The last two days of Senate hearings have been dominated by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s officials being forced to concede point after point on the nation’s detention centres, especially in relation to the contract operator, Serco.
Other hearings have ranged from the banal to the bizarre; from the spooks at the Office of National Assessments talking about the difficulties of doing renovations on heritage buildings to a discussion of what shapes desks should be in the parliamentary library. But, in among the drivel, there are some rare moments of comedy gold, some of which I would like to share with you now. For instance, on Monday alone, the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee saw:
- Senator Mitch Fifield tiptoing around the "peculiarities" of Tim Mathieson’s travel arrangements as Prime Ministerial "spouse", including a wry observation that "[the]role is interpreted by each person who finds himself in that position".
- Senator Richard Colbeck demanding to know why the Prime Minister deleted without reading an email he’d sent to her relating to his advocacy on behalf of the Australian "lobster sector".
- Senator Eric Abetz cracking wise over whether Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd’s "trip to New York quite urgently after Osama bin Laden’s death so that we could see him on TV with Hilary Clinton" was value for money…
… and following it up with a quip about Peter Garrett having only one media officer compared to the two or three that are more common."Very wisely, Mr Garrett is only given one to ensure that he is not out in the media too much… [Or is it because] Mr Garrett is such an accomplished performer that he does not need three media people to get him out there on the TV screen?"
Fifield later indulged his spy fantasies by trying to suss out the security arrangements of the Prime Minister and Cabinet meeting room:
Lewis: The door to the room is electronic and it has a lot of gadgetry around it —
Fifield: No keys?
Lewis: So they certainly would not have entrusted that to me.
Senator Chris Evans: If we told you, we would have to kill you, Senator.
Fifield: You mentioned that there is no key, as such — are they swipe passes, or keypads?
Lewis: I do not want to bore you with the details, but you have to put your eyes up to the machine. It does an iris scan.
Fifield: I am captivated by the irises. […]
Evans: I think we are getting a bit close to being overdramatic.
Fifield, the keenest bean in the Senate, also got a little too excited about the upcoming 13th edition of Odgers Australian Senate Practice, with hilarious results:
Fifield: Dr Laing, recently I invested in two more copies of Odgers. It is never possible to have too many!
Dr Rosemary Laing (Deputy Clerk of the Senate): I am very pleased to hear that you have purchased two new copies, Senator… [but]while stocks may be getting low — I am not sure that they are all that low — all of the content is, of course, available online free of charge to anybody who wishes to avail themselves of the intricacies and wonders of Senate practice and procedure.
Fifield: Will it be available in an iPad app, for instance?
Laing: We can look at that. We need to keep up, and we can certainly look at that.
Fifield: I know you can download it into iBooks on an iPad, but I was just wondering if —
Laing: Yes, it is a whole brave new world out there. […]
Fifield: I am giving you the opportunity to build up anticipation for the 13th edition. […]
Laing: Alas, I have to tell you that I think the sales since the last estimates process will have been minimal!
Fifield: That is deeply disappointing, Dr Laing.
Laing: […] Of course, the purpose of doing that work was not to create a best seller-not even I thought it would be a best seller!
Fifield: To create more of a classic!
But the comedy highlight of the first two days has been, without question, Faulkner’s interrogation of one Mr Frank Leverett, the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Ceremonial and Hospitality Branch.
Senator Faulkner, elder statesman and doyen of the staunchly republican ALP Left, made a point of inquiring into Queen Elizabeth’s long overdue 80th birthday present, a carriage made by a Sydney resident named Mr Frecklington (no, I’m not making this up). A quarter of a million dollars has been sunk into the carriage to date, which has become an object of almost universal political hand-washing, Faulkner excepted. After reminding the committee she had turned 85 earlier this year, the veteran Senator was told the carriage was not an official gift in the first place:
Faulkner: When you say it is not an official gift, was it supposed to be an unofficial gift?
Leverett: No, not even an unofficial gift. The Australian government —
Faulkner: An unofficial nongift.
Frecklington’s coach has apparently never been sighted by anyone from the Government or Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (although Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop have apparently had a gander, as you would expect from monarchists of their calibre).
Faulkner: Is it true that, as I have read, the coach is just sitting in a shed in the Northern Beaches in Sydney?
Leverett: I cannot verify that, but I have read the same things you have read. But I cannot verify it.
Faulkner: So we do not know where it is?
Leverett: No, I cannot answer that question.
Faulkner: Someone could have absconded with the thing and you would not know, even though you have spent a quarter of a million dollars on it?
Leverett: I think it would be a difficult object to abscond with.
Faulkner: That is if it exists.
Faulkner: Could I ask you, Mr Lewis, if this is regarded as good practice in terms of financial management and the expenditure of Commonwealth monies? It seems a very odd situation to me. I was asking questions about this years ago, around the time of Her Majesty’s 80th birthday. But I thought I would just come back to it five years later because I knew you would be interested.
Exasperated, Faulkner continued, asking about alleged admission fees for members of the public to go and see the coach:
Faulkner: Is it true that basically if you fork out you can get to eyeball the coach? Is that true?
Lewis: I am sorry, Senator, are you saying that you pay to go and see it?
Lewis: I have no idea.
Faulkner: I was using the vernacular.
Lewis: I have no idea. […]
Faulkner: Do you think it might be reasonable for the Commonwealth to ask for its cut?
Despite having pursued the issue for five years, Faulkner doesn’t appear to be ready to divest himself of this particular bugbear:
Faulkner: As it turns out, it became an unofficial nongift. Still, I am sure Her Majesty is looking forward to receiving it sometime in the future, so we will just see what happens.
Senator Chris Evans: We are currently making the transportation plans for CHOGM in Perth in October.
Faulkner: Perhaps you could travel to Perth in the coach! That would be the first useful thing that has occurred with it — and it sounds like it is very comfortable, because it is certainly air-conditioned, isn’t it?
Chair: No further questions, Senator Faulkner?
Faulkner: There will be, but not at the moment
At any rate, the last two days have proven wit and humour aren’t dead in the Australian Parliament, even if it’s unintentional at times. Stay tuned for more parliamentary comedy as the hearings continue.
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