I know that I’m not alone in enjoying the ribbing that some Coalition members have been receiving over the past week or so for their non-attendance while parliament has been sitting. I suspect that what annoys those who have been ‘caught out’ the most is that they know that in reality their absence from the chamber is par for the course and everyone, except the general public, know that it’s the case. The government know that the chamber is usually empty, the journos know that the chamber is usually empty, but an MP caught lunching during question time is too much fun not to hound.
Most of the images we see on the news are taken during question time when the chamber is full and that’s what our elected leaders would like us to believe is always the case, so Downer, Tuckey and Vaile have been left to take their medicine knowing that it’s not in anyone’s interest to let the truth out. In reality, the business of the house is usually very orderly and running to a predictable schedule. The only times that the house is full are question time and during a division. To keep the house in order back benchers are put on a roster organised by the party whip and take turns being in the chamber, leaving more senior members to attend to other things.
The only impediment to this smooth running operation is the intrusion of TV cameras in the chamber. Politicians are very sensitive to criticism about the amount of work they do and both sides of the house know that images of an empty chamber are bad PR, therefore they both engage in what I like to refer to as the ‘TV Seat Shuffle’.
Have a look below the fold for some rare footage of this wonderfully choreographed part of our democracy.
We begin with the Night Watchman lecturing the Prime Minister about the rumoured changes to carers and pensioners benefits in this year’s budget. You can tell that this is a very important speech because there are a lot of senior Liberals like Julie Bishop and Andrew Robb nodding along in the background.
I apologise in advance for the video quality, but you’ll get the point
But what was that at the end of the video? The government benches are bare! The PM isn’t even in the chamber to hear the Night Watchman’s plea for a fairer society. Sitting in for the PM is the Assistant Treasurer Chris Bowen. So how does the Assistant Treasurer respond to the good Doctor?
Why, he doesn’t begin addressing the Opposition’s concerns about carers and pensioners, he starts complaining that Dr Nelson’s speech finished five minutes before his allotted time was up. We’ll come back to that in a minute. Chris Bowen does begin to address the points raised by the Opposition leader though, and naturally you would expect that all of the people who listened to the Night Watchman’s speech would be interested in his response.
Turns out, you’d be wrong. Off they shuffle leaving the Assistant Treasurer to work up his best faux outrage to an empty chamber. Remember Chris Bowen complaining that the Night Watchman finished his speech five minutes early? Well look at what has happened almost exactly five minutes after he’s begun his response.
Yep, the TV seats have been filled and now the whole charade can continue on the other side of the house.
So here ends our short glimpse into the engine room of our Parliamentary Democracy. I hope that you all feel empowered with your new found knowledge of the ‘TV Seat Shuffle’.