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The chamber remade as virus brings new order to Parliament

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese during Question Time on Thursday.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese during Question Time on Thursday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The Mace, ancient symbol of the authority of the Speaker and the House of Representatives, lies next to a symbol of a much newer and less ornate challenge to authority: a container of hand sanitiser.

The Serjeant-at-Arms, by long tradition a forbidding figure in a black tailcoat, waistcoat, starched white shirt, bow tie and white gloves, wears a surgical face mask as he hoists to his shoulder the silver-and-gilt mace, the descendant of a fearsome weapon used to club enemies.

Here are the pictures of Australia’s parliament, heir to the British Westminster system formed in medieval times, learning to soldier through a 21st-century assault by an invisible threat: a virus.

The newest MP, Labor’s Kristy McBain, fresh from winning the seat of Eden-Monaro in a byelection, stands in the green chamber to give her first speech.

The newest MP, Kristy McBain of Eden-Monaro, has to settle for a new kind of congratulations for her maiden speech.

The newest MP, Kristy McBain of Eden-Monaro, has to settle for a new kind of congratulations for her maiden speech.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Such an event – among the most special moments of any politician’s career – is traditionally celebrated with a flurry of hugs from colleagues. When McBain finishes her address there is applause, but no one dares physically approach. Elbows are self-consciously thrust in the air: today’s pale alternative to a handshake and an embrace.

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At the other end of a parliamentary life, former Greens leader Senator Richard Di Natale launches into his valedictory speech. He is not in the Senate chamber at all, but speaking via video from his home in distant southern Victoria. In the midst of this unique parliamentary farewell, the video link fails momentarily and his image fractures into a weird cyber-confusion.

Unseen, broadcast officer Karlie Liddell sits within a booth at the rear of the House of Representatives, her fingers dancing over a complicated keyboard. She could be a sound engineer for a rock band but her mixing desk, linked to the parliamentary remote communications program run by Cisco, controls the microphones of all the MPs.

Karlie Liddell's control panel for the microphones of MPs.

Karlie Liddell’s control panel for the microphones of MPs. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Above the sparsely-populated benches of the representatives, absent members of the Parliament float, disembodied, on large electronic screens. The virus and closed state borders have kept them in their electorates.

They do not like being called “virtual” parliamentarians – the preferred word is “remote”.

Though electronic and remote voting has been debated for many years and there is a sense that the coronavirus may fast-track the Parliament into a new age, the remote MPs do not yet enjoy the freedoms of those physically occupying the chamber.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison responds to a question as "remote" MPs hover over the chamber.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison responds to a question as “remote” MPs hover over the chamber. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

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They cannot vote on Bills or in divisions, their presence is not counted in a quorum and it is rare for them even to manage to unmute their microphones to deliver an interjection.

They are, however, covered by parliamentary privilege – granting them an ultimate form of freedom of speech, safe from threat of legal action for libel. It is an extension of the rights afforded to parliamentary committees that have been conducted by telephone and video-conferencing since the 1990s.

Speaker Tony Smith has not found cause to “eject” any of the remote MPs for disorderly conduct, a regular event in the pre-COVID parliament. Smith, however, got into the spirit of our new online society when he told Labor’s Ed Husic, who was in the House in person, to “mute yourself”, rather than hollering the usual “order!”.

A few parliamentarians have found contemporary methods of expressing themselves without words. Queensland’s usually voluble Bob Katter wears a mask depicting the fearsome teeth of a crocodile. Labor leader Anthony Albanese prefers the logo of his beloved working-class rugby league team, the Rabbitohs.

Bob Katter's crocodile mask.

Bob Katter’s crocodile mask.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, burdened by the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression and with no time for fripperies, use no-nonsense disposable masks.

Both the House and the Senate are spookily sparse spaces. The public galleries above are empty.

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Even journalists from the press gallery are herded off to a glassed-in compound normally used by school groups.

But Speaker Smith, keen to ensure a record be kept of this singular period of parliamentary history, has swept away the rules governing the normally limited access of press gallery photographers.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg depart at the end of Question Time on Thursday.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg depart at the end of Question Time on Thursday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

For the first time, press photographers have the ability to shoot pictures of the chamber through open doors and to venture behind scenes previously deemed off limits.

“It is quite surreal for us to be shooting from down there [at floor level in the House of Representatives],” says Alex Ellinghausen, of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. “It has opened up all these new angles.”

And so we present a selection of Ellinghausen’s behind-the-scenes angles on a parliament in the COVID-19 era.

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