Tara's Thoughts

Watching history get made

October 22, 2019


It's 3.35pm and my friend Jordan and I have just found a car park under Parliament House - a stroke of luck. We dash up the stairs. We're not sure how many amendments there are to go because marriage equality becomes law. It could be minutes or hours. We don't even know if we'll be able to fit inside the gallery.

As we reach the House of Representatives public gallery, we can see there's a line. Having done this before, we know we have to put just about everything we've got with us - most critically our mobile phones! - into the cloak room. Others aren't so lucky and have to step out of the line to do so just as they reach the front of it. 

Guards direct us "to the left and up the stairs" - but just as we head that way two people walk out of an entrance to one of the main galleries. An attendant asks, "Two?" and we happen to be directly in front of him and get ushered in. 

There's a nervous energy in the chamber as we take our seats and get our bearings on where it's all up to. There are four sides to the gallery - one is reserved for the press and they're directly opposite us. The other three are for members of the public and it seats hundreds of people. 

Without our phones there's no checking in on Facebook or otherwise alerting people we're here. The best we can do is look around to see familiar faces. Magda Szubanski and Christine Forster are two rows in front of us with GetUp!'s Sally Rugg further down the row. Slowly I spot friends and many members of Canberra's excellent Gay and Lesbian Qwire. Ian Thorpe's sitting down right near the front. 

Amendments are being debated that we know will be voted down, but the process and procedure of debate is important. The first fiery part we witness is when the member for Kennedy, Bob Katter MP, speaks:

Mr KATTER: The thing that got me about this is: why do people in a relationship want to call it marriage? I refuse to use the word 'g-a-y'. I did very well, if I say so myself, in English, at school and thereafter, and I got a very high mark. There was a wonderful poem by Alexander Pope, and in it there is a wonderful line: Belinda smiled, and all the world was gay. I had to look it up in the dictionary: 'gay' means beautiful, happy, light, attractive, ethereal. I wouldn't—

An incident having occurred in the gallery—

Mr KATTER: Mr Speaker, can you shut them up, please? This is the Parliament of Australia. It's not a happy clappers meeting here.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Vasta): Order! The member will be—

Mr KATTER: These people—all these people up here who are clapping—they go around calling themselves beautiful, happy, light, attractive and ethereal, and they're proud of it. You know, I would be embarrassed if I went around calling myself all these great adjectives, thinking I'm a really wonderful person. What's in a name? (Time expired)

An incident having occurred in the gallery—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! I ask the members of the audience to please from refrain from clapping and making any noise while the debate is going on. I ask you very quietly and politely to do so. I give the call to the member for Kennedy.

That 'incident having occurred in the gallery' (Hansard's is cheering and clapping at the description of gay, and laughing. The nervous energy has had a place to go - for a moment at least. But the Chamber is the domain of the Speaker (or Deputy Speaker in this instance) and there's a possibility that we could be ejected if we're too disruptive.

When debate on an amendment is finished, there's a vote - those who support the amendments shout 'aye' and those who don't shout 'no'. The Speaker declares whether the 'ayes' or the 'noes' "have it" (that is, have the majority). But if a member disagrees with the Speaker's ruling then a division is called. This is when the bells ring for 4 minutes and the doors remain open for all members to file into the chamber (if they're not already there) and to sit on the side they agree with. Then the members are counted for each side and their names are recorded with how they voted.

Over the next three hours there are a few more divisions. It's an opportunity for everyone to stand up and stretch. While we've only just got there, many members of the gallery have been there literally all day. 

At one point the Speaker (having taken over from the Deputy Speaker) provides some advice to members of the gallery (us!):

The SPEAKER (16:15): (In division) If it suits the House, I'll make a few remarks while the division is being counted. To members in the public gallery and the Speaker's gallery, noise from the galleries is disorderly, but you will have noticed that at the end of certain divisions today I've been very tolerant, given the historic nature of the legislation before the House. It's very important that members of parliament here in the House of Representatives are able to make their contributions without noise or interjections coming from the public gallery. Every member has that right on behalf of their electorates. So I would ask people who are in the gallery to refrain.

This basically means he'll put up with cheering at the end of the debate but not during. We behave.

Anthony Albanese comes to touch base a few times to tell us how things are tracking and we all Chinese whisper to each other when we think it'll all be done and dusted. I hear 4.30pm, 6pm and after 7pm. 

At one point there's a bit more of excitement in our part of the gallery. Bill Shorten has popped up to say hello - and not just to give us a wave. He comes down each row of the gallery and leans in as far as he can, shaking each person's hand and thanking them for being there. At some rows he squeezes down them to see everyone. One person gets his signature.

The time from 4.45pm to 5.30pm goes very, very slowly. Sarah Henderson MP from the electorate of Corangamite has moved two amendments. There are a lot of people who speak to these amendments. Some MPs have been suggesting it won't be such a big deal to agree to some amendments and send them back to the Senate - it'll only add a few extra hours after all - but the majority aren't having a bar of it. A few MPs remark that it's the last time they'll be speaking in the entire debate - the end is nigh.

Meanwhile, there's important business being discussed in the gallery (very, very quietly, Mr Speaker!). Critically, what song is going to be sung when - not if, anymore, but when - the vote is carried? Singing isn't strictly allowed, of course, but this is an incredible moment and there's a hope that the Speaker will allow it.

So, what will be fitting? Should it be the national anthem? What about Love Is In the Air? What song is the most uniting for this powerful moment? Again, the absence of mobile phones makes it difficult to coordinate and there's a lot of shuffling between rows and crouching down to whisper from the talented singers around us.

Things get a bit more interesting when Ms Henderson seeks leave for her two amendments she's proposing to be considered separately (aka taking up more time). The leave isn't granted and the debate comes to a close. On the voices the amendments are clearly defeated but - you guessed it - it's time for another division. When they're definitely defeated, there are no other amendments to move so the Bill is agreed to. The Speaker literally says, "This Bill is agreed to."

There's a lot of cheering from everywhere and everyone - the chamber and the gallery alike - and after much cheering and clapping, singing starts in the chamber. I Am Australian is sung loud and clear--


The Speaker is shouting over the top of everyone.

An incident having occurred in the gallery—

Honourable members interjecting—

The SPEAKER (17:48): Order! Order! We still have the third reading. We're not at the conclusion of the debate.

An incident having occurred in the gallery—

The SPEAKER: Members in the public gallery, we are not at the conclusion of the debate. The Prime Minister has the call.

What's happened? Well, the Bill is basically all but law. But it needs to go to a third reading - basically the final part of the debate before it's passed. The Prime Minister has to move that the Bill be read a third and final time. He's jubilant to the point that the Speaker has to remind him to actual move the Bill be read. Bill Shorten then speaks followed by a very brief Adam Bandt MP on behalf of the Greens who says:

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (17:52): What a big day for love, because, despite the years of bigotry and hate, and despite the years of violence, lies, ignorance and fear, love has won and it's time to pop the bubbly. I'm going to keep this short and sweet, because it's time to let the bells ring and let the people sing, because love has won.

And with that, the question is put. The Speaker says the ayes have it. But wait - there's a lone voice calling for a division. And so the bells begin to ring.

Theoretically we could have a law that was made a few minutes earlier. But if a division hadn't been called we wouldn't have the powerful image of MPs crammed into one side of the chamber - the side voting yes! - and four members on the other side.

Even though most MPs are already in the chamber, the bells need to ring for four minutes to give everyone a chance to get there. As we now know, many members abstain.

The Speaker takes the opportunity to talk the gallery through what happens next - presumably to avoid a repeat of what happened moments ago. 

The SPEAKER: For the members in the public gallery, I just say at the end of this division, there's still one procedure that needs to happen. I say to members as well, when the doors are locked and I have read the result of the division, we do need to hear from the clerk to finalise the bill. The clerk does get the last word.

There are fewer than 5 members on one side of the gallery, so no formal count needs to be done. The Speaker declares the vote and the clerk has his final word. 

And the gallery holds its breath.

And then the Speaker says, "That's it."

And then everything erupts.

It's one of the most remarkable moments of my life. The footage from the media later makes it seems like we instantly broke into song but what happens instead is that we clap and cheer for around four minutes first. My only regret on this day is not hugging the man beside me - a stranger - but it seemed like a very personal, private moment for him.

During the cheering and clapping there's "AUSSIE! AUSSIE! AUSSIE! OI OI OI!" which can be barely heard. And then the singing of I Am Australian starts and it is phenomenal.

As we file out of the gallery (funnily enough there's more parliamentary business to get on with), we're struck by a huge line - the line to the cloak room. As a result, many people don't leave Parliament House for another half an hour or so as hundreds collect their belongings.

The best part about the slow wait is we see people we knew were there but couldn't see, knew were there but couldn't reach, or didn't even know were there. Selfie time! 

Out the front, the Canberra Gay and Lesbian Qwire lead beautiful renditions of powerful songs, including my favourite, Home.

Just know you’re not alone
'Cause I’m going to make this place your home