“Senator school”, as it’s colloquially known, happens every time there is a new crop of senators. It’s an induction process.
The two day course takes new senators through the tedious nitty-gritty of work in the red chamber. Education in parliamentary skills is a serious thing.
Usually senator school passes without comment. There’s a (slightly shorter) program for new members of the lower house as well.
This year, however, senator school is newsworthy. It’s been talked about everywhere. The program has been leaked to Business Spectator. AAP wrote, “There won’t be any finger painting but some may have a nap when a dozen new politicians head to Canberra for ‘senator kindy’.”
It’s all incredibly patronising.
The only reason we’re hearing about senator school is because six of the new senators (out of twelve new senators in total) aren’t from the political class.
The nickname that’s been given to the new senate crop is the ‘Star Wars Cantina’ – suggesting the independents are a raucous gathering of aliens, rather than the usual well-disciplined political natives.
(Sometimes the clownish Joe Bullock has been included in the cantina, cast by the press as an honorary independent after he disgraced himself, and Labor, at the election.)
One of the most common complaints in recent years about Australian politics is that it is too clubbish – politicians are drawn entirely from the ranks of political staffers, lawyers, party officials and union reps.
John Howard made this argument last month, decrying the rise of politicians “whose only life experience has been politics”. You hear it from Malcolm Fraser often too.
Here we have, now, a home builder (Bob Day), an agri-business owner (David Leyonhjelm), a military police officer (Jacqui Lambie), a civil engineer (Dio Wang), a footballer (Glenn Lazarus) and a sawmill manager (Ricky Muir).None are ex-staffers. Lambie has the most first-hand experience in the practical business of politics. And all that is a stint volunteering for Labor senator Nick Sherry.
Far from unrepresentative swill, these independent senators are not a bad cross-section of the community. Compared to the rest of the incoming senator cohort they’re much more representative – the other six new senators from the major parties are former union bosses, former mayors, former party directors and former chiefs of staff.
This isn’t the first time the press has treated independent senators as if they didn’t belong.
In 2005 the Canberra Times reported that Steve Fielding was the only incoming senator going to senator school.
A few days later the paper issued an embarrassed correction that, no, all 15 new senators in Fielding’s cohort had to attend.
In other words, the press only find senator school interesting when the aliens take it.
Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, the manual by which the Australian senate operates, is more than 900 pages long. How many major party senators do you think have read that tome? That’s why politicians have staff. That’s why the parliament has clerks.
Yet we’re being asked to laugh at the entirely reasonable statement by Dio Wang that the details of senate practice are “pretty boring… For things like this it’s always better to learn through practice.”
If we assume that politicians, being human, have limited time for self-education, perhaps it would be preferable they study unfamiliar policy areas rather than the details of senate procedure.
Recall that the new senators aren’t given money for staff and support until they officially enter the senate.
Major party senators have been coddled and cared for by their party organisations while they waited to take their seats.
The micro-parties and independent senators have had to get on with their lives. They’ve had businesses to run and livings to make, while trying to fend off the Canberra press gallery looking for a colourful sound bite to fill out dull copy.
Ultimately, the condescension with which the new senators have been greeted is another attack on their legitimacy to sit in parliament.
I argued in The Drum in April that the new senators do in fact represent the will of the voters; the will of the nearly quarter of the Australian population that chose to vote against the major parties, Greens included.
The major parties are deeply worried that they’ve lost control over their third senate spot. Don’t imagine it’s anything more principled than that.
That raw political calculation explains why the majors have been so patronising towards their new colleagues.
So what explains the media’s snobbery?
There’s a reason we call it a political class. When threatened by outsiders, they protect their own.