One of the advantages of filling a casual vacancy in the Senate is the short lead time between being chosen by your party to taking up your seat. In my case, it takes just ten days to go from being a (somewhat) private citizen to delivering my maiden speech before the Australian Senate. Preselections in the Liberal Party are a thoroughly democratic affair – at least in my home state of Victoria. 403 Party members gather on Sunday 7 March for eight hours at Caulfield Racecourse to help choose a new Senate ticket, caused by the retirement of Senator the Hon. Michael Ronaldson. Ronno leaves huge boots for me to fill. One of my key campaign promises to Liberal Party members is to be a voice for our shared values, particularly in the media. In my speech to the preselection convention, I ask delegates which candidate they would prefer to tune in to the next morning on Jon Faine’s ABC Radio 774 Melbourne program.
As promised, I front up to ABC studios in Southbank the following morning. After a disagreement about whether my former boss at the Institute of Public Affairs, John Roskam, is a public intellectual or not, we discuss my priorities for the Senate, including freedom of speech. Naturally, we also disagree about whether section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the law used not just against Andrew Bolt but again recently on some unlucky students at the Queensland University of Technology, is a restriction on free speech or not. But I’m always grateful for the opportunity to put my arguments.
The Andrews Victorian Labor government shows uncharacteristic efficiency and speedily arranges for me to be nominated in a joint sitting of the state parliament on Wednesday 9 March, just days after Liberal Party members voted for me to fill the vacancy. Exactly one week later I deliver my maiden speech. Aside from free speech, the key themes include defending the dignity of work, why I support Israel, and my concern about our mounting debt burden and the intergenerational inequity it represents.
My criticism of the national curriculum attracts some notoriety, particularly given the fact that I was educated entirely in government schools. The next morning on Wendy Harmer’s ABC Radio 702 Sydney program, I’m first asked if I hold to my heretical view that the ABC should be privatised (yes). I’m then challenged as to why I would be critical of public education, given I am a product of it. I cautiously venture that many parents today believe that private schools are better at passing their values on to their children, which is one of the reason so many are voting with their feet and switching over. Summarising our exchange on twitter later, Harmer claims I said ‘public school kids don’t have a good work ethic’, which is not reflective of my views, or what I said on the program. (Sydney-based Spectator Australia readers can send their ‘What did you expect?’ emails to Senator.Paterson@aph.gov.au).
Jane Caro at least has the decency to quote me accurately in her follow up piece for Fairfax, suggesting that I need re-education about public education. Even a partisan spray in the Victorian Parliament from the state ALP backbencher whose electorate includes my old school uses my actual words, if somewhat embellished.
One of the warmest congratulations for my maiden speech comes from retiring West Australian Labor Senator Joe Bullock. Crossing the chamber to shake my hand after the speech, he says ‘I liked what you had to say about free speech, education and Israel – but I think I would argue with you on some of the other things.’ Sadly, I fear it will be some time before Labor chooses someone of his values and conviction again.
On Thursday the Senate begins what will turn out to be the longest continuous debate in its history, on Senate voting reform bills. We commence as usual at 9:30am for the Lords Prayer, and after some other business commence debating the bills at 12:47pm. Apart from Question Time and other minor items, we continue debating the legislation throughout the night until it is passed at 1.20pm the following day. The intervening hours probably don’t reflect the Senate at its best. Labor is determined to filibuster the bill, even though they know the government has the numbers to pass it, thanks to the support of the Greens. We are treated to the sight of Nick Xenophon in pyjamas, Glenn Sterle discussing his colonoscopy, Doug Cameron’s poor attempts at Monty Python, and Deb O’Neil’s thrilling history of filibusters. Coalition Senators pass the time with a marathon viewing session of the US House of Cards season one, and lots of sugar in an attempt to stay awake. I join Neil Mitchell on Melbourne’s 3AW on Friday morning while the debate is still underway to try to explain to his listeners what’s been happening overnight. Neil kindly observes that at 28 years of age if I’m pulling an all-nighter it should be at a nightclub, not in the Senate.
On Friday night after flying home to Melbourne, I warily accept the task of being the sole politician to participate in an ABC Lateline debate about whether the parliament does a good job at representing Australians, by this point after about 37 hours with not much sleep. Happily, I survive.
The week ends with very welcome news: my friend, former colleague at the IPA, and Speccie Diarist Tim Wilson, has been preselected by the Liberal Party to replace Andrew Robb in the safe seat of Goldstein, in Melbourne’s bayside. I’m looking forward to welcoming him to Canberra after the election. Tim is our generation’s most articulate advocate for liberalism, and has a very bright future ahead. I suspect we’ll have no shortage of issues to work on together.