By Terence Mills
The convention of pairs in the Westminster system of government is a hangover from a past age when politics was a pastime for gentlemen and if you had to be away tending your estates, the other side would generously grant you a pair meaning that one of theirs would also absent the parliament so that you effectively cancelled out each other’s vote.
It’s a convention so it’s not binding and depends on the integrity and the goodwill of the parties and seems to work OK in the UK parliament but, as usually seems to be the case, in Australia it’s used more as a tactic than a sensible arrangement to ensure the continuity of parliamentary business.
Not unusually, it was Tony Abbott, that champion of democracy, who as Opposition Leader decided to flaunt this convention in the federal parliament. It was following the 2011 death of prominent artist Margaret Olley, the then Labor Arts Minister Simon Crean and Liberal Malcolm Turnbull were set to pair for each other so that both could attend her funeral. But this was disallowed by Abbott in a particularly petty move, but very much in character, that undoubtedly still rankles Turnbull to this day as he was a personal friend of Olley’s. Perversely, Abbott nominated Senator George Brandis to represent the Opposition at the funeral but that’s another story.
On Good Friday we saw, in the Victorian parliament, an act of blatant treachery that tended to ‘go through to the keeper’ as ball tampering dominated our national focus. Which was the more egregious sin, you be the judge.
What happened was that debate on the Victorian state fire services legislation drifted into Good Friday at which point two Liberal Upper House members requested pairs for religious reasons. MPs Bernie Finn and Craig Ondarchie were duly granted pairs with Labor MP’s Jaala Pulford and Philip Dalidakis.
Ondarchie told the parliament that, and I quote:
“This is the day that my lord was crucified. I do not want to be here. Today I want to be right now with my church family.”
His mate, Bernie Finn – another ardent Christian – told the parliament that:
“I want a pair because this, merely being here, is making me feel ill.”
It seems that Mr Finn was not feeling crook in the ordinary sense but was unhappy to be in parliament on a day which for him was for religious observance.
What happened next is almost Shakespearean with a touch of Machiavelli and you need to position yourself as an observer in the gallery as the drama unfolds.
Picture this if you will.
The four politicians granted pairs have left the parliament. The debate drags on into the early hours: as dawn approaches, a rooster can be heard crowing distantly almost imperceptibly, once, twice, three times. The debate approaches its conclusion and the parliament prepares to vote. The numbers are close but favour the government.
But wait! From behind a screen two furtive, shadowy figures enter the parliamentary forum and position themselves almost unobserved by the audience, on the opposition Liberal benches. They reveal themselves to the audience as no other than our Christian heroes Ondarchie and Finn. There is murmuring in the gallery as observers nudge each other and point; the tension builds. The treachery is all but complete: the vote is taken and the bill is defeated 19-18.
Ondarchie and Finn collect their forty pieces of silver from their leader and retreat from the stage to much booing from the crowd. But, in a final act of triumphant defiance they turn and proclaim that they have been true to their exemplar, the embodiment of their faith: Judas Iscariot.
The curtain falls.
What is it about Liberals?