April 16, 2004 | Peter

The Subtle Power of Privilege

I recently wrote a piece for ‘OnLine Opinion’ criticising various aspects of our parliamentary practice, among other things. One of the points I made is that there are too many lawyers in parliament and parliament operates too much like a courtroom.
The fundamentally legalistic nature of parliament hit me one day when I was watching business in the senate while working in Parliament House some years ago. They still wore wigs in those days, so the comparison was more obvious. But as I stared at the president in his high chair, the bewigged Senate officers and all the polished wood and red leather furniture, it suddenly hit me that the model for all this was a courtroom. And no tatty local court, either – this was a high court, the sort distinguished QC’s hung out in. Then I looked at the main parliamentary leaders, and sure enough they were almost all lawyers, strutting and talking just as they might in a courtroom.
Anyway, not long after I was having dinner with my boss and a few other Labor senators in the Parliament House members dining room (renowned for its service, but not the food – and never eat the crustaceans!). At our table was a senator from Tasmania, whose name I forget. He was very distraught, almost at the point of tears. He was unhappy, he informed us, because he found it almost impossible to speak in the senate chamber. His voice would just dry up and he could hardly croak out a few words.
He told us he was used to public speaking, and had spoken before hostile mobs as a trade unionist. So why, he lamented, was he so dumbstruck in the senate?
The answer, as I pointed out to him, was that it was all about class and privilege. As a working class boy, manual worker and trade unionist he was familiar with, and comfortable with, the rough and tumble of that life where people spoke openly and things were plain and simple. As a senator he was suddenly thrust into a world of intricate rules and detail, of privilege and subtle power relations reflected in the very physical surroundings. Coming from the background he did – albeit the working class roots of the ALP – he was a fish out of water.
Most new parliamentarians come to terms with this situation sooner or later, but some never do. Those who have been trained as lawyers have the least trouble, because they immediately recognise the trappings, physical and behavioural, of a law court, their natural home.
Now just why our peoples’ house should be so orientated towards the experiences and tastes of the privileged few is a good question. This is not just ‘good taste’ we are talking about, but a whole set of cues – physical and behavioural – that assert one form of experience as being superior to others.

Posted by Peter at 4:27 pm | Comments (1) |
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1 Comment

  1. Peter,
    This is partly right. After all the Senate is concerned with reviewing, modifying and passing legislation. Hence all the legal rules.
    But it is also a political chamber in terms of the cut and thrust of political debate, the grand impassioned oratory for the cameras on broadcast day; and the wheeling and dealing in terms of policy making.
    I’m suprised about the Labor Senator who could not speak.
    The speeches are written fo the Senators by the staff in the shadow ministers office. All the Senator has to do is read what has been written for them Most do that badly.

    Comment by Gary Sauer-Thompson — April 22, 2004 @ 7:37 pm

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