For what was supposed to be a debate about what people can say, the 18C debate in the late hours of Thursday night was much more about what wasn’t being said.

The process is the punishment, government senators said repeatedly, as they dragged out the process of the debate on 18C until just after midnight in order to give the government more time to negotiate behind the scenes with Senator Nick Xenophon over the company tax cut legislation.

Xenophon and his three votes want to set the cut-off for the company tax cut at $10 million worth of turnover. Companies with annual turnover beyond that, would not benefit from the tax cut. Pauline Hanson and her four votes, however, are set on $50 million. Some compromise needs to be reached today, but after Xenophon flew back from Adelaide late last night after attending the funeral of a relative, he was not giving in to the government’s demands that he meet Hanson’s level. The government suspended the Senate shortly after midnight when it was clear the Senate would need to sit on Friday to get all the legislation passed.

What this meant was that an issue that some within the government have labelled as a distraction, or a waste of time, was literally being used as a distraction, and time was wasted in the Senate debating parts of the legislation the government already knew were doomed to fail to allow time for negotiations with the crossbench to continue.

We were treated to Barry O’Sullivan regaling us with stories about visiting the United States and discovering the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) while spending time at the FBI academy in 1985, David Bushby quoting Animal Farm and for some reason talking about Keynesian theory, discussion about Sam Dastyari’s hair, and Attorney-General George Brandis saying that the spirit of the “late, great Bill Leak” presided over the debate, such that it was. The QUT students would go down as heroes, he said, while those they fought against would go down as villains. Brandis also complained that those who were against the changes were being racist because they were saying he was white:

“Indeed, it is the crowning irony of this debate that those who champion section 18C have actually in this very debate attacked those of us who favour reform, because of the colour of our skin. When on Tuesday I said that I did not believe that Australia was a racist nation, what did Senator Bilyk say by way of interjection? ‘Coming from a white man,’ she said. Senator McCarthy, in her contribution, said that I would not understand the issue because I was ‘a white man growing up in Petersham’, and Senator Di Natale said that this bill ‘has everything to do with allowing a very small group of very privileged, largely older white folk in this place to be more racist than they might otherwise be.'”

The government then got into a discussion over the proposed changes to 18C — to remove the words “insult, offend, and humiliate” and replace them with “harass” and insert an ordinary person test — with newly independent Senator Cory Bernardi; they debated what “harass” actually means. Seeing the delay, Labor then maneuvered to bring on a vote on their amendment to strike out the proposed changes to 18C, and succeeded, leaving just the process changes to the Human Rights Commission, which were debated until 12.10am before the Senate voted to hold off until 9am this morning. There would be no Senate sleepover this time.

When the Senate returned at 9am this morning, it was more of the same: government senators making lengthy statements dragging out the process of the legislation while more negotiations go on for the company tax cut aiming to get the legislation passed today in the last sitting day before the budget. House of Representatives members are on hold, waiting in the halls of power for the Senate to finish with the legislation so it can pass the House before they can leave Canberra for the break before Budget week in May.

The process is the punishment.

Peter Fray

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