Why parliament still tolerates thuggery not acceptable in broader society

Katharine Murphy

In the Senate, they pride themselves on doing things their own way, and so it was on Wednesday morning when the occupants of the red chamber gathered, soberly, to take themselves in hand.

The evening before, the lid had blown right off. Queensland LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan noted in passing that Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young had “a bit of Nick Xenophon in her”.

The Greens leader Richard Di Natale saw double entendre and went ballistic. “We have endured on this side, days of sexist filth coming from that man. He is a pig and he should consider and reflect on the standards he is adopting in this chamber.”

Di Natale refused to withdraw the comparison between O’Sullivan and a farm animal, and was thrown out of the chamber.

The banishment was the first time a senator had been shown the door since 2003. The Senate is its own country, so the sanction is unusual. Down in the bear pit of the House, mouthy parliamentarians, playing to the TV cameras, are shown the door every other day.

The sun set, and then it rose again.

By morning, the Senate president Scott Ryan, who has emerged during his stint as a presiding officer as a low-key, one-man operation against intensifying political insanity, thought an intervention was in order.

At the opening of Wednesday’s proceedings, Ryan suggested a tweak in chamber practices that might narrow some of the opportunities for senators spoiling to give each other a kicking.

He issued some general advice to O’Sullivan, Di Natale and anyone else caring to listen: please desist from the zero-sum cycle of provocation and response. “This is not just a matter of rules. This is a matter of respect of each other, of the institution, of those who elected us and in whose interests and names we act.

The Australian parliament is a self-reinforcing fiefdom

“Every senator should reflect not just on what they think they’re saying but how it may be received or interpreted by another with a different life experience or perspective than yourself.

“We need to lead by example, for if we cannot debate and act civilly in this chamber, then how can we expect people outside the chamber to debate and argue and disagree in a respectful manner as well?”

The government leader, Mathias Cormann, concurred. “We’re getting to that point of the cycle where tensions increase somewhat in the natural course of events,” he said. “But it is very important for all of us to remind ourselves of the standards that people expect us to observe as we engage in important business as an important part of our parliamentary democracy.”

Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong, concurred and demurred. The malaise wasn’t general, it was specific. She said O’Sullivan had “trashed” the line between “acceptable argument and personal smears and innuendo”. Wong said personal comments, including references — oblique or otherwise — to people’s personal lives, should be off limits.

Wong said the shaming of women had “been used for decades, even centuries, as a tool of control by those in power. It is odious behaviour, it has never been appropriate and it is not acceptable in this place.

“There are some people in this place who I believe need to find a map and compass on how to conduct themselves in debate and in other fora, including committee hearings, without going after women personally.”

Di Natale accepted Ryan’s counsel, but stood his ground. He said the Senate had a shaming culture, a culture of innuendo, that was “reinforcing a culture of workplace harassment and the open harassment of women in our society”.

He acknowledged the president’s good intentions, but he said the bad behaviour continued. “They do it over and over and over again. Sometimes you don’t hear it, but we do.

“Sometimes they put it on the record. It’s deliberate. It’s calculated. Then they withdraw it. But those words can never be taken back. They hurt and they damage. That’s why, yesterday, I made the statement I did.

“We are allowing harassment and we are allowing women to be demeaned in this chamber.”

At that point, O’Sullivan, who had been listening to proceedings, and disavowing the bracing feedback with pursed lips and periodic shakes of the head, got to his feet and left the chamber with Fraser Anning and David Leyonjhelm.

Di Natale doubled down. He said there were transgressors “on all sides of the chamber but predominantly they are those people who are walking out right now who aren’t strong enough, who simply cannot hear the truth.

“They are the cowards here. It’s very clear that, despite your words this morning, Mr President, they take no heed of the call on all of us to improve the standards in this place.”

Di Natale has a point. The parliament has a habit of purging its regular excesses with gestures of contrition, with vaulting words, and then returning, nimbly, to the fray, confident forgiveness can once again be sought, and granted, given the only regulators are the protagonists inside the chamber.

Do we forgive our own trespasses? Sure. Move on.

But it is also true to say the Australian parliament, a self-reinforcing fiefdom with its own culture and rules, is beginning to feel some pressure.

It is beginning to intuit the gap between discourse inside the 2600 post code, and what would be tolerated elsewhere, a debate led this year by political women sick of being pushed around by blokes too smug with power, or too frightened of losing it, to critically assess their overreach.

Politics is full of fractures, but one of the least interrogated fractures in Canberra now is the one between politicians who know the jig is up, and politicians who think feudalism must continue to be the default, because what is politics without brutality, thuggery and shaming?

It is a question the political class periodically asks itself, in fleeting moments of clarity, as the outside world creeps up, closer, more impatient, demanding something, anything, better.