This is a genuine, personal, political mea culpa. Last year, as the 45th federal Parliament wound down for the Xmas-New Year break, they released the sitting schedule for the Senate for 2017.

Senator “Wet behind the ears” Hinch, took to the floor, in that rarified world of red leather, and castigated his colleagues for agreeing to sit for “only” 15 weeks.

Haven’t checked Hansard, but I’m sure I thundered it was “a disgrace”.

Attorney-General George Brandis made the droll observation: “Wait until you’ve been here a few months.”

George was right, in spades. To the extent that, when I walk into my Melbourne apartment building, when the Senate is not sitting, I bristle when a lift-sharer cheerfully says: “Enjoying your holiday?”

I know this sounds like a politician being a politician, but this brand new world of mine has proven to be a lot more work than I thought.

In addition to sitting weeks, there are marathon weeks (9am-11pm) of estimates committee hearings where ministers and public servants get grilled about money matters — and anything else that gets under the bonnet of people like Senator Doug Cameron.

Plus: all senators on review committees have daunting schedules for public hearings around the country.

In my case, I have held hearings in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Canberra about the crippling after-effects of the implantation of trans-vaginal mesh into thousands of unsuspecting, ill-informed Australian women.

I said, in a speech that triggered the Senate inquiry, that this was the biggest medical scandal involving Australian mothers since Thalidomide in the late 1950s, early 1960s.

I have since heard from Thalidomide survivors in Scotland — who are supporting a campaign to ban the mesh over there. They now estimate this is even worse.

Anyway, enough of the job justification. I already can hear the Twitterverse: quit ya bitchin’, Hinch. That’s what we pay you heaps for.

***

Blow the siren. To use a Grand Final week analogy, we’re still only in the first quarter of the $122 million marriage equality postal survey/ballot/non-plebiscite/ opinion poll but already people are sick of it — bored with it leading the news bulletins and talkback programs daily.

(On Sky News, where they pass the same-sex marriage baton from program to program, Paul Murray has the right idea. In his two-hour nightly show, he has a “same-sex marriage survey minute.”)

Fervent supporters of marriage equality have already cast their Yes votes but what if, in the seemingly interminable weeks ahead, the apathy starts to eat into people’s good intentions and the participation rate drops below 50%? What sort of mandate is that for either side?

It reminds me of a line my mother used to use: I took my harp to a party — and nobody asked me to play.

***

I foolishly engaged Vote No campaigner Senator Cory Bernardi on Twitter after he accused me of headline-hunting. It came as my Twitter page descended into cruel, intolerant, inaccurate crap from both sides of the gay marriage “debate”.

It prompted this tweeted promise: “SSM. Was wrong to take Bernardi bait. Won’t again. In fact: want to clear my Twitter page of SSM. I shan’t post or respond. May delete.”

Self-censorship is hard, but I’ve stuck to it. I’ll confess I have cheated a couple of times by retweeting some arguments I’ve agreed with. Or “with which I have agreed”, as Churchill would have said.

***

Running parallel to the “what constitutes marriage?” debate — with the No advocates insisting it has been between a man and a woman at least “for a millennium” — has been the cultural issue of child brides.

It has been headlined recently because of a rare prosecution in Victoria where a Muslim man has been jailed, and the Imam given a suspended sentence, after a “marriage” involving a 14-year-old girl.

It’s encouraging to see columnists now calling it what it really is: child rape. That’s what this man was originally charged with, but the director of public prosecutions permitted the charge to be plea-bargained down.

And the mother should have been charged with aiding and abetting after she sold her daughter for a $1500 gold trinket.

One startling historical fact this issue has flushed out is how recently some Australian states permitted child brides. Even younger than 14. I presume with the parents’ permission.

According to Fairfax columnist, Peter Hartcher, quoting Macquarie University Professor Shirleene Robinson, the minimum legal age for females to marry in Tasmania was 12 — until it was raised to 16 in 1942.

And a 12-year-old girl could still legally get married in Western Australia until 1956. Learn something every day.

***

I mentioned time-consuming Senate committees earlier.  I am on a working committee trying to streamline chamber times and business. Trying to give more speakers more opportunities. Especially crossbenchers.

What the major parties have failed to realise, or chosen to ignore, is that the Senate makeup has changed. Forever. The cross-bench is a disparate, sometimes desperate, political reality. The Greens, Xenophon, PHON and the rest of us, make up more than a quarter of the 76 Senators. And we aint going away.  At the next federal election, the non-Govt or ALP Senate vote could top 30%.

The all-party committee is looking at cutting 20-minute speeches to 15 (in line with the House of Reps) and reducing some adjournment speech nights to five and ten-minuters only.

My personal campaign is to also bring us in line with “the other place” and scrap supplementary questions in question time. Especially the government backbenchers’ Dorothy Dixers.

I cringe when a Minister gushes: ‘I thank the member for Macquariesquat for that incisive question’. It was a question written in the Minister’s office.  And the stumbling way the member reads it, we are all well aware that’s the first time he/she has seen it. And they’re only on their feet because it’s their turn.  Scrap it and send out a media release.

Peter Fray

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