18 October 2003

A crowded House of Yankee lackeys

So the evolution has continued. A third US president now addresses the Parliament next Thursday. A first Chinese president does so 24 hours later. Like our effusive support of US foreign policy, so, very insidiously, have we adopted the American system of honouring selected visitors to address the national seat of our democratic process.

Do we really have to ape US practice as well as policy?

Well, not everyone does.

The Greens' Bob Brown, ever the politician to thumb his nose at convention, made another of those speeches this week that enrages his Coalition and Labor opponents bound by the strictures of party political pragmatism and/or sheer funk. Two speeches, in fact. Brown was as much outraged by the degree to which the US Secret Service insists the Parliament and its precincts must be closed off to ensure Bush's absolute security during the hit-and-run visit to Canberra of the President and his 'approximate' 640-member entourage (two jumbo jets, three US Air Force Starlifters) - makes you blink, doesn't it - as were some Coalition MPs by his remarks.

A passionate Brown told the Senate on Thursday morning: 'I find it quite outrageous, Mr [Senate] President, that you announced to this chamber what the security arrangements are without having the grace to first put those arrangements to the Senate for debate ...

'This is the centre of democracy in this nation. This is the elected parliament of the people of Australia and this [place] belongs to the people of Australia. How dare you close it down and put up a 'trespassers will be prosecuted' sign outside our Parliament because President Bush's Secret Service, in consultation with authorities here, have told you to do so. How dare you! This is the Australian people's parliament. It is not to be closed down because President Bush or [China's] President Hu and their secret service agents tell you ... This place is being turned into a replica of what they have in Beijing.'

The nation was shocked to learn on Wednesday that Labor's federal caucus is divided on the issue of giving Bush a standing ovation.

As the London Daily Mirror tells us, there are precedents:

GEORGE Bush pulled out of a speech to the European Parliament when MEPs wouldn't guarantee a standing ovation.

Senior White House officials said the President would only go to Strasbourg to talk about Iraq if he had a stage-managed welcome.

A source close to negotiations said last night: "President Bush agreed to a speech but insisted he get a standing ovation like at the State of the Union address.

Mike Carlton was actually flamed in Slate (complete with selective quotation) for writing:

This tosh conveniently ignores the fact that millions of Americans are also fearful of where Bush and his Texas oil cronies might be leading them. The artfully directed television pictures of the President's State of the Union message showed senators and representatives leaping to their feet in thunderous applause at about every third paragraph - bizarrely, it looked like nothing so much as a plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party - but in fact there is profound dissent in Washington and throughout the United States.

Until well after Lincoln's time the state of the union message was read to Congress by a clerk and it was believed that it would be a severe breach fo the separation of powers for the president to appear in person. Like so many things, this is not ancient precdent or respect for the office, but simple stage management. The analogy to a party congress is a faithful image. The tradition of parliament keeping its doors open gets abandoned for the sake of image.

The Victorian Legislative Assembly, like the European Parliament and the House of Commons, is made of sterner stuff when it comes to ancient precedent:

It is also considered disorderly for members to make noises or other disturbances whilst in the House. In 1693 the House of Commons resolved that members must not disturb a member who is speaking, by hissing, chanting, clapping, booing or other disturbances. It was expected that members would maintain silence or converse only in undertones. That precedent is followed in the Legislative Assembly."

But we do not need to rely on ancient precedent. Hear Speaker Halvorsen on the 1996 address by President Clinton:

I think standing ovations are the subject of atmospherics and sometimes whimsy and a whole host of other competing emotions and, indeed, I'm sure if the address that we are to receive is sufficiently significant, then the members spontaneous response would be the better one.

Whimsy aside, why would anyone want to receive fake standing ovations anyway?

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