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Australia's new parliament

Nick Bryant | 07:06 UK time, Wednesday, 29 September 2010

If out of nothing else than a sense of professional diligence, I feel that I should post on the new parliament in Canberra, Australia's 43rd. For hard though it is to summon much enthusiasm for Australian politics at the moment - earlier this month The Economist opined about the country's "desperately impoverished politics" - there are a few important things to report and to note.

Foremost amongst them, perhaps, is that after more than 100 years Australia finally has an indigenous MP, the Liberal Ken Wyatt (a "first" we have noted immediately after the election, but that surely bears repetition). Fittingly he took part in the traditional Welcome to Country that opened the new parliament draped in a kangaroo skin - and quite magnificent he looked too. Up until now, Australia has seen two Aboriginal senators. Finally, it has an indigenous member of the House of Representatives.

As an aside, during those long weeks when the country independents were making up their mind over whether to support Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott, I occasionally found myself playing fantasy politics, and wondering what might have happened had one of them been an Aborigine. Is that what is needed for a government to make repairing the breach between black and white Australia an urgent national priority? As it stands, Aboriginal Australians are too small in number to be electorally significant at the national level.

The new parliament also sees Australia's first Muslim MP, who was sworn in with a hand on the Koran. Ed Husic is the son of Bosnian immigrants and represents a seat in western Sydney.

For the first time, a female Governor General, the regal-looking Quentin Bryce, opened a new parliament with a female Prime Minister. New South Wales and Queensland can also boast female premiers. But as we have noted before, the true gender test for Australian politics will surely come when women vie to become the factional chieftains who wield so much behind-the-scenes power.

For all the talk of "new paradigms" and a different polity, Aussie politics has reverted to type. After promising a "kinder, gentler" politics, Tony Abbott is now talking about leading a "ferocious opposition". He's already signalled his intentions by disregarding traditional rules about "pairing," which means that ministers, including Julia Gillard, will be expected to turn up for all parliamentary divisions. Ministers, including those holding the foreign affairs, trade and defence portfolios, will therefore find it hard to travel outside of the capital while parliament is sitting.

We have talked before about the brutality of Australian politics. We have spoken of its ugliness. But now it has reached the point of sadism. Surely keeping lawmakers under parliamentary arrest in Canberra is way beyond the pale?

PS Very much enjoying your responses to the last blog on globally obscure Aussies. I am very much in agreement on David Wenham and others, though not about Clive James, who for my money is Australia's finest writer. James, Greer and other cultural castaways still cop so much flack, a subject for another blog. In the meantime, I'd suggest that the last thread offers proof that the short ones are often among the best.


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