“Welcome to our office!” exclaimed Bernard Keane, as he shook out the folds of a hanging coat. I flattened myself against the wall, hands over my face, as swarms of large grey insects flapped around the room.
“Bogongs,” he intoned, as I screamed, silently. “It’s the season.”
It was an inauspicious start to a week that then went steadily downhill. I’d come to Parliament House to report on the first week of the new Parliament because Bernard, our Canberra correspondent, had inconveniently taken leave. I was keen to go. But not since my grandfather, John deWilton, went over the top at the Somme has anyone been so ill-prepared.
Parliament House is enormous, with incredibly high ceilings, making you feel like a tiny ant or Alice after she’s had the Drink Me draught in Alice in Wonderland. Venturing out, I quickly got lost and started walking round and round in panicky circles. Seeing a familiar face I gave an enthusiastic wave, quickly realising that it was, in fact, Craig Thomson.
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Several detours later, I found the Senate courtyard, inside which Bob Katter was giving a sparsely attended press conference. It must be sad to have the whole of federal Parliament in your thrall for three glorious years, only to be then cast aside as no longer important, like one of the early wives of Rupert Murdoch. Now that Katter no longer holds the balance of power, no one really gives a rat’s buttocks about what he thinks any more, and that’s got to hurt. On top of that, his role as a Crazy Queenslander has now been taken by a newer model, who is getting all the attention.
Speaking of which, I was hanging around the courtyard trying to get my bearings, when the head of the Palmer United Party suddenly appeared in front of me. Billed as a press conference, it was more of a performance piece from Clive, in which he declaimed, through his adenoids, on the evils of News Corp.
This was entertaining, but I was there to work, and question time was upon us. Like the edited highlights of a cricket test, this is the tiny part of Parliament that actually provides any excitement. The rest of it is quite dull — largely consisting of long speeches about investment opportunities in the sort of rural hinterland that has spawned any number of ministers for small business.
The least interesting bit of any new Parliament — maiden speeches — can be ignored because they are useful only in retrospect; when the honourable member is caught with his trousers down, or referred to ICAC. They exist so that small-minded journalists like me can go back to them and think, “he actually thanked those nail artists/property developers/dog breeders in his maiden speech — he must have done it …”.
“I assured them that bombing the Senate was totally beyond my talents — I could barely write about it …”
QT, as we insiders call it, goes for an hour and a half, and is technically a forum in which people get to ask questions of the relevant ministers. To my surprise, not much real information is elicited within the boundaries of QT. It is really is a kind of prolonged shouting match in which, John McEnroe style, a great deal of arguing is directed at the umpire — in this case the Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, who is starting to sound more and more like the Red Queen.
My experience of debating is that the winners have to convince the judges and the audience of the veracity of their arguments. But in QT, actual, concrete, fully formed arguments were as rare as facial hair on Wyatt Roy. What was the point?
While the newly minted government was trying to introduce a bill to overturn the carbon tax, the opposition was busy attacking what they see at the government’s weak point — policies on asylum seekers. “Questions” consisted of someone from one side or another standing up, denouncing the pointless, expensive and damaging policies of the other side, to be met with the kind of sound wall normally created by Phil Spector.
Every few minutes, Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek and Leader of Opposition Business Tony Burke would leap to their feet, shout “point of order!” and petition Bronny to “make them answer the question!” Unmoved by this, with not a hair on her beehive out of place, Madam Speaker would immediately refuse, and they would sit down in a sulk.
On the other side, Education Minister Christopher Pyne would do the same, nostrils flaring like Kenneth Williams in a version of Carry On Canberra.
While all this was going on, most of the backbenchers, except those carefully positioned in the line of the television cameras, sent long messages on their Blackberries, or tinkered away on an iPad. Kevin Rudd was hunched over his for so long I was worried about RSI.
Suddenly, by 3.30pm, QT was over; it was like a school bell going off. The entire press gallery decamped, as did most of the parliamentarians, leaving only a handful of people behind. I hung around, but was eventually defeated by a long speech from the Liberals’ Bruce Billson, who was either being paid by the word or had forgotten that he needed to come to a point.
Back in the office, I flapped at the moths and sat, sweating, at the desk. What on earth was I going to write? It was like reporting on the proceedings of a meeting where everyone spoke in Swahili. Somewhere down the corridor, about 200 real journalists were writing lucid, informative, important stories about what had happened that day. But not me.
Eventually, I took my iPad to a bar, for inspiration. One of the locals mentioned that Kevin Rudd had just stood up in Parliament to announce his resignation. I raced home to watch it on the box — real news! I hadn’t felt so fondly towards Kevin since 2007; finally, I had a story.
Days later, just as I was about to leave Canberra, I realised that I’d left something in the office. It was late at night, so I parked outside the Senate entrance to Parliament House, which is the one closest to the press gallery. I was only going to be a short while, so I ignored the “No Parking” sign, figuring that at 8.30pm it didn’t matter.
Coming out, I found a gang of burly federal policemen, heavily armed, surrounding my car.
“Is this your vehicle?” they asked me. “We were just about to tow it away.” I assured them that bombing the Senate was totally beyond my talents — I could barely write about it — and we parted, not before I noticed that these were surely the only buffed men in Parliament House.
Canberra ladies, if you want to meet some real blokes, can I recommend the commission of a federal offence? It could be worth it.