen-house squawking from the opposition would make you think that the surplus, which has been put to good use, was the personal savings of the Liberal party. That is our money that we want to put the use of those things that it should have been in the first place; infrastructure, hospitals, schools etc.

    A bar chart like that would put paid to this notion that every Australian for future generations will be paying off the debt for years to come. No sorry, we are paying off the much greater debt we have run up to record proportions because the government ran the line “who do you trust (to keep interest rates low so you can pay off the investments we encouraged you take out, and the housing, feeding, and schooling of the children we bribed you to have)”.

    There are lots of other arguments that I sure would get much greater clarity from the judicious use of some simple images and charts. I think these props tell a billion politicians’ words at current exchange rates.

  2. David Sanderson

    Who’d have thought that photos could be instruments of torture? Yeah, I know they can be embarrassing but the Opposition have screamed so much in parliament, when these photos are displayed, that they do seem to be in genuine pain.

    Is it something to do with the lamination and the sharp, hard edges and corners that creates? Is this an OH&S issue? Should the photos have their edges grounded and rounded and checked by the Safety Officer before they are allowed to enter the parliament? Is this as significant a health issue as swine flu? Do these photos aid transmission of the disease? Where is Nicola Roxon and why isn’t she on the TV Calming The Nation?

    Does the Geneva Convention apply to parliament?

    So many questions and it’s not even Question Time.

  3. Christine Johnson

    Julie’s a died in the wool prissy austere Howardite. Her comments on props and the swine flu well highlight why federal parliament was like dry toast for over a decade. Add her superficial response on the swine flu and it explains why she has to plagiarise to communicate. If Julie takes time out to study vision of her lame attempt to challenge Kevin Rudd on the Borrowman appointment she’ll realise if anyone in Question Time needs to use a prop, its Julie.

  4. Sarah Francis

    Go Julia!!! She does a brilliant job amongst a room full of little more than childish, self serving bully boys. She maintains her composure in the face of shameless provocation, and remains capable of maining her point.
    The genreal behaviour of both parties is just apppauling – I find it infuriating that they indulge in such school boy behaviour on our tax dollars. No corporate would stand for such behaviour in their boardrooms, or infact in any enviornment. There are laws to control such bullying, and self serving assasination of others in the real world.

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