Filibusters are familiar to followers of American politics. A lone senator talks into the night in order to prevent a vote on a bill. They’re not often seen in Australian houses of parliament — that’s because most houses impose limits on how long parliamentarians can speak for. Not so in NSW.
Last week, Greens MLC David Shoebridge broke a record when he addressed the NSW Legislative Council for just under six hours on the topic of Barry O’Farrell’s new industrial relations laws. All those years as a barrister came in handy. He started on Thursday evening at 6.15pm and the debate went on, carried by other windy Greens and Labor MLCs until the guillotine was dropped and debate cut on Saturday morning. Those voting for the bill didn’t have much to contribute to the debate.
David Mallard provides some useful background to the filibuster over at Crikey, noting that as fillibusters go, this was never going to be particularly effective. O’Farrell has the numbers to do what he wants in the Upper House and is showing every sign that he will do just that. Well, almost — he did just drop changes to the solar rebates scheme on the grounds that he didn’t have the support of the Upper House. But there he didn’t have the support of the Shooters and Fishers Party and Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats — who are with him on the public sector reform bill.
As far as the weekend’s filibuster was concerned, as Mallard writes, "the goal appears to have been delay to bring public attention to the bill." With big changes in the offing for public sector industrial relations, there’s good reason for attention to be brought to the bill. To date, coverage of both the bill and the filibuster has been slight. Those interested in nutting through the 80-odd pages of Shoebridge’s speech can read it here.
For those who aren’t, here are some choice excerpts from Shoebridge’s address. When you’ve got six hours to speak, what do you say?
This is where Shoebridge started:
"I speak on behalf of The Greens about the Government’s extraordinary attack, through this bill, on the ordinary pay and conditions of some 400,000 public sector workers in this State. I commend the rigour with which the Honourable Sophie Cotsis addressed the matter and the thoroughness with which she addressed the broad impacts of this bill. First, I refer to the amendment moved by the Honourable. Sophie Cotsis to refer this matter to General Purpose Standing Committee No. 1. Surely a government that thinks its legislation is worthy of public scrutiny, that has introduced a bill and can stand behind it in a public domain and defend its intent and the process that led to its being introduced — and given the fact that it failed, during an election campaign that continued for the better part of six months, to tell the people of New South Wales that it intended to make this fundamental attack; the Government has a healthy majority in the other place and can stifle debate — would support referring the bill to General Purpose Standing Committee No.1."
The proposal to send the bill to a general purpose standing committee inquiry would have allowed those affected by the bill to speak about how it would affect them: "Members opposite should eyeball the teachers before they take away their rights. If they had the courage of their convictions they would not do this in a midnight session in this place or without telling people."
Shoebridge upbraided O’Farrell for failing to disclose his plans to transform public sector entitlements before the election:
"This is not about fiscal responsibility; it is a brutal ambush of the rights of New South Wales public sector workers. If it was such a good idea to give the Executive absolute power over public sector wages and conditions, why did the Government not come clean about it during the election campaign? If it was such a good idea to shove this bill through the upper House and then have it rubberstamped by the lower House, why did the Coalition not tell the people of New South Wales in the millions of dollars worth of advertising that it bombarded us with during the State election? Members opposite found time to attack the shambolic efforts of the previous Government — in fact, we all found time to do that. If it intended to be honest with the people of New South Wales, if it wanted a mandate for this kind of root-and-branch attack on such a core institution as the Industrial Relations Commission-that is clearly the intent of this bill — how could it not have found space in the million dollars of advertisements with which it tortured the people of New South Wales during the campaign to come clean and tell them about its intentions?"
Not being able to look the people of rural and regional NSW in the eye was another theme to which Shoebridge returned more than once:
"If they have the courage of their convictions-if any of the words in inaugural speeches about the importance of rural and regional New South Wales and about supporting rural and regional communities were meant genuinely-before they strip away the rights and conditions of those countless thousands of public sector workers in rural and regional New South Wales, surely the Government will invite them in, look them in the eye and say, ‘What do you think about this Government giving absolute power over your rights and conditions to just a finance Minister? What do you think about your decades’ long rights and conditions gathered through struggle being up for grabs, up for removal, just through the stroke of a finance minister’s pen?’"
It’s been reported elsewhere, but it’s worth noting again the stellar contribution of Dr Peter "The Dragon Slayer" Phelps to the debate. (Phelps made the headlines last week for his Nazi scientist gaffes.)
"Point of order: This is now the fourth time Mr David Shoebridge has referred to draconian legislation. He would, or should, be aware that "draconian" is the adjectival form of "dragon". There are no dragons involved in this legislation, and there are no dragons involved in the industrial relations situation of New South Wales. There may well be an argument for dracona-centric global warming, but that is something we will leave for another time. I ask that Mr David Shoebridge cease and desist from bringing the good name of dragons into disrepute by describing this as draconian legislation."
At the end of the night, this is where Shoebridge wound up:
"This is a nasty piece of regressive legislation. It is a direct attack on the rights and conditions of public sector workers — an attack that the Government failed to herald to the people of New South Wales in an election campaign that ended only a matter of weeks ago. Yet the Government expects this House, without demur, to pass this nasty piece of legislation, this gross attack, without standing up and speaking on behalf of those 400,000 public sector workers, their families, their colleagues and friends whose rights and conditions are being attacked by this ambush from the other side. Well, this side of the House will not be silent while that happens. The Greens will not remain silent while that happens. We will speak up for the rights of public sector workers. We will not see them caught between the essential services legislation and this Government diktat, with no reasonable way to exercise their industrial right to fair wages and conditions."
The session closed when the President of the Legislative Chamber, Don Harwin, noted for the purposes of posterity that Shoebridge had set a new record for the longest single speech. Will the bill go to a Committee? That’s for the NSW Government to decide. Why not? As Shoebridge asks,
"Surely, if this is such a great piece of legislation the Government should not be frightened of a public sector worker alleging that what the Government does under this policy, promulgated under this bill, is unfair, harsh or unconscionable."
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