ComCars: those magical, mystical, silent, white fleet of taxpayer-funded, chauffeur-driven conveyors of politicians and senior judges and bureaucrats.
We learned about them in Senate School, when you can and can’t use them. It seems that since Bronwyn’s Bishop’s headline-creating Choppergate affair things have tightened up both on the ground and in the air. And rightly so.
ComCar misuse is legendary. I remember a former House speaker airily dispatching a ComCar to ferry his mistress to the hairdresser.
Former Liberal Party leader Sir Billy Snedden would keep a ComCar sitting outside Melbourne restaurants for hours after yet another Melbourne thrashing when he was the Demons’ No.1 ticket holder.
And it was a ComCar driver, with the improbable name of Les Patterson (not Sir Les of Dame Edna fame), who told me the “hedgehog” story about Billy and the transvestite outside the drunk pollie’s ex-wife’s restaurant in East Melbourne.
ComCars have even made it into film, with Geraldine Turner playing an over-sexed cabinet minister in the back of one in The Wog Boy. Guess who that was based on?
In my first week in the Senate I was criticised on Twitter for using a ComCar for the short trip from Parliament House to the Hyatt Canberra — despite the fact I wear a knee brace after a back-breaking (literally) heli-ride and mountain bike mishap near Queenstown across the ditch.
Apart from convenience (and that sense of entitlement), one of the reasons politicians use ComCars is for security — which is increasingly becoming an issue of office — but possible misuse is why I called an Uber to go to the movies in Canberra one weekend.
One of those short, late-night shuttles to my hotel recently was long enough for a conversation that could have got my driver sacked if I were so inclined. Didn’t want that, so will fudge some details in the re-telling.
The first hint that this would be a different sort of ride was when the driver opened both passenger side doors for me, tossed my heavy briefcase in the back and said: “I know you like to ride up front with me when I drive you.” It was the first time I had been in this person’s car.
Once ensconced, I was told: “Welcome. You’ll discover there are two places here: Parliament House and Canberra. One of them, Canberra, is a good place.”
We had a short, bland, conversation about the sheer size of the edifice carved out of a hillside and I mentioned how, in one day, I had walked 4.6 kilometres around the corridors, according to my iPhone pedometer. Then. The zinger. “Yeah, I was walking alone around the Senate one night and suddenly saw a man walking towards me. It was Paul Keating.”
“Gee, the people you meet when you haven’t got a gun!”
Welcome to Canberra, Senator.
Things you learn
Some good, early advice in this rookie senatorial career was to spend as much time as possible in the chamber just watching and learning, often sitting for several hours in a near-deserted sea of red leather as Coalition and Opposition senators fill their allotted 20 minutes.
It paid off in my first week when Senate President Stephen Parry allowed my first point of order against the eloquent George Brandis for evading a question.
It got me thinking. Why can’t government and opposition senators ask questions of crossbenchers during question time? Why can’t a Liberal senator ask a question of a constantly interjecting smart-arse like Senator Doug Cameron?
After all, we have to sit through all those self-serving saccharine Dorothy Dixers, to which the minister always intones with stuff like: “I thank the Member for Whoop-Whoop for the perspicacity of his question …”
Turns out that under the Westminster system, to which we (generally) adhere, questions during question time can only be addressed to a minister or senator representing a lower house minister. Pity.
As an old tabloid editor, I almost picked the exact headline in my media release after I realised an ex-partner had hit social media after our break-up. “Hinch on the booze again.”
I did tweet: “HHNF — Hell hath no fury …” and will finish with this explanation:
It is true that, even though the Senate dining room and the Hyatt Canberra now stock my Edenvale non-alcoholic wine, I have been known to occasionally drink real wine with the permission of my transplant surgeon, Professor Bob Jones.