Old Macdonald had a frown. That childhood song came back when I saw this picture of the professional grouch Senator Ian Macdonald during the Senate same sex marriage debate last week.

He had just challenged me for wearing a rainbow scarf in the chamber on the day when the No voters were slaughtered, amendment after amendment, as the Dean Smith bill sailed through a day early.

The “father of the Senate”, a title the curmudgeon cherishes but doesn’t deserve, lectured me for having the temerity to wear a rainbow scarf on one of Parliament’s most historic days. I was a self-aggrandising show pony and he demanded the deputy president, Senator Sue Lines, order its removal. He even insulted her by saying she “should have gone to Spec Savers”. But that’s not unusual.

In his rant about inappropriate Senate apparel Senator Macdonald obviously forgot this moment in the chamber.

Senator Macdonald had earlier this year made some sort of political history when he filibustered (as colleagues cringed) in defence of snout-in-trough gold pass and pension privileges.

It was not my first clash with the man. As I mentioned in my book – Hinch vs Canberra, launched this week by Ray Martin – I was appalled, as a newbie member of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, when, in a private corridor meeting, and in front of Senate staff, Macdonald launched a vile sexist tirade against opposition Senate leader Penny Wong. Accusing her of rolling her eyes, having tantrums, and telling her to “grow up”.

I was so surprised and offended by it that I wrote to the then-Senate president Stephen Parry, and asked if such behaviour was acceptable. He told me he would “have a chat” with Macdonald.

***

Speaking of Senator Parry and Old Macdonald, last week the Senate privileges committee had a Q&A session with Communications Minister Mitch Fifield. There had been questions raised in the Senate about whether Senator Fifield was in breach for not passing on to the Attorney General news that the Senate President could be in deep-doo-doo over dual citizenship with the UK. A reality that, after the High Court’s bouncing of five MPs, saw Parry resign.

I asked why Senator Fifield would not have told the PM or the Attorney-General that “Houston, we have a problem …”
Senator Macdonald tried to smear me by asking Senator Fifield, “there was another senator who claimed that he might be in trouble because he had a green card or some entitlements in the United States. Did that senator ever discuss that with you or did you ever advise him whether he had a problem or didn’t have a problem? Did he ever consult you or did you feel obligated to give him the benefit of your opinion on these matters?”

Senator Fifield: “ I didn’t, and I’m sure that Senator Hinch can vouch for that”.

My response: “Can I point out, Chair, that it was not a green card; it was a social security number — and I did what Senator Parry should have done. I went to the Attorney-General and I went to Senator Wong and raised it with them and asked their opinion. They got advice and said I didn’t have to go to the High Court.”

That’s what Parry and the other tainted Senators and Lower House members should have done months ago.

***

The perils of diplomacy or diplomatic delicacies, describe it as you may.

Last week, I wrote about leading a parliamentary delegation to India for talks with the Dalai Lama. There was a last-minute change in the program and the get-together had to be held at the start of the visit in Delhi and not at the end at Dharamsala, the accepted home of the Tibetan Government in Exile.

We both had planes to catch so it was suggested we rendezvous at Delhi Airport. Some Government (either Indian or Australian) knocked that back. It would look ‘too official’.

I was leading my first parliamentary delegation and, early on, got word (secondhand) to please make sure any media coverage did NOT refer to us as an “Australian parliamentary delegation” but “a delegation of Australian parliamentarians”. Might upset Beijing. It reminded me of the time when we were so afraid of offending China that we still supported the murderous Pol Pot in the United Nations, even though he had killed about two million of his own people.

***

The things you pick up on. As delegation leader, it was my job to end meetings (except for the one with His Holiness). There, I saw an adviser close his notebook after 45 minutes and took that as a sign to take our leave.

Days later we had an hour-long session with Tibetan parliamentarians led by the Deputy Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, Acharya Yeshi Phuntsok.

Throughout the long-table talkfest at Dharamsala, we had plate after plate of chicken and other Tibetan delicacies served up. I saw the Deputy Speaker close his notebook and I announced the night was over.

It wasn’t. He said that he just wanted to get us to the banquet dinner in the next room. What I thought was the evening meal was merely a pre-dinner snack. Fell for that several times. I’m glad we weren’t travelling with Freedom from Hunger.

Peter Fray

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