Senator Ricky Muir and his wife Kerri-Anne arrive at Parliament House on Friday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Pity the researchers at the parliamentary library in Canberra’s house on the hill.
New Senators are bumping around the corridors searching for their grand new offices.
More importantly, however, they’re searching for words.
One of the first items of advice they will be have been given at parliamentary boot camp next week is that they must prepare what used to be called, before feminism frowned upon the term, a maiden speech.
The second piece of advice will be to seek urgent help from the library, where much of parliament’s wisdom resides, and at the very least, get some quotes, preferably from Churchill or Shakespeare, which are much favoured by new parliamentarians trying to make an impression.
Even Natasha Stott Despoja found a way to use Churchill back in 1995 to help push home the message that she was at the time, aged 26, the youngest senator elected in Australia. ‘‘To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill’s advice to his son: politics is like piano playing; the earlier you start, the better,’’ she said in her first speech.
The former senator Stott Despoja, like most of Australia’s current politicians, started very early indeed in politics - at university.
But half the 12 new senators who will find themselves in the red chamber on Monday are so new to the business they’re being dubbed accidental politicians. The six from micro-parties who will share the balance of power will be scrabbling to find their feet and their words under immense sceptical scrutiny from their more practised new colleagues and the media.
The first real test will be the speech; the big reveal for any new politician. For a few, it is a tide sweeping towards greatness; for many, it is at least the high watermark between the rise from obscurity and a future sunk in anonymity.
Many MPs and senators find themselves so contented with their first speeches they have them framed and mounted upon their office walls. They upload them to their websites and refer fondly to handy parts of them as their parliamentary careers mooch on. Enemies search for ammunition within them. Liberals trying to defend Tony Abbott against charges of sexism still find creative ways to use a Paul Keating line from his first speech almost half a century ago, in 1969, in which he declared that the Liberal government of the time ‘‘has boasted about the increasing number of women in the workforce. Rather than something to be proud of, I feel it is something of which we should be ashamed.’’
Words, after all, are the tools of trade of politicians.
We figure we can learn a lot from the first words of those we have elected, particularly when we look back at them. It is often the last time we hear the unvarnished idealism of a politician before the edges get rubbed off by the daily reality of wheeling, dealing and number-crunching.
A startling exception was one of the least polished politicians to find herself in parliament. Pauline Hanson never lost the edge she established with her “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians” speech in 1996, in which she claimed indigenous Australians were being given too much of everything and that multiculturalism was a crock. Whatever else it achieved, Ms Hanson’s first speech rocketed her to the front pages and kept her there for a long time.
Those trying to understand Kevin Rudd could hardly have done better than to refer to the first four words of his 1988 maiden speech: ‘‘Politics is about power.’’ Naturally, he went on for another 21 minutes.
We can take what we will from Tony Abbott’s first utterance in the House of Representatives in 1994: ‘‘On the corner of Castlereagh and Hunter streets in Sydney stands a monument to mark the site of the first Christian service in Australia. The preacher, the Reverend Richard Johnson, took as his text: ‘What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me?’ It is just a small stone obelisk hardly noticed by the thousands of passers-by and dwarfed by skyscrapers, yet its message of faith and hope is fundamental to our nation’s success and the key to Australia’s future.’’
The first speech grants all parliamentarians the blessed opportunity to declare - to a silenced, respectful chamber for the first and probably last time in their careers - what Liberal MP Christian Porter defined in his maiden speech last year to be ‘‘the existential questions of politics: who is the member? Why are they here? What do they believe?’’
All very well for a practised orator like Mr Porter, who had already served as attorney-general and treasurer in the West Australian state parliament before transferring to federal politics.
His maiden speech in Canberra seemed effortlessly amusing and insightful. It turned upon the received memory of his father, Chilla Porter, ‘‘a painfully angular 19-year-old Brisbane boy with a physique the cross between a praying mantis and a wire coat hanger’’ competing for six hours in the high jump on the first day of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, the longest and most engrossing event in Olympic history.
‘‘His sole possessions,’’ Porter told the hushed Parliament, ‘‘totalled an ill-fitting Australian team tracksuit and a pair of Buddy Holly-style horn-rimmed glasses.
‘‘After over six hours of competition, the entire crowd remained at the MCG, well into the deep cusp of twilight. They watched breathless as Chilla Porter, on his third and final attempt at six foot 11½ inches, clipped the bar ever so gently. It wobbled for what seemed like an age and eventually dislodged and fell in silence with him to the sandpit. In the result, he was beaten by the great African-American athlete Charles Dumas...’’
Porter went on to weave an engrossing dissertation on how this event, which had occurred long before he was born, had inspired him (‘‘that such an unassuming man as my father could achieve so much by combining comparatively modest raw ability with sheer will is proof definitive of the wonderful idea that with effort almost anything is possible’’) and how so many things in life are so finely balanced.
It was a masterful speech, establishing Porter as a man to watch, just as, say, Melbourne’s Josh Frydenberg staked a spot in 2010 when he related that ‘‘I see my journey to this place in the continuum of my family’s story’’ and went on to tell of part of his family arriving in Australia ‘‘while Europe was plunging into darkness’’, of other relatives perishing in the Holocaust and of an aunt who escaped the Nazis after imprisonment in Auschwitz. Here were spell-binding stories told by great storytellers.
But for every such effort there are numerous fresh arrivals in Canberra who are struck with dread and dry mouths at the very thought of rising from their new benches and speechifying for the first time before colleagues, the parliamentary TV cameras and, why, the entire nation.
Consider Ricky Muir, the new senator representing the Motoring Enthusiast Party, a young man from a Gippsland sawmill who, as far as we know, has uttered barely two words in public and who, when lured on to TV by Mike Willesee, was literally struck dumb.
Senator Muir could, of course, astound us. Could he find in the beating heart of the internal combustion engine a metaphor for a nation?
The incoming dozen senators - particularly the six from micro-parties: Glenn Lazarus, Dio Wang and Jacqui Lambie from the Palmer United Party, Bob Day from Family First, David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democratic Party and Muir - all offer rich possibilities, though big-party tragics will also be awaiting enthusiastically the opening words of the new West Australian Labor Senator, Joe Bullock, who is on record as having described Labor members as ‘‘mad’’.
All, you’d imagine, will be swotting up in the parliamentary library. Churchill may be required, though it might be best for the new senators, most of whom have been elected on tiny primary votes, to bypass the Churchillian: Never in the field of conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
Around 600 senators (and 1644 members of the House of Representatives) have delivered first speeches since 1901. All might have wished for the sort of attention about to be focused on a handful of outsiders.