Interruptions in Parliament usually only come from an MP saying a bad word, calling someone a name, or voting the wrong way. But the 2pm routine of Dorothy Dixers, prepared answers, heckling from the opposition and backbenchers filling out Christmas cards was interrupted in question time on Wednesday by protesters armed with superglue.
As rumours swirl about a major overhaul and tightening of security at Parliament House, the protesters made their way into the public gallery for question time through the entirely normal process. They dropped off their phones and other electronic equipment, went through the normal metal detector and bag-check security process before being taken in to the public gallery on the opposition side of the chamber. Metal detectors couldn’t detect glue.
About 20 people from the Whistleblowers, Activists + Citizens Alliance began chanting just a few minutes after question time got underway, protesting against the treatment of asylum seekers in offshore detention.
It was less than five minutes before Speaker Tony Smith suspended the House, and the broadcast feeds, relied on by everyone who beams question time, including Sky News and News 24, were cut. Camera crews from all the TV networks, photographers, journalists and quite a few staffers had raced down to level two to the entrance to the public gallery to see what was going on with their own eyes.
The first dozen protesters out formed a line and kept shouting variations of “bring them here”, “let them stay”, “close the bloody camps now” in the public area, as security dragged the more resistant protesters one by one from the gallery to an elevator bound for the basement. Senator Pauline Hanson’s chief of staff, James Ashby, seemed to be taking a break from his busy work on the Senate side to film it all — only for Hanson to tweet later that the protests were “interrupting the adults” doing work.
In the House most Coalition MPs left the chamber, but some went up to the press gallery to watch as the security guards tried their best to remove the new fixtures to the public gallery. The final six protesters seated in the front row had glued themselves to the railing — except for one, who glued his hands to the leather seat. One person in the press gallery joked it was the first time anyone had been glued to question time.
Eventually as the guards managed to find the right solvent to prise the protesters free and the last were removed from the gallery, the security guards decided it was time for the protesters outside to move along. Guards, who at times appeared to be more arm muscle than man, formed a line and made their move as the media circled. It was chaos as one of the protesters screamed at the security guards that they were hurting her while the others continued their chants to bring the refugees to Australia.
With the last of the protesters removed, the guards set about removing the remainder of the glue, while Smith attempted a return to normality. He said he had decided to suspend proceedings because the protests threatened to “lower the dignity” of the House. There will be a full investigation into what happened — which will no doubt be part of the security changes already planned.
Christopher Pyne, never one to miss any opportunity to blame the opposition, reminded the House it was the most disruptive protest since the 1996 protest by the ACTU — conveniently ignoring that there was a similar protest during question time during the Gillard government against the carbon tax. He said that question time was simply a “courtesy” from the government to the opposition to be able to ask questions. The PM then added the AFP would now be investigating the source of a leak to a journalist. Dignity restored.
The protesters were congratulated by the Greens in the basement and let off without charge by the police. They returned early on Friday morning armed with red dye, climbing ropes, food, water and sunscreen.
Two of the protesters, using the climbing equipment affixed to Parliament normally meant for the cleaners, climbed over the front of the building with a large banner again protesting against Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.
Thirteen protesters waded in to the water, filled it with red dye, and stood their ground holding up protest signs. The group has been well-organised, with a designated media spokesperson, their own film crews, and enough food and water to keep them going throughout the last sitting day. At 10.30am, facing an ultimatum from police to come down or be removed, the climbers agreed to come down peacefully.
While some Coalition politicians are referring to the protesters as “a bunch of bong-sniffing, dole-bludging, moss-munching, glue-guzzling, K-Mart Castros”, on the ground it’s all very polite and civil. One of the protesters told the Australian Federal Police officer that the two climbers were trained and experienced. One is an arborist, and the other works as a window cleaner on skyscrapers.
Police seemed reluctant to make a scene of removing them and it all came to an end peacefully shortly after the climbers were taken away by police. A spokesperson for the group, Phil Evans, told media this morning that their actions matched the urgency of the matter, and their treatment by police “pales in comparison to the awful treatment of refugees”.
“Protest is part of democracy … They definitely heard the message loud and clear.”