Chaos In The Senate: What You Need To Know

15/03/2016 3:27 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Fairfax Media

The last week of school, before the long holiday week, is usually a quiet and fun one; the course material is mostly done, teachers and students are tired and itching for a break, and everyone is happy to let things wind down. Not so much in our federal parliament.

The Senate descended into chaos, controversy and name-calling on Tuesday, its third last day before a seven week break, as the upper house split over controversial Senate voting reforms. The Coalition government and the Greens have teamed up to push the changes through the parliament, while the Labor party and independent senators vehemently oppose the reforms, which they say will make it harder for minor parties to be elected to the senate.

Through the day, we've seen a marriage equality bill put up for debate, a motion to re-introduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission bill (which is a possible double dissolution trigger) and entirely too much name-calling and tit-for-tat tactics for a house of parliament -- all as political stalling strategies. But what exactly is going on? Unless you've been following every minute development (like us) you might need this:


It all comes back to this. The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill, introduced by the government a month ago, outlined a swag of changes to how Australians will vote on election day, including optional one-to-six preferential "above the line" voting on Senate ballot papers and the abolition of group and individual group tickets. Minor parties often rely on preference deals to get elected, and these changes would give voters more control over where their vote preferences end up -- and, accordingly, take that control away from the minor parties. The Greens are helping the Coalition to bring the changes in; Labor and the minor party senators have teamed up in opposition.

The bill is due to come before the Senate this week, with political commentators and insiders seeing the changes as part of a multi-pronged early election plan by the Coalition. The voting changes may see independent senators like Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus, who have helped block government legislation in the past, tipped out of the Senate at the next election; if the government decides to call an early election, as early as July, the Coalition could get rid of pesky senators and get more of their own party in the upper house. Labor and the independents don't like that idea.


This week is the last week before the parliament goes on break until May, and the week of the federal budget. It means this week is the last for the Senate changes to be pushed through, in time for an early July election. Labor and the independents have attempted to stall senate proceedings and block the voting changes from coming up for a vote. Last sitting week, a fortnight ago, saw senators making long speeches and using procedural quirks to continually keep the voting changes from coming up for a senate vote.

On Monday, three independent senators -- David Leyonhjelm, Ricky Muir and Glenn Lazarus -- attempted to bring three separate, left-field, unexpected bills before the senate. Leyonhjelm tried to bring on a marriage equality bill, Muir moved to bring on the ABCC bill, and Lazarus a bill about coal seam gas. It could have been seen as a stalling tactic, to delay voting on the senate changes. The marriage equality bill was actually a Greens bill, first introduced by Sarah Hanson-Young, and the ABCC is a government bill, but the Greens teamed with the Coalition to defeat all three motions from coming before the Senate.

The Greens attempted to make it clear that they supported marriage equality, but not using the bill as a tactic to stall the Senate change legislation they supported. The Greens said they would introduce their own marriage equality bill on Thursday, but their opposition to their own bill did not go unnoticed.


As the arguments descended further and further into chaos, did the level of debate rise above the silliness? Of course not! The schoolyard name-calling came into full force. Here's a selection of some of the best sledges from the day, thanks to some of our friends in the press gallery:


And in the middle of all this, we had a new senator sworn in. James Paterson, a young Liberal senator, came in on Tuesday to fill a vacancy in the chamber. He was thrown right in the thick of things.


If this was all too long and complicated, apologies. Here are basically the one bit you need to know about:

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