#5and5 We are Australian

The week started with the Government two Members down. That meant we had a minority Government. We didn’t have the 76 required to choose what issues would be debated. But on any issue that was before us, if all the crossbench voted with us, then the Government would be a vote behind.


Photo by Lukas Coch AAP

Photo by Lukas Coch AAP

1. Where do I start on the Reps debate on marriage equality? The galleries had been full all day from people who had travelled from around Australia to watch us remove discrimination from the Marriage Act. Thursday started with Warren Entsch summing up the debate which had dominated the Reps all week. Then it was time to vote. First on Tony Abbott’s amendment almost everyone called out “no” and it was no surprise that we didn’t go to a division. Then, immediately, it was time to have the first vote on the bill as a whole. Most people called out to vote yes. A few called no, but no one called for a division. So we went straight into amendments, and it seemed to go forever. 

The first amendment came from Adam Bandt and the later amendments came from Coalition Members. The Labor speeches against the amendments were given by Mark Dreyfus and Terri Butler, with Anthony Albanese giving the speech against the amendments from the Greens political party. These speeches all focussed on the fact that if we amended the bill at all there would be a dispute between the Reps and the Senate which carried the real risk we wouldn’t get the reform through at all. They then also went through other amendments dealing with problems that didn’t exist, or others that actually created new forms of discrimination.

The debate was moving so slowly that Bill Shorten offered to defer Question Time so we could let the debate keep going. Malcolm Turnbull refused and then spent the next hour throwing mud at Labor. We would have lost another hour to the Matter of Public Importance debate which happens straight after Question TIme. Given the Matter of Public Importance debate was going to be led by me, I stood up and explained that I had prepared a speech which would certainly bring down the Government, but in the interests of getting marriage equality through, I would put the debate off, and bringing down the Government would have to wait until February. 

So we were back into the debate on amendments. One by one the amendments were defeated through the day: Abbott amendment defeated with no division, Bandt amendments defeated with no division, Sukkar amendments defeated 43-97, Hastie amendments defeated 55-87, Hawke amendments defeated 59-87, Morrison amendments defeated 59-82, first group of Broad amendments defeated 52-86, second group of Broad amendments defeated 60-85 and Henderson amendments defeated 63-79. Each time amendments were defeated there was spontaneous applause from both the floor and the Public Gallery. As the final vote drew closer some of the Senators came in to sit on the floor of the Reps and share the moment, including our Senate Leader Penny Wong.

Tanya Plibersek spoke on the final amendment saying “By the end of today, Australia will be a better, kinder and fairer place for all of us [...] But soon love will prevail, and it will be your victory, and I hope you will enjoy it.”

After you finish with amendments there are two procedures before a Bill is approved. First you need to vote that the Bill be agreed to, and then you need to vote for the third reading. When it was announced we had voted yes that the Bill had been agreed to, the Public Gallery thought we’d finished and the room exploded with applause. It was a false alarm. We were close but not quite there yet. The PM then moved that the Bill be read a third time, and Bill Shorten spoke in support saying: “Our law will speak for a modern Australia, inclusive and fair. Those of us in parliament, who are privileged to serve, understand that we do so with humility, the humility to recognise that the passage of this law does not, in essence, belong to us, but the credit for the passage of this law belongs to all Australians.” 

Then we voted and the people calling “no” demanded a division. As the bells rang for five minutes we started to realise the most prominent Members of the No campaign were not even going to vote. When it was time to count there were only four people voting no. And then the place erupted. It’s hard to find the right words but it was a mixture of joy, jubilation and relief. Then up in the corner of the Public Gallery some people started singing “I am, you are, we are Australian” and everyone stopped and sang with them. And yes, tears. (video of this moment below)


2. The debate all week had shown Parliament at its best and worst. Most speeches were decent and thoughtful. Some were offensive. And some involved personal stories that were deeply moving. The speech that stopped the Parliament was Linda Burney’s. It told of her love for her son, and of her understanding of how it can feel to be told you are less than others. Warren Snowdon, the longest-serving member of Labor’s Caucus told me there have been three moments which have stood out beyond everything else in his time in Parliament: Mabo, the Apology, and marriage equality.


3. A very decent resolution had passed the Senate calling on the Government to take up the offer of New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern to resettle refugees who are still on Manus Island. The resolution came to the House of Reps on Monday and it was moved that the Reps agree with the resolution from the Senate. We had all of Labor and four of the five Members of the crossbench voting to support the Senate resolution. If carried, it didn’t have the power to force Peter Dutton’s hand but it would have created massive pressure.  And as our Shadow Minister for Immigration Shayne Neumann had said “These places were set up as regional transit processing facilities. Unfortunately, under the Government, they've become places of indefinite detention because of their failure to negotiate third-country resettlement options.”

When the doors were locked you could see on the faces of the Libs and Nats that something had gone wrong. Two of their Members had missed the vote and we had won 73-72. There’s a section of the Standing Orders that says you can have a vote again if there had been a mistake or misadventure. I objected on the basis there hadn’t been anything that went wrong other than some Liberals once again didn’t bother to turn up. The Government was allowed to have the count again and this time Warren Entsch and Steve Ciobo who had both missed the first vote turned up and the resolution was defeated.


4. Even though the Government has announced there will be a Royal Commission into the banks, the fight isn’t over. Chris Bowen pursued the Government all week on this including the fact that the Government has failed to consult with any of the victims groups in developing the terms of reference. So the Government says no to a Royal Commission when the banks say no, says yes as soon as the banks say yes, and ignores the victims.



5. Tuesday began in the public halls of Parliament House with an event for White Ribbon. One of the speakers was Dr Angela Jay, an extraordinary woman who began her speech saying she knew what it was like to die and went on to tell her own account of being stabbed 11 times and doused with fuel by a former date. Her determination to use her story to better protect other women from violence was inspirational and demanded action. Bill Shorten announced Labor’s support for 10 days of domestic violence leave to be put in the National Employment Standards. The first question in Question Time had no politics in it and was simply Bill asking the PM if he would support this policy. It was a chance for bipartisanship in opposing domestic violence. The PM refused to support the policy and spent most of his answer talking about how much he doesn’t like the CFMEU. The next day Emma Husar and Luke Gosling made speeches making clear that this should be a chance to do something good not for petty point scoring. Emma said: “It is not about getting a ribbon out of the drawer one day of the year and saying that you support the victims and the survivors; it is about actually taking some hard action.”



1. I wish I could report a different outcome on penalty rates. This one really hurts because we came really close to fixing the pay cut for nearly 700,000 Australians but fell one vote short of a majority for the procedural motion to bring the debate on. This shows how important the Bennelong by-election is. If we can get Kristina Keneally over the line on 16 December there are some changes we can deliver.


2. This week was the first chance we’ve had to pursue the Prime Minister over the decision announced last week to suspend part of the rollout of the National Broadband Network (the HFC part). Michelle Rowland was on her feet a lot taking up the fight but my favourite moment was when she said to the Prime Minister “Yesterday the Prime Minister tried to deny he had promised that every Australian would have access to minimum speeds over the NBN by the end of 2016. Does the Prime Minister also deny he promised to deliver the NBN for a cost of $29.5 billion or is his recollection as unreliable as the HFC network?”


3. The TWU (Transport Workers Union) brought a number of owner drivers who contract to Tip Top to Canberra this week to tell their stories about what has changed since the Government abolished the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal which had been in charge of making sure rates of pay for owner drivers didn’t jeopardise safety. On Wednesday, Bill Shorten asked the PM: “Last night on 7.30 families of delivery drivers told harrowing stories of the unreasonable demands Tip Top made on their contract drivers. One family of a driver told how one night after returning to work after having a lung removed he called in sick but was told he was under contract, so he drove until he had to give up work altogether and died later that year. Why did the Prime Minister abolish the independent Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal and put nothing in its place to ensure safe and fair conditions for contract drivers?”


4. It’s no longer just us saying the Libs think they are born-to-rule. On Tuesday the PM referred not to governing Australia but to the PM being the job where you “rule” the country. Next question Mike Kelly referred to the Prime Minister as “His Majesty”. The Speaker stopped him there and the rest of the question was never heard.


5. For the last few weeks the Government has been claiming there were a series of Labor MPs they were definitely going to refer to the High Court. This sets a really dangerous precedent where a Government can refer its political opponents but protect its own MPs. Every MP had until 9am Tuesday to provide all their citizenship details going back to their grandparents. The only new information that came up for Labor was that David Feeney had been unable to locate one of the documents and he immediately agreed his case should be referred to the High Court if it couldn’t be found. For a series of Liberals they referred to different documents but decided to keep the documents themselves secret. That’s right, they used a disclosure system to suppress documents. So we found ourselves in a situation where there were some Labor MPs and a crossbencher who the Libs felt should be referred and a series of Libs who we believed needed to be referred to the High Court. We had hoped to negotiate an outcome with the Government, and the crossbench presumed that’s what would happen too. Then on Wednesday around the same time Bill was giving a media conference urging the Government to sit down with us so we could find a sensible way forward, the crossbench met with the PM and the PM apparently flatly refused to see any of his own people referred to the High Court.

The crossbench came to Bill and myself and indicated they were now willing to support a compromise resolution where Members of both sides would be referred to the High Court. To be able to move the resolution we had to first adjourn the debate, then vote on the motion. We won the vote to adjourn debate 73 to 72. Then everything was suspended in the lead up to Question Time. By the time debate resumed Barnaby Joyce had been sworn in so the vote on the motion to refer a series of MPs from both sides was a draw. The Speaker used his casting vote to declare the motion lost which was frustrating but it matches exactly with the precedents on how the Speaker’s casting vote is meant to be used. That also means he would use his casting vote against a similar motion from the Government if one was moved. But it wasn’t moved. So after weeks of saying they would refer a series of Labor Members to the High Court they ended up voting against the referral because they wanted to protect their own MPs.





So that’s the end of the most extraordinary parliamentary year I’ve ever known. The final words in the House were late on Thursday night from myself and Christopher Pyne. We both thanked all the staff in our own teams and around the Parliament. They all work extraordinary hours to deliver on a belief in their party, in democracy, and hopefully, usually, in both. I finished by revealing that Christopher Pyne and I have a very strict agreement that we will never tell each other anything other than the truth, which means sometimes we don’t talk for a very long time.

People of different backgrounds in Australia have many special days to celebrate. One of the great things about modern multicultural Australia is everyone gets to celebrate everything. We are coming close to one of the most special celebrations for me. In the same spirit where friends wish me a happy Eid, a happy Chanukah or best wishes at Deepavali, may I wish each of you all the peace and joy of Christmas. Stay safe, and let’s chat again when Parliament returns in February.




PS. I don’t know any song that defines us better than this one does. Song of the Week is: We are Australian




Tony Burke