As a newbie in the Senate, I’m the first to point out that I am not totally au fait with procedural matters and terms like “Point of Order, Mr. President”.

And never is that more obvious than at estimate committee hearings when some government committee chairmen/women find it hard to conceal their disdain (at times sheer loathing) for Labor and Green senators. And try to gag them. 

The same can be said for government ministers when forced to sit for hours as witnesses — for their own portfolios or the ministers they represent from “the other place” — facing a horseshoe of inquisitors who can’t be shut down by the usual digital clock on the Senate chamber wall. 

One of the tactics, as I’ve mentioned before, is the filibuster so that embarrassing issues can get jammed for time. The other one is to give the longest answers possible and therefore eat up an inquisitor’s assigned 15 minutes — time doled out at the chair’s discretion. 

The trick is to just talk and talk, lecture, hector, be pedantic. Anybody think I’m talking about Attorney-General George Brandis here? 

He’s so good at it that, at one recent hearing, with Brandis at the witness table, I called a point of order in the middle of my own questions. 

I asked the chair if such verbose answers were coming out of my precious 15 minutes.

Some pollies are so good at it they can even talking on the inhale — so you can’t even force an interjected follow-up question while they are taking a breath. 

Malcolm Fraser was a master at that technique on radio. So was union boss John Halfpenny. I reckon there was one interview with the “po-faced souvenir from the Easter Islands” — as I once called Big Mal —  where I reckon he only answered about five questions in 30 minutes. 

That’s why some of our esteemed leaders insist on only appearing live on TV with a Martin or Hinch or Speers or Oakes. Nothing to do with fearing their answers could be doctored or taken out of context. They know they can jawbone you to death and hit a commercial break before the killer question can be fired. 

That’s also why a question like Richard Carleton’s “blood on your hands” opener to Bob Hawke, after he rolled Bill Hayden, was such a zinger. Everybody knew it was on from the get-go. 

*** 

Recently, I’ve found myself saying “I know I sound like a politician” when I know I’m sounding like a politician. It’s when asked, repeatedly, understandably, how I am enjoying this career swerve so late in life. I have gone from decades of interviewing politicians to being one. 

The answer I give is: “It’s much harder work than I thought. There’s so much paper work. You’ve got to be across everything.” And that’s not just the issues you and your party campaigned on. 

This will sound self-serving, but the paper flood is even harder for a crossbencher than a Liberal or Labor senator. When the bells ring for a division, they just have to follow the whip. That even applies, to a slightly lesser degree, for the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team and One Nation. Follow the leader. 

I was sitting in the chamber chatting with PHON’s Brian Burston the other day when Pauline Hanson loomed and imperiously indicated he was sitting on the wrong side of the room for the vote. 

I think Burston was mischievously playing silly buggers because he waited until the bells stopped ringing and the clerks were closing the doors before ambling across the chamber to join Hanson and Malcolm Roberts.

***

I’m beginning to think I must be a magnet for, shall we say, unusual Comcar drivers. 

In my first week in Canberra last year there was the one who mentioned seeing Paul Keating walking alone in Parliament House. Followed by: “The people you meet when you haven’t got a gun!” 

After one late-night estimates hearing last week, I headed out of the Senate portal to be asked the common question “front or back” when the white shuttle car with the red-and-white plates pulled up. 

Laden down with a bulging briefcase and a couple of bulky red files, and wanting to make some phone calls on the way back to the hotel, I indicated the back. 

It prompted this exchange:

“You always sit in the back?”

“No, sometimes I sit in the front, but I’ve got some work to do.”

Stony silence. Then: “I thought only royalty sat in the back.”

Maybe it was because I’d just spent 15 hours straight in the word factory. Maybe it was because I’ve always thought it a wank when pollies, wearing $1000-$2000 suits, thought it made them “men of the people” by sitting in the front seat. Maybe because when I hire a taxi or a limo, at my expense, I sit in the back. Maybe I was just tired, but I said: 

“Only royalty? Well, Nikita Khrushchev always sat in the back in those crappy black cars in communist Moscow.”

The rest of the trip was conducted in silence.

Peter Fray

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