That Greens Walkout: No, Senator, it was a Stunt


Sep. 18, 2016

PAULINE Hanson is an idiot: I mean in the general conversational meaning of that term, not the clinical diagnosis of that unfortunate condition. Her views on all sorts of things are ignorantly laughable, some are just plain dangerous, and all of them attract support from small, irritably disaffected corners of the federation.

In the federal election on July 2 a total of 4.29 per cent of Australians who voted gave their support to her One Nation party.

Hanson therefore possesses a constituency whose views, while they do not need to be accepted (perish the thought) should certainly be understood.

You could say much the same about Senator Richard Di Natale and his Greens. Their 2016 national vote was 10.23 per cent, more than double that of the One Nation party but still a minority view in the Australian electorate.

Both parties sit in the Senate, the upper chamber of the Australian legislature. The Senate is a public place – it has to be, in a parliamentary democracy: we haven’t quite reached the point where some Caligula could canvass the prospect of appointing his favourite horse to oversee its deliberations – but it is not a public meeting.

If Hanson’s views are offensive, which on some issues they most certainly are as opposed to being merely risible, and if they are being expressed at a public meeting, the options are clear: you can excuse yourself from exposure to tiresome and tedious ennui and exclude yourself by failing to be present.

But the Senate’s job, and a senator’s, is to listen as well as talk. By convention, too, senators are supposed to listen without interjection or demonstration to a new senator’s first speech. Conventions, and form, are important, even though the vastly expanded commentariat empowered by social media doesn’t seem to think so.

If the views of a new senator giving her formal first speech in the chamber are judged likely to offend, there are ways to avoid being exposed to such things, or indeed anything you believe to be nonsense. The chamber is not required to be fully present on such occasions. It wasn’t when Senator Hanson stood up to speak.

A group with formal party status, however, should understand that it has duties to the parliament that extend beyond those of an individual member. The parties of government – those either in power or with the prospect of moving from opposition to the government benches – usually ensure that someone is in the chamber.

It’s polite, for one thing; it’s convention, for another; and it’s also sensible and inclusive and democratic. These factors should have informed Greens tactics on Sep. 10 when Hanson gave her first speech.

If Di Natale – the senator for Victoria who forgot to declare his interest in his $2.3 million family farm on the register of members’ assets and who would prefer we all forgot that he employed starvation-wage workers on it, for his profit – is so offended by Hanson’s views on behalf of his otherwise socially responsible party, there are other options he could have chosen short of a staged mid-speech take-bat-and-ball-and-go-home stunt.

He could have said no one should be present during the speech (though that would have been wrong). Or he could have had all but one Greens senator absent from the chamber. One unlucky senator could then have been awarded the short straw and been detailed to sit in and listen to the nonsense.

As leader, perhaps DiNatale should have awarded himself that short straw. A vital test of leadership is never to ask someone to do something you regard as unconscionably unpleasant. That’s why, in the argot of the age, you get the big bucks.

Di Natale claimed of his contingent’s walkout that they were standing up for decency. He says, quite rightly, that Hanson’s near-tears presentation of Muslims as a risk to Australia because if they’re not stopped they’ll overrun the place is offensive and wrong.

It’s also thoroughly risible: more worth a laugh than consideration. It’s the product of a one-eyed view that is uninformed by much that appears to connect with rationality or with anything else that would withstand objective scrutiny.

Like her mewling over the (non-existent) Asian migration tsunami during her previous lamentable incarnation as a federal politician from Queensland, it’s a view that comes with an unpleasant whiff of thrice-fried bile and soggy chips.

Muslims represent 2.2 per cent of the Australian population. On the numbers alone, the country is in more danger to being overrun by One Nation. Which would be far worse, in any case.

But while the Greens may have thought they were “standing up for decency” when they walked out on Hanson’s first speech, what they were actually doing was indulging in a schoolyard protest, a high-profile but fundamentally base political stunt.

The Senate, for all its faults, should not be used for such purposes.

The Greens have much to contribute to national debate and Australian governance. They should focus on that worthwhile effort.

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