I attended parliament this week (13th Feb to 16th Feb) as part of the member for Indi, Ms. Cathy McGowen’s volunteering program. In this instance I was primarily invited via the NELLEN group of which I sit on the board of directors. Let me add by way of clarification, I did vote for Ms. McGowen and I have often been an advocate for her and her team and the work they do for the seat of INDI. Having said that, it would be remiss not to mention the other hats that I carry with me during this trip to Canberra. My principle job as the National Disability Coordinator Officer fully encompasses the seat of INDI and there are many community development issues that I seek to investigate where the opportunity arises. I also sit on a number of other boards and committees linked with disability services and Aboriginal communities where complex questions are always in debate. Not sure exactly what I expected before attending but I very much walked away with a new appreciation that good culture trumps strategy every time.
DAY 1– The first part of the morning begins with an early arrival where the place is already humming. With the day breaking I walk through the background of a doorstep interview featuring Senator Mathias Cormann. My first thought; ‘normally I would be eating breakfast and watching ‘sunrise’ not being a prop on the other side of the screen as the sun rises.’
Mathias Cormann talking coal versus renewables and setting the tone for the week
Through security we make our way through the large hallways and meet the wonderful team and are warmly welcomed. An overview of expectations and briefing of the upcoming day helps to settle some nerves and excite the palate. This is quickly followed by the tour of the building by the parliamentary staff which gives gravitas to the atmosphere and energy of the experience of being somewhere meaningful. The occasional passing of a well-known senator or minister only adds to the sensation of feeling influential. The number of little insights re-the architecture and history are too numerous to include here and I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise of undertaking the tour yourself. One little tip to share – if you get lost there is always the five dollar note in the pocket to help find my way around.
With the tour complete, it’s down to business. Learning the phones, understanding roles and planning activities. Note one of the harder aspect of the morning is not having a security access card for the first part of the day. This meant having to be escorted by another staff member which leaves one feeling hamstring especially after the initial tour which made one more apt to want to explore further.
Question time comes soon enough. As someone that has previously spent some time watching the televised components of these sessions I was not surprised by the format or processes but one cannot help but view it in different terms given the live ‘performance’ that it is. I make my notes and explore my thoughts as to what this all means in the context of all the hats I bring to the event.
Image of Parliament clock. Red for senate, Green for House. When they be flashing and the bells be ringing, the members have four minutes to get to chamber
The day continues to flow as we finally receive our access passes. I head back towards our office unconstrained by the company of others for the first time that day. The Senate and house bells chime as the red and green lights of the clocks flash around me. This signals a rush of activity as Senators and members of the lower house rush to find their seats for a division. This occurs at the same time I passed offices of the Liberal party and I am a little taken aback as I passed the Prime Minister and several of his front bench. I smile and try to catch their eyes nodding a polite hello. There is a glint of acknowledgement in their eyes and even a hello smile back from some of them. Regardless of whatever hat I wear, if I had seen myself from outside myself, I would’ve of noticed a definite strut in my walk.
Back at the office we consider our next move through the evening’s program. Having a previous life working as a police officer I’m naturally drawn to the ‘Friends of Police Association’ gathering. This a chance to learn and improve my networking skills I soon find myself excelling at the task although I feel slightly unprepared as I fail to remember the names of some of the attendees who I have seen via various press offerings in the past. As the mixture of Ministers, Senators and Police figures from across the country mingle in the garden of the President suite I am drawn to John Laird from Vic Pol. It was this off chance meeting that gave me some closure from some leftover PTSD still rumbling around from the history of my previous work life. Big thanks John. The significance of the presentation of the united association flag bearing the names of all those officers that have died in the line of duty is not lost upon me having worked along some of those whose names I recognise.
Senator Parry (left) hosting the National Police memorial flag presentation
Humbled by the experience, I meet the rest of my group at the other events happening in what seemed all parts of the Parliament grounds. For the rest of the evening my disability hat was clearly visible as I sought connections to the NDCO program from targeted guests and I walked away with several valuable connections. Hope I wasn’t too annoying as I pointed out things like the fact that the house of representatives and the senate both have big steps built into their structure. I long to see the day universal access is considered right at the very top. Do we have to wait for a wheelchair user to reach the front bench? (maybe).
Day 2: Starts with purpose and a clear understanding and expectation of what’s ahead. Lots of thank you cards to be prepared and mailed. Reports from last night’s network meetings to be completed. Administration tasks which leads me to several quests around the building and, one big highlight for me, arranging my own very own ministry meeting for the next day. Preparation for this meeting is punctuated by other small duties followed by a visit to hear business in the House of Representatives, especially the close the gap statement address where I proudly don my Aboriginal hat. Speaking of question time my second day of sitting in on the ‘questions without notice’ brings a strange sensation of déjà vu is the same or very similar questions are asked by the same people with guess what, the same answers or non-answers.
The rest of the afternoon is made up of representing Ms. McGowen at various lobby meetings or briefings. The first of these being a group from e-cigarettes. Whilst I enjoy the process of the networking and use the opportunity to seek insight into the process there is not much to be gained for the time spent, unless you count the unexpected opportunities that just happen. In this instance it was my decision to leave when this opportunity presented itself. As I hurried down the hall I ran into a staffer from Senator Parry’s office, Leanne whom I had met the previous day at the friends of police function. In a setting that sometimes appeared very much corporate it was great to meet someone so generally interested in helping me, not for any other reason than she wanted to help and give me her time and insight. A truly wonderful person that I will never forget. Through this interaction she made me aware of the details and the process on how to make the events happen that I was busily attending. Something very concrete for my many hats to take away as part of the experience of being there.
House of representatives sitting. Circle indicates Cathy McGowen as she sets up a meeting for me with Mr Andrew Giles
So off to the next meeting where I meet the most worldly and wise elders of a past era, briefing the Senators and Ministers (and me) about Mawson’s Hut and everything Antarctica.I am not necessarily a celebrity idoliser type of guy but nevertheless was humbled by being surrounded by the most senior of Ministers and Senators, regardless of whether they recognise my input or not. I glance over the shoulder of a front bench Minister who is about to leave. He writes on slip of paper to pass to his colleague and this gives me a real understanding of where the political mind considers issues. In this instance the question to be asked was, ‘where is the money coming from? Make sure they’re not cutting it from the other budget.’ Given the lateness of the day and the dignitaries that surrounded me I do decide not to stay for drinks and nibbles. Sometimes retreat is the better form of valour. After this decision to leave I find myself attending to an overview of the day’s activities and make sure any matters of relevance are distilled and noted for further consultation if required.
Mel Yates, performer and fund raiser with myself
The last order of the day is to attend a nearby office for a musical fundraising event. This is where I can relax and the authentic networking happens. Given the fundraiser is an event for mental health I don my disability portfolio hat and firm my links with the host performer.
As the night proceeds there are no hats left to wear. It is just me; son of a hard-working civil servant who would bristle with pride to see his son walking the corridors of Federal Parliament; the brother of four hard-working man cut from the same cloth as their father; and finally, the father of two young boys (men) with whom I can’t wait to share my experiences with. To make them as proud of me as I am of my father. To give them a role model that inspires them to fully participate in a caring community where belonging matters and everyone belongs.
God bless you Cathie for providing the opportunity for me to participate in the journey of INDI and may the cultural change you have brought to this institution grow and last forever, which I am sure it will do.
Big thanks to the following for making this truly wonderful Professional Development opportunity a reality.
- NELLEN and the wonderful crew who travelled with me – Bev, Billy and Julie.
- Cathy and her dedicated staff, in particular, Jeremy, Di and Julie.
- Wodonga TAFE who by default and without hesitation co-sponsored my attendance.