The Parliamentary Quirk That Could See The Senate Sit All Night And Weekend

17/03/2016 10:38 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Fairfax Media

CANBERRA -- It is madness in the federal Senate this week, with the chamber totally divided and fractured over one issue -- Senate voting reform. As we outlined on Tuesday in our Senate chaos explainer, the changes are supported by the Coalition and Greens, and opposed by Labor and the independents. Thursday is supposed to be the last sitting day for parliament before a seven-week break, but procedural quirks and sheer stubbornness may see the upper house sitting into the early hours of Friday morning, and possibly even into the weekend.

To give an idea how nutty this week has been, the Greens have voted against bringing on a vote on their own marriage equality bill, while the Coalition voted against bringing on their key policy to reinstitute the building industry watchdog. The moves to bring on those two bills came from Independent senators, in tactics that could be seen as attempts to stall the passage of the Senate voting reforms. This stalling is why our 76 senators could be spending a lot longer in Canberra than they hoped to this week.

The government has added the Senate voting changes to its list of bills that must be resolved, one way or the other, before the chamber can rise for the break. That means the saga will drag on as long as it has to; essentially, until one side folds. Because as we've seen in recent days, Senators looking to stall the vote -- Labor and the Independents -- will seek to bring unexpected bills before the chamber for a vote.

The long, drawn-out Senate procedure means such motions will be proposed, put to an "aye" or "nay" verbal vote as to whether the bill will come for a debate, then usually another vote (a "division") after someone objects to the first vote, then sometimes a repeat of the whole process, then several minutes of objections as each side makes their case as to why the bill should or should not be allowed for debate.

This can go on for many minutes at a time. Rinse and repeat. All those minutes add up.

It's the Australian equivalent of the famous American political tactic of filibustering; but while American politicians can stall votes by simply talking and talking and talking until they drop, often simply reading books aloud, Australian politicians will have to keep proposing motions, bills and endless votes to delay proceedings.

"Bring your pillows. Bring your mattresses. We're not going anywhere," Labor Senator Sam Dastyari said on Thursday morning.

Parliament usually sits from Monday to Thursday, but the Senate has been called back for an uncommon Friday sitting because of the voting reforms. Technically, things could keep running over the weekend, depending on how stubborn, energetic and sleep-deprived Labor and the independents want to be. Keep an eye on things. It's about to get silly.

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