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New South Wales

Jun 6, 2011

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A funny thing happened to NSW politics last Thursday. The day didn’t end until Saturday. The NSW Legislative Council was scheduled to conclude its two-week sitting period on Thursday, until the government moved to set aside private members’ business and continue debate on its industrial relations bill.

And that’s when the norms of parliamentary procedure were put to the test. Greens MLC David Shoebridge delivered the longest continuous speech in Legislative Council history, speaking for almost six hours on Thursday evening. A total of more than 29 hours of debate, mostly from Labor and Greens MLCs opposing the bill. And then, on Saturday morning, the first use of the “guillotine” rule to cut off debate since 1906.

Filibusters are rare in contemporary politics. In the United States, the term is now used to refer to a procedural roadblock in the Senate, by which a minority of 41 of the 100 Senators can prevent legislation being put to a vote. Most Australian parliaments impose time limits on debate, but the NSW upper house is an exception. The lack of historical examples left political tragics to reminisce on The West Wing’s “Stackhouse Filibuster” and wonder whether an MP would resort to reading recipes to prolong the debate.

But why was there a filibuster at all? With the O’Farrell government having locked in support from the Shooters and Fishers Party and Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats, the bill’s passage was assured. Instead, the goal appears to have been delay to bring public attention to the bill. Opponents of the bill highlight that the government did not take these policies to the election. The bill requires the Industrial Relations Commission to follow government policy directions when considering public sector industrial disputes. This allows the government to cap public sector salary rises at 2.5% unless further increases are offset by “employee-related savings”. The filibuster presumably aimed to bring public opposition, driven by public sector protests, to bear on the government and supporting crossbenchers.

In provoking public reaction, the filibuster seems effective. On social media, the events got a Twitter hashtag (via @hawleyrose) that set the theme of opposition: #NSWisconsin, a reference to the recent civil unrest in that American state over laws that stripped public sector bargaining rights. Public demonstrations were quickly organised. Fire engines and buses blocked lanes in Macquarie Street by Thursday. In Bathurst, 60 public sector employees rallied outside Paul Toole’s office. A crowd rallied outside Parliament House on Saturday as the government gagged the debate inside, and unions are planning further action.

The government has defended its guillotine as a necessary response to “juvenile” abuse of parliamentary rules, but I disagree. The speakers weren’t reading Dickens or cookbooks. They didn’t load up the bill with hundreds of trivial amendments and insist on exhaustively debating each one. They spoke cogently about their reasons for opposing the legislation. There was the occasional detour via objections on points of order — whether for a bizarre excursion into the origin of the word “draconian” (which, it turns out, has nothing to do with dragons) or simply to give someone a rest during a marathon speech.

But their focus was on articulating why the bill should be rejected, or at least considered more carefully before passing.

But the end result is that three days worth of arguments against the legislation went into Hansard, while barely a word was uttered by the government. And then they cut the debate off. To borrow a line from a different episode of that TV show, these events were “a profound statement about democracy” — and one with strong implications for the coming term of NSW politics.

Crikey Says

Mar 25, 2011

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Well, here we all are then. Election eve. This is it. The end of 16 years of Labor rule.

The numbers don’t lie — Keneally and her crew are done for. And if there was any doubt, Poll Bludger writes in Crikey today:

“There remains an assumption that things can’t possibly be as bad for Labor as that, and that a latent sympathy vote awaits to be absorbed by them. I suspect this is a misreading of the public mood. Labor is in fact being run down by a bandwagon effect, with the election looming as a public celebration of the government’s demise — a bit like a Mexican wave at the cricket where only a few curmudgeons in the members’ stand decline to take part.

“As difficult as the polling figures may be to process, history suggests they should be taken at face value. Neither Newspoll nor Galaxy has been more than 2% astray on two-party preferred in an election eve poll since 2007, and there is no persuasive reason to expect different this time.”

But this isn’t a no-brainer. The good citizens of NSW may be ready to vote in their sleep, but there are still a few issues worth mulling over in the poll booth.

Like the upper house. You know, that small matter of who’ll hold the balance of power. The fundamentalists are “salivating at the prospect” that, with a bit of luck, the far-right vote is split fairly evenly among three candidates — in which case they might all get up — in addition to nine (or quite probably 10) from the Coalition, writes Charles Richardson today.

Forget Barry O’Farrell, expect Fred Nile to feature (even more) prominently in your future NSW.

The prospect is enough to make most pencils hover below the line.

Politics

Jan 11, 2008

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The bizarre affair of Labor candidate George Newhouse’s candidacy in Malcolm Turnbull’s Sydney seat of Wentworth at the November Federal Election is still bubbling away very nicely.

Questions were raised about whether Newhouse, a seasoned solicitor and mayor of Waverley, had resigned his position from a statutory quasi-legal body, the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal, by the required date to allow him to stand legally as a candidate under Commonwealth electoral laws.

After Turnbull held the seat with a handsome majority, the Liberal Party complaint to the Australian Electoral Commission died a natural death and everyone thought the affair had gone away. Wrong: enter NSW upper house Liberal MP Catherine Cusack.

On the eve of the election she moved an emergency motion to force the Iemma Government to table Newhouse’s resignation letter but it was defeated by one vote when the Greens infamously decided to vote with the ALP to conceal the letter from public scrutiny and the voters of Wentworth.

Now she has filed a Freedom of Information request with the Department of Fair Trading asking for a copy of the Newhouse letter which will show, presumably, the date it was written and received and how it was signed.

The decision to release the letter is in the hands of Fair Trading Minister Linda Burney, the first Indigenous Australian to be elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly who is from the so-called “left” faction and a passionate advocate of government accountability and transparency. Nevertheless, she is expected to do what Premier Morris Iemma tells her and withhold the letter from publication.

If this occurs, Cusack will pursue her motion in the Upper House when parliament resumes next month, this time hoping that she can pick up a crucial additional vote from the cross benches and compel the tabling of the letter.

Newhouse was appointed to the tribunal in 2002 and subsequently reappointed for another term which expires in 2010. In parliament on 29 November, Cusack raised conflict of interest issues saying:

By Mr Newhouse’s own admission he was a member of the CTTT whilst a Labor candidate for Waverley Council and Labor mayor of that council. He was a member of the CTTT whilst standing for Labor preselection for Wentworth and throughout the Rudd Labor campaign.

How is it possible that a member of the CTTT presiding over home building cases also can be deeply engaged in partisan activities such as fundraising for the Labor Party and sitting in judgment as a councillor and mayor over development applications? How can this conflict of partisan interest meet the standards set out in the code of conduct?

For the record, one of the clauses of the CTTT’s code of conduct states that members should “refrain from engaging in partisan political activity which is directly related to the work of the tribunal and which may impinge upon the perception of impartiality of the Member or the tribunal.”

While no one is suggesting that Newhouse has behaved in anything but a totally honorable way, the perceptual issues don’t look too flash at all.

Crikey contacted George Newhouse for comment, but he didn’t return calls before deadline.