It was once reported that former prime minister Paul Keating opposed televising proceedings of the House of Representatives. He was said to be concerned that footage of parliamentarians behaving badly, particularly at question time, could be counter-productive to the standing of politicians when shown on TV news bulletins.
In the event, the House of Representatives has been televised since February 1991. Keating was treasurer at the time. It’s difficult to see how the opening up of parliament to viewers could have been resisted. Especially since the new and permanent Parliament House, which opened in May 1988, had all the required audiovisual equipment.
But Keating had a point. The Australian parliament, particularly the House of Representatives, has always been, at times, a rowdy place. This was the case before May 1988 and has remained so since then. In short, politicians did not change their behaviour to account for the fact they were now on show.
Above all, Keating himself did not change. Keating was one of Australia’s most dynamic performers and he could be very funny, in a biting kind of way. By the time Keating replaced Bob Hawke in December 1991, Labor was in its fourth term and was destined for defeat in the immediate to medium term.
Nevertheless, Keating’s performances appear not to have been well received by many Australians who, due to compulsory voting, had to decide to vote for or against Labor. He lost to the Coalition in March 1996.
Even so, the Australian parliament does not act in a way that is dramatically different from other Western democracies. After all, democratic politics is about the peaceful handling of conflict.
The issue of parliamentary behaviour is in the news once again following a complaint by Kylea Tink, the teal independent for North Sydney. After a disruptive day in the House of Representatives on September 6, she attained the right to speak “on indulgence” the following day.
Tink commenced by stating “yesterday’s behaviour left me feeling like my senses had been assaulted by what I experienced as excessive and unconstructive noise and aggression being thrown around the room”. She added: “I did not feel safe.”
A serious and disturbing charge, indeed. It certainly warrants a close look at the behaviour to which she took exception. Courtney Gould in The Australian reported Tink’s account concerning an unnamed Coalition male parliamentarian as follows: “His tone was hostile. And his body language was aggressive. And to the best of my recollection, his words were, ‘Well, where were you today then? Hey, you say you want clear answers? Well, that was your chance. And where were you?’.”
It’s difficult to judge atmosphere and context through the written word. However, this is not the type of word usage that would have made most Australian politicians – female or male alike – feel unsafe.
The unnamed male Coalition MP seems to have had an over-the-top reaction to the fact Tink and other teal independents had voted with Labor and the Greens to defeat a motion of dissent against the Speaker’s ruling. The Speaker ruled Catherine King, the Transport Minister, had given an answer that was relevant – in accordance with parliamentary requirements. The opposition believed otherwise.
It would seem the burst of anger was motivated by the fact Tink and other teal independents had campaigned during the 2022 election for transparency in government. But now Tink was siding with the Albanese government to protect King from answering, to the opposition’s satisfaction, a question without notice.
On September 8, Peter Dutton was interviewed by ABC Radio National Breakfast presenter Patricia Karvelas. It was put to him that Tink “feels unsafe … claiming that a member of the opposition made hostile and aggressive comments to her”.
The Opposition Leader responded that he was aware of the matter and did not “have any concerns in relation to the tone or what was said”. He added: “I’m not into stifling debate or expression … a contest of ideas in a respectful way in our parliament … is the central part of our democracy.”
Dutton went on to state “the teals express their views very strongly”. Perhaps he had in mind independent MP Monique Ryan’s aggressive demand to some Coalition MPs in August last year – namely, “put your masks on”.
In any event, Tink’s claim commenced a mini media pile-on against Dutton. On ABC TV’s Insiders last Sunday, he was criticised by panellists Niki Savva and Fran Kelly. No other view was expressed.
It was much the same on ABC’s Q+A the following Monday. The program commenced with a sympathetic question about the issue to Tink – she described it as “fantastic”. Then Tink related how she felt intimidated. Soon after, panellist Yasmin Poole declared “Peter Dutton is one example of the toxic work culture of parliament”.
No one mentioned on Insiders or Q+A that serious allegations of bullying in parliament had been made by supporters of the late Kimberley Kitching concerning the behaviour of some of her fellow Labor senators, who were depicted as “mean girls”. Or that Lidia Thorpe claimed to have been bullied by the Greens before she quit the party and became an independent.
The essential problem with the coverage by the various ABC programs of Tink’s complaint is that no one cited details of the allegation. If the independent MP for North Sydney does not feel safe when a Coalition MP effectively accuses her of double standards with respect to transparency, she is going to find parliamentary politics a profession unsuited to her feelings of offence.
Moreover, anonymous allegations of this kind are unprofessional in that they are unfair to those who did not (allegedly) berate her. She could have cited the name of the (alleged) offender under parliamentary privilege without any fear of a defamation action.
There is good reason to improve parliamentary behaviour and so diminish the reaction that Keating is reported to have anticipated many years ago. But it is somewhat precious of Tink to regard the reported exchange in the House as an example of an unsafe workplace. Sure, hyperbole receives attention – but no more than that.