On the Senate clerk’s desk, just below the president’s chair, are two incongruous, sand-filled, egg-timers. The ancient giant one has enough sand in the glass bubble to dribble down, and time out, at four minutes. The smaller one is set for one minute.
They are there for when President Scott Ryan asks the question, “Division required?” And after getting two, or more, dissenting voices: “Division required. Ring the bells for four minutes.”
Attendants in those maroon jackets man the open doors, the Usher of the Black Rod takes the traditional staff to stand guard at the main door. The digital clocks on the Senate walls also kick in and out in the “corridors of power” the plethora of clocks start flashing red lights as the distinctive bells ring throughout the building.
The lights that flash on the twenty-past-the-hour mark are green. The ones at twenty-to-the-hour are red. Like our traditional leather seats: green for the House of Rep, red for the Senate.
And you then see senators diving into jackets and speeding to the chamber. Sometimes with political advisors in tow briefing them on what the bill is about and how they are voting,
If you are diligent (especially if you are a minor party senator) you have had a staff conference early that morning to “go over the reds” – the Order of Business papers which include Notices of Motions which have been circulated the night before and canvassed at all-party whips meetings.
Even so, you still see major party senators filing into the chamber with no idea what the bill is that is being voted on. They look to the party whip for a sign as to where to sit and also to get the signal that they may have been excused from the chamber for the vote because they have been “paired” with an opposing party member and their vote is negated.
If a senator doesn’t get back into the chamber before the bells stop ringing, and the doors are locked, he or she can request the Senate to redo the vote if their vote could have changed the outcome. The excuse given is that the original vote did not truly reflect the will of the Senate.
A senator seeking that redress must first seek permission to speak and then give an explanation for the absence.
Former Senator Jacqui Lambie faced more than a little scepticism when she adopted a re-call pro position on an issue when earlier comments seemed to be opposed. This year, wheelchair-propelled Senator Jordan Steele-John won a re-vote with the unique excuse that his wheels had got stuck in the courtyard.
Two One Nation senators successfully engineered a recount on a crucial vote that had left their leader, Pauline Hanson, stranded. Senator Peter Georgiou said he was in the toilet and didn’t hear the bells in time and Senator Brian “the professor” Burston, was, I suspect, at dinner. And the members’ dining room can test that four-minute limit.
My closest call was when a vital bill was up for a vote and I was in opposition leader Bill Shorten’s office – which is about as far away from the Senate chamber as you can get. What made it worse, was the fact that it was an industrial relations amendment which I had triggered.
I made it back into the chamber, gammy knee and all, with less than 30 seconds to spare. Penny Wong suggested Shorten should have locked his door for 30 seconds.