When Labor backbencher Rob Mitchell swanned up to Parliament House on August 17 with a tinfoil hat and the theme from The Twilight Zone queued up on his phone, the Crikey office thought it would probably be the most striking attire-related stunt we would see that particular day. Within a few hours, however, a pale, immaculately manicured hand emerged from a shimmering black burqa in the Senate, and Mitchell had to settle for third place behind One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson and daylight in second. Hanson’s stunt achieved its desired effect, with the Nationals now wanting to “ban the burqa” and tedious hours devoted to the (non)issue on TV and radio.
In among the tangle of the many, many questions asked in the aftermath of Hanson’s stunt was: was she allowed to do that? Should Senate President Stephen Parry have ruled her out of order? As with many rules in politics, the answer appears to be: it depends.
But of course, Hanson was not donning a burqa as a sartorial choice; her motivation was to make a political point. Regardless of anything else, the burqa was a prop. As we pointed out at the time, regarding Mitchell, props are tolerated but not encouraged. Writing on the subject in Crikey, Rob Chalmers said “props are not allowed in the Senate and the President always rules them out of order”, so under that reading, Hanson shouldn’t have gotten away with her stunt.
There’s more leeway in the House of Representatives — the Standing Committee on Procedure’s 2009 report on the display of articles tells us: “When considering articles displayed by Members in the Chamber and Main Committee, a distinction can be made between the use of legitimate visual aids, which are intended to enhance understanding, and ‘stunts’ staged for dramatic effect or to make a political point.”
No prizes for guessing which category deputy speaker Anna Burke ascribed to the opposition bringing a cardboard cutout of then-prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2008, when Rudd was absent from Parliament.
In 1980, the chair ruled that the display of a handwritten sign containing an “unparliamentary word” (apparently by Labor member for Robertson Barry Cohen) was out of order — sadly, Hansard does not record what that language was. Since then, the chair has ruled many times that the displaying of signs was not permitted. Back when Macdonald caused a stir with his sartorial choices, Greens senator Scott Ludlam was also knocked with a “disorderly” ruling for holding up a piece of paper with “SRSLY” written on it. It is not in order to display a weapon — but Liberal senator Bill Heffernan got away with brandishing a fake pipe bomb in Senate estimates to protest recent changes to security.
Unparliamentary language doesn’t just have to include naughty swears — calling an MP a “liar” is considered unparliamentary, but then so is calling a senator “Dumbo”, which was ordered withdrawn in 1997, despite senator Bob Collins’ fairly adorable defence: “Dumbo is a lovable creature with big ears — Dumbo the flying elephant”.
But don’t think that this requires members to be exceedingly genteel. In 1942, Labor backbencher Sydney Max Falstein called Robert Menzies a “boneless wonder”, and got away with it. In 2014, Christopher Pyne only appeared to call Manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke a “cunt” (earning a gentle rebuke from speaker Bronwyn Bishop that “the minister will refer to people by their correct titles”), though a detailed analysis of the spectrogram of the sound in Crikey proved the offending word to be, in fact, “grub”.
Famously, in 1965, external affairs minister Paul Hasluck called then-deputy opposition leader Gough Whitlam “one of the filthiest objects ever to come into this chamber”, and got a glass of water emptied into his face for his trouble. Whitlam’s response was recorded as calling Hasluck a “truculent runt”, but Whitlam himself conceded that might have been a transcription error.