Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Shoe in the Door

David Shoebridge MLC, I stand and salute you.

The Premier may have accused your party of "abusing parliamentary process" but he is just complaining to the media because he doesn't want to force you to stop. 

First up, a confession.  I really have very little interest in industrial relations as a political discussion.

I don't for a second suggest that it is not an incredibly important area of governance, or that the consequences of the decisions made are not far reaching or crucial.

It just doesn't get me excited.  So, for future reference, don't expect to see me writing much about it.

That said, things got very interesting last night.

For those of you not aware, the Coalition is attempting to pass legislation that will, in short, remove much of the Industrial Relations Commission's power.

At present, under section 146B of the Industrial Relations Act 1996:

"A person may apply to the Commission to have a dispute resolution process conducted by the Commission... if the parties are bound by a federal enterprise agreement."

As I understand, a large proportion of the state government's employees are so eligible.

This bill would insert a new section, which reads as follows:

In simple terms, that would give the state government unprecedented control over the pay and conditions of public sector employees.

The Coalition is making this change because of the burgeoning cost of running this state.  The government's wage bill is unsustainable, and something needs to be done.

That said, Labor and the Greens are unsurprisingly horrified by such a drastic grab for power over pay and conditions.

It was always going to be an emotional debate, but I don't think anyone foresaw this.

I've had the chance to review the Hansard of yesterday's proceedings in the Legislative Council, and suffice to say it is thoroughly worth a read if you have the opportunity.

Thursday started uneventfully enough.  There was a 2 hour debate over whether government business (debate on IR) should take precedence over the general business, which it inevitably did.

Another 2 hours was spent deciding if the IR laws should be the general business discussed.

I suppose time must fly when you're having fun.

Sophia Cotsis (ALP) was the first to speak, kicking off at 2:00.  She spoke passionately about the people who she suggested would be affected by the bill, until she was interrupted by Question Time at 2:30.  

After Question Time and Walt Secord's inaugural speech, debate on the IR laws resumed at 4:07.

Cotsis was interrupted by a constant stream of points of order, mostly pertaining to repetition and relevance, no doubt in an attempt by the Coalition to force her to sit down and shut up.  It wasn't until 6:15 that she resumed her seat.

David Shoebridge (GRN) then rose to speak.

Photo from The Australian
He began by speaking about the plight of the "front line workers" and others who will be affected by the legislation. He then turned to discuss the operation of the act and the doing away of the "independent arbiter".

Unlike Sophie Cotsis, he was for the most part allowed to speak without interjection or points of order, at least at first.

He then moved on to discuss the the consequences of the legislation, and specifically the ability of the unions to work with the government to reach industrial solutions.

It was only once the interjections commenced that his true purpose was revealed (if it was not obvious before):

He then moved on to criticise the government for the manner in which the IR laws have been dealt and the unwillingness of the Coalition to put the matter over for public "debate".

The Herald article published today suggested that the Greens and Labor believe that the other cross-benchers (Christian Democrats and the Shooters and Fishers) would have their resolve to support the changes weakened once the new laws received further exposure.

By 9:25, things had started to get ugly:

Undeterred, Shoebridge swivelled back to start quoting from letters he has received from concerned members of the public.  He spoke passionately about the concerns they have expressed to him and their dismay at the changes suggested.

Finally, at 12:15, some 6 hours after he began, Shoebridge resumed his seat.

The President noted the following:

After a few brief speeches in support of the bill, Greg Donelly (ALP) rose to speak.  At 3:19, the long bell was rung, meaning that debate was temporarily suspended, and "Thursday's debate" could resume at 9am on Friday.

Debate continued today.  The Hansard has not been released yet (they're good, but they're not THAT good) but thanks to @tobiasziegler, I know that Peter Primrose (ALP) spoke for two and a half hours, Lynda Voltz spoke for something similar, and John Kaye spoke for marginally less than the 6 hours David Shoebridge managed last night.

As best I can tell from @greencate's tweets, the long bell was rung sometime around about 11pm.  No doubt the debate will continue tomorrow,

To everyone who thinks it is disgusting that the Greens and the ALP are able to get away with this, the fact is, the Coalition is allowing them to do it.  I'm no expert on Legislative Council procedure, but as I understand it, by a simple majority the Coalition could vote to the have the debate truncated.

So why haven't they?  We all recall how O'Farrell frothed at the mouth with fury when Keneally prorogued parliament so long before the last election to try and prevent an inquiry being held into the fire sale.

The Coalition is understandably wary of ending the debate and then having their own words on the issue thrown back at them, and having the fact that the debate on this law was truncated hurled back at them every day until the next election.

But are the Green's tactics, as O'Farrell described them, an abuse of parliamentary process?

I would say no.

As I said at the start, I have no strong views about the IR changes.  But I celebrate the determination of the Greens to fight the changes until the bitter end.

There is a kind of beauty about the process.  Speakers forced to stand and orate, without falling foul of the rules surrounding relevance and repetition, in a desperate attempt to stave off laws that they feel so strongly about.

It is so different from the usual disgusting behaviour we see from our politicians - crude insults and juvenile joking.  These are politicians that believe something.  You might not agree (I certainly have my reservations) but you have to admire their courage and their determination.

Will it make a difference?  Probably not.  The Shooters and Fishers and the Christian Democrats know which side their bread is buttered - they receive generous dispensations from the O'Farrell government in return for their support, and this bill is right up the conservative alley.  They would not have required much encouraging to vote for it.

What the filibuster does is make sure that the government pays the highest possible price.  The Greens come off as the party that sticks to their guns and fight for what they believe (which, to their credit, they usually do), and these IR changes get the exposure that the Greens desperately want them to get.

It is democracy.  Perhaps not as it was intended, but certainly a noble, invigorating version thereof.

And David Shoebridge has broken a record that must have seemed insurmountable at the time it was set.

You may not agree with his position, but I think we can all admire his determination to have everyone know what it is.

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