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Jun 6, 2011

NSW filibuster for the tragics, but there's bigger stuff at stake

This weekend the norms of NSW parliamentary procedure were put to the test with a total of more than 29 hours of debate and the first use of the “guillotine” rule to cut off debate since 1906, writes David Mallard, lecturer, political analyst and blogger.


A funny thing happened to NSW politics last Thursday. The day didn’t end until Saturday. The NSW Legislative Council was scheduled to conclude its two-week sitting period on Thursday, until the government moved to set aside private members’ business and continue debate on its industrial relations bill.

And that’s when the norms of parliamentary procedure were put to the test. Greens MLC David Shoebridge delivered the longest continuous speech in Legislative Council history, speaking for almost six hours on Thursday evening. A total of more than 29 hours of debate, mostly from Labor and Greens MLCs opposing the bill. And then, on Saturday morning, the first use of the “guillotine” rule to cut off debate since 1906.

Filibusters are rare in contemporary politics. In the United States, the term is now used to refer to a procedural roadblock in the Senate, by which a minority of 41 of the 100 Senators can prevent legislation being put to a vote. Most Australian parliaments impose time limits on debate, but the NSW upper house is an exception. The lack of historical examples left political tragics to reminisce on The West Wing’s “Stackhouse Filibuster” and wonder whether an MP would resort to reading recipes to prolong the debate.

But why was there a filibuster at all? With the O’Farrell government having locked in support from the Shooters and Fishers Party and Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats, the bill’s passage was assured. Instead, the goal appears to have been delay to bring public attention to the bill. Opponents of the bill highlight that the government did not take these policies to the election. The bill requires the Industrial Relations Commission to follow government policy directions when considering public sector industrial disputes. This allows the government to cap public sector salary rises at 2.5% unless further increases are offset by “employee-related savings”. The filibuster presumably aimed to bring public opposition, driven by public sector protests, to bear on the government and supporting crossbenchers.

In provoking public reaction, the filibuster seems effective. On social media, the events got a Twitter hashtag (via @hawleyrose) that set the theme of opposition: #NSWisconsin, a reference to the recent civil unrest in that American state over laws that stripped public sector bargaining rights. Public demonstrations were quickly organised. Fire engines and buses blocked lanes in Macquarie Street by Thursday. In Bathurst, 60 public sector employees rallied outside Paul Toole’s office. A crowd rallied outside Parliament House on Saturday as the government gagged the debate inside, and unions are planning further action.

The government has defended its guillotine as a necessary response to “juvenile” abuse of parliamentary rules, but I disagree. The speakers weren’t reading Dickens or cookbooks. They didn’t load up the bill with hundreds of trivial amendments and insist on exhaustively debating each one. They spoke cogently about their reasons for opposing the legislation. There was the occasional detour via objections on points of order — whether for a bizarre excursion into the origin of the word “draconian” (which, it turns out, has nothing to do with dragons) or simply to give someone a rest during a marathon speech.

But their focus was on articulating why the bill should be rejected, or at least considered more carefully before passing.

But the end result is that three days worth of arguments against the legislation went into Hansard, while barely a word was uttered by the government. And then they cut the debate off. To borrow a line from a different episode of that TV show, these events were “a profound statement about democracy” — and one with strong implications for the coming term of NSW politics.


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26 thoughts on “NSW filibuster for the tragics, but there’s bigger stuff at stake

  1. Stiofan

    “a profound statement about democracy” ????

    The filibuster was used, as the members was entitled to do. The guillotine was used, as the members were entitled to do.

    Big deal.

    Build a bridge.

  2. Stiofan

    sorry – were entitled to do

  3. Meski

    Twentynine hours is a long enough debate, after that, ‘the profound statement about democracy’ is that it went to a vote. That’s democracy. How long do you think they should have allowed? Specifically.

  4. Peter Ormonde

    This is the NSW upper house … land of the living dead. Time stands still here so having Thursday finish on Saturday is probably a bit of a productivity breakthrough. And in 100 years, some dusty historian will be able to scan the pages of Hansard and discover there was some sort of really long debate back when there was a NSW public sector.
    It’s a storm in a teacup… but a lovely monogrammed Royal Doulton one, true. Ineffectual, useless and irrelevant. As always. Still I guess it beats actually getting out in the press and arguing the case where it counts. But who is going to listen to NSW Labor on issues of principle? Who is going to listen to a defence of the NSW public sector? Only the Hansard recorders, apparently.

  5. John64

    Might I suggest that if Members aren’t able to articulate their message into something that takes less than six hours to deliver, then perhaps what they have to say, isn’t worth saying at all?

  6. andrew36

    shoebridge spoke for 5 and 1/2 hours, and according to you none of it was trivial and off topic. I guess everyone will have to take your word for that as I imagine 99.9% of people will never listen to the speech.

  7. Peter Ormonde

    Andrew: You can imagine 0.1% listening???? And most of him or her won’t agree either.

  8. Ben Abraham

    I hope everyone here arguing to “build a bridge” and/or or that all parties in this acted within their technical rights remembers that they are arguing for an inherently conservative position.

    I assume these same commenters are utterly satisfied with the status quo then?

  9. Meski

    No Ben, if the Coalition ran a filibuster I’d argue against that, too.

  10. david

    15 mins of a politician burbling is plenty, God spare me 5 and a half hours. It is no wonder so many of them enjoy a drink drink drink!!!!

  11. CarlitosM

    In two months of being in power this is now the second piece of anti-worker legislation being rushed through Parliament, without proper scrutiny and most certainly not presented to voters prior to the election.

    Let’s remember that a very similar line: entrenching the 2.5% of maximum wage increases was actual ALP policy. Hence, the Libs now arguing (correctly!) that all they are doing is implementing such policy in legislation.

    Of course, being the fanatical neo-lib Tories that they are, they are going much much further and even stripping rights that are basic human rights: free association, independent arbitration, even to the extent that the cops’ Police Association was outraged at their basic OH&S, Death and Disability entitlements being stripped away.

    The insight here is that the Tories did already fold on some small areas, for example pretending to keep the Police entitlements not through law but through a “regulation”. Of course those can still be stripped at any time.

    How this affects our heath, schools and TAFE, aged care and community services, is becoming obvious, while this NSW gov tries to also cut taxes for their mates in the top end of town. FFS! Can they be any more predictable!?

    And yes, it took The Greens plus another handful of ALP MLCs to bring scrutiny to what appeared to be a run of the mill IR bill. What else does this clearly extreme ideological government have in store for us?

  12. andrew36

    No Peter I cant imagine 0.01% listening, I was been extremely generous.

  13. Boo

    Keep this in mind. A public can only get a 2.5% raise per year. Regardless of how much new work they take on. As inflation is running above 2.5%, and the cost of living well above this, that’s a pay cut.

    If they want more, its got to be through cost savings. That is, give something up just to and get it back. Well, maybe some of it. So, really, that’s not a payrise, is it.

    And Barry, well Baz is getting a 4.6% payrise. I guess that’s because somebody of his worth could earn so much more in the private sector. And he’ll still get that massive pension, because politics is such a unique job with such a short life span. So hard to get a job outside of it. Or whatever the pathetic excuse is.

    And people wonder why the tories shut the debate down before people woke up to this rubbish.

  14. Karen

    This isn’t just about public service paycuts over time (which will accumulate to tens of thousands of dollars being ripped off each affected public servant at the bottom of the hierarchy), this is about the dismantling of the industrial relations system (the independent wage -setting umpire) that ordinary people have fought for the best part of a hundred years this last century to establish.

    And people have the temerity to complain about the net effect of a carbon tax on an ordinary householder after compensation? This public service rip-off makes a carbon tax look like a walk in the park.

    As a modestly paid, overworked ‘coal face’ public servant who works long hours, I am of the view that public servants take a leaf out of the French way of doing things and just go on perennial strikes until justice is done. Train and bus drivers call snap strikes – public transport grinds to a halt (a very sensitive issue in NSW). At different times, teachers go on strike, so do nurses and medical registrars – watch the educational and health systems grind to a halt. Lawyers in the criminal justice system refuse to go to court to deal with criminal cases – see big criminal trials get ‘warehoused’, court lists blow out, and the courts creak. Coppers strike and go ‘off the beat’, stop their investigations, and under-cover operations – see law and order break down. Lets see firefighters go on strike in the middle of summer and refuse to attend call outs. I could go on..

    That should wipe the smile of fat Baz’s face and he and his like-minded public servant bashers will just have to be told to suck it up.

  15. Bogdanovist

    I disagree with the bill, but the conduct of the ALP and Greens on this was shamefull. The Greens in particular have been for some time campaigning for family friendly working hours for state MPs, and then they carry on with this nonsense!

    I’m a lukewarm Greens supporter in general but this episode has really turned me off, at least for the NSW Greens who have always been a breed of their own in any case (much more Red than Green, which is not true of the Greens everywhere).

    You don’t need 6 hours to explain why this bill is bad, but this is Democracy. If the other side have the numbers then the bill gets through. If the voters don’t like it they vote them out. That’s how it works. Don’t throw a tanty when it doesn’t go your way.

    The street protests are and appropriate way to express a political view, but trying to abuse procedural loopholes is simply childish and conterproductive.

  16. 73a385a268ebe2943f70e060022add20

    And the reason we are even talking about these IR laws is because? Oh that’s right the totally pointless long speeches. Yes pointless …

  17. Peter Ormonde

    The reason were WERE even talking … actually. Last time anyone commented here was Tuesday …. Today’s Friday. Yep the NSW Upper House -frontline of the revolution. Where important issues go to die.

  18. CarlitosM

    BOGDANOVIST: bwaaaahahahaaahaaaaaa! Poor bloody Tories! Those bad Greenies made them stay back and try to argue for hours!
    PETER ORMONDE: yep, that’s why there’s a massive call for emergency protests outside of the NSW Parliament!
    As the Firies put it: it’s a “Code Red”. Or just do a search on #NSWisconsin.
    Watch this space, a lot more’s coming. Next Wed especially…

  19. Peter Ormonde


    I’m not too sure what a “massive call” is actually. Maybe a call for massive protests… still good luck with it…is the idea to convince the MLCs or us?

  20. Meski

    Tories? Uhuh, and do you call Labor party supporters Whigs? Try and move into this century, instead of the seventeenth.

  21. CarlitosM

    Again, for the senile and or slow: “a massive call for emergency protests”,
    ie: as in the “call” for action (emergency protests) –through channels you probably are not very aware of– is “massive”.

    Or like the kids may say “fricken huuuge!”

    And no one is trying to convince you. Nor the MLCs.
    The law is almost guaranteed to pass, so the next steps are for a sustained ongoing community campaign.

    Finally, MESKI:
    They act just like the UK Tories, they abuse power just like those, have airs of privilege and entitlement just like the UK Tories, and are extreme ideologues just like the UK Tories.

    Hence, a number of slang terms come to mind to refer to such extreme right-wingers, among which the least offensive is calling them Tories. Same goes for their accomplices: the “Guns and Mosses” alliance.
    Now, if only they moved into this 21st century, instead of acting like we are in the 50s… the 1850s!

  22. Peter Ormonde


    Senile and slow you reckon…

    Had a look around for evidence of the “massive call” … aside from the usual Trots organising barricade building theory 101 classes I couldn’t find a thing … where might a senile old thing like myself find some evidence of the massiveness of this call? Hasn’t quite managed to be massive enough to get out of the inner west of Sydney yet I suspect. Certainly not out to the bush where I live.

    Slow, senile but not delusional yet comrade.

    How to win friends and influence people.

  23. CarlitosM

    Again: It was for the “senile and or slow”.
    You answered: “Senile and slow you reckon…”
    So you tick both hey? ;D

  24. Peter Ormonde

    Most humorous.
    Where can I find out about your “massive call” to protest?
    All I have found so far has been some Trot blogger calling (massively, no doubt) to bring Tahrir Square to Maquarie Street… rearranging history, now geogaphy apparently…. look forward to the new maths. Public servants … vanguard of the proletariat.
    A las barricadas!!!

  25. CarlitosM

    Again, I’ll repeat: “through channels you probably are not very aware of ”
    Not quite with it today, eh? 

    Please share with us specifically just how did you carry out such unproductive search?
    I’ll be sure to mention it to your union… Yeah, didn’t think so.

    You know, at this rate you’ll be in real trouble when you need any services the NSW Government is about to start privatising: hospitals, community care, patient transport, ambos, etc. 
    And they have already started with the Ferries, and the Electricity sector likely to be next.

  26. Peter Ormonde

    Carlito, I did what you suggested … ” Or just do a search on #NSWisconsin.”

    Zip… nada…. nothing only the delusions of some silly armchair revolutionary…
    No massive calls I could find, not even a newspaper ad or article advertising same …
    Help out a “senile and or slow” old comrade … and send me a link or two to this “massive call”. I am obviously not aware of these channels where I can track it all down. Does one have to be initiated, secret handshakes…. how do I find out?

    Looking forward to the revolution … Wednesday is it?

    No wonder O’Farrell will get away with this shameful move … what an advocate the workers have in you Carliton and in the NSW Upper House. God help ‘us all.


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