How much do most of us really know about what goes on in Parliament House? We might have some sense of how our lives are shaped by the decisions made within the building, and we might know some of the key players, but most Australians rarely see anything beyond the few grabs of Question Time broadcast on the evening news each day parliament sits.
So how accurate an indication then is the high-conflict theatre of Question Time of what actually goes on at Parliament House?
According to all of the talking heads in Annabel Crabb’s new ABC documentary series The House, parliament is generally far more collegial and less adversarial than we might believe, but the drama of Question Time is a necessary evil to hold governments to account. Tanya Plibersek says early on in the series that almost 90% of the bills that go through our parliament have the support of both major political parties.
Sounds pretty friendly, right?
So how exactly does this process work, and what secrets are hidden within the massive building that houses our parliament? Crabb manages to answer these questions across six hugely entertaining half-hour episodes of The House, shot across ten months at the start of the 45th parliament.
The series has a similar flavour to BBC’s documentary series Inside the Commons, but Crabb’s disarming interview style, and the tenacity and quick-thinking of her crew, make this a uniquely compelling piece of TV.
Those who work in Canberra might find much of the series a little too “Parliament 101”, but there’ll be surprises for most viewers; from the hidden world of corridors and chambers underneath Parliament House, to the origin of the term “Dorothy Dixer“. (Even Christopher Pyne — the man who is currently responsible for all the Dorothy Dixers — was surprised to learn the term refers to a famous American advice columnist from the 1950s.)
A broad range of subjects are covered, starting with the management of parliamentary art. Parliament House has a small art budget, but thanks to some clever collecting over the last few decades, its collection is now worth $85 million. The artworks were once described by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott as “avant-garde crap”, but Crabb offers a slightly more thoughtful look.
The third episode is particularly good, examining the preparation that goes into Question Time, from both the government and the opposition. The episode was shot on March 21 this year, when the government came under fire for proposed changes to 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
Crabb shows how Manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke coordinates the attack on the government, pulling in Labor MPs (including Anne Aly, Australia’s first female Muslim MP and Linda Burney, Australai’s first female Aboriginal MP) to attempt to derail the government’s messaging around 18C and its apparent “strengthening” of race hate laws. At the same time, viewers learn that there are folders of prepared “PPQs” (possible parliamentary questions) circling around the building to help a Minister who might get thrown a particularly sticky question.
In the same episode, we see the parliamentary gardener take on an infestation of bugs threatening the lives of parliamentary plants. The metaphor isn’t particularly subtle, but it’s certainly effective.
Critics of Crabb’s popular ABC cooking-politics show Kitchen Cabinet may well find themselves with many of the same criticisms when it comes to The House. While its focus is more overtly political — on the processes by which parliament rules, rather than the personalities — it takes a similarly enthusiastic, humanising approach, giving its subjects the space to build the image they’d like to project to the general public.
In many ways, the series is a love letter to the institution of parliament. It’s not completely uncritical and makes plenty of the quirks and the bizarre, archaic rituals that accompany debate and law-making, but it certainly celebrates the strengths of the our democratic system.
That celebratory tone might be difficult for many to accept this week, when an asylum seeker has died on Manus Island, allegedly having been denied medical treatment, and when our federal parliament has so comprehensively failed to deliver on the issue of same-sex marriage.
As effective as our system is, it feels strange that The House ignores the significant failures that are the result of decisions made in parliament.
There’s one particular segment in the fourth episode, focusing on the Senate, in which retired Clerk of the Senate Rosemary Laing tells how she sometimes finds herself moved to tears when significant legislation is finally passed. We see archival footage from 1993 of Laing wiping back tears as the Native Title Act is passed.
It feels like it’s been quite a while since the Australian people had such a major, progressive social victory.
Many feel shut out of the parliamentary process, and The House at least offers a glimpse behind closed doors. But those people shut out are also people who are frequently failed by the institution, and The House’s playfulness threatens to conceal the very grave and severe ramifications of certain decisions taken by parliament.
In spite of those gripes, The House is an unprecedented documentary and, against all expectations, an absolutely gripping TV series. It’s a wonderfully fascinating and compelling behind-the-scenes look at Australia’s big democracy machine, revealing a life unknown to most Australians.