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Cracking the whip -

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Cracking the whip

Broadcast: 25/11/2010

Reporter: Heather Ewart

A behind the scenes look at life in the new Parliament.

Transcript

TRACY BOWDEN, PRESENTER: The Senate is sitting late into tonight on the final scheduled
parliamentary sitting day of the year to try to ram through Government legislation for Telstra
involvement in the rollout of the National Broadband Network.

A vote isn't expected until tomorrow and the House of Representatives will be called back to sit on
Monday to rubber stamp a series of bills before the summer break.

It's been a long, tough and tumultuous year for federal politicians, none moreso than for the party
whips, who've had their work cut out for them coping with the hung Parliament and numbers on a
knife edge.

Political editor Heather Ewart.

HEATHER EWART, REPORTER: They don't call him the whip for nothing. In these strange, new political
times of a minority Government, it's a very useful skill for the Liberal Party's Warren Entsch to
have.

Never has the roll of party whips in rounding up their troops for crucial votes assumed greater
importance, and that task falls to these two men.

JOEL FITZGIBBON, CHIEF GOVERNMENT WHIP: Well, I think the so-called new paradigm has put a lot of
pressure on all occupants of this building, but particularly those in leadership positions, and of
course on the whips. It's been a tough task, but it's been an interesting task. Every day's an
unpredictable day and I've quite enjoyed that, to be honest.

WARREN ENTSCH, CHIEF OPPOSITION WHIP: Like Joel, neither of us aspired to this job. The phone call
I think in both cases come totally out of the blue. And I think when we walked through the door in
the first instance, we've had this discussion, we wondered what in the hell had hit us. But,
nevertheless, I mean, we've settled into it reasonably well.

HEATHER EWART: Their workloads have doubled since the last election. First and foremost, they have
to keep tabs on every one of their members, pretty much at all times, to make sure they're in the
House for every single vote on every bill and motion. Woe betide the member who forgets his or her
beeper or doesn't have a good excuse.

WARREN ENTSCH: One had a illness, I guess, and was trying to get to the chamber, but just couldn't
make it in time, and you accept that - once. In another occasion, I had a member that had forgotten
to collect this. Well, it won't happen again. I can assure you it won't happen again.

HEATHER EWART: The whips are responsible for handing out questions for that major piece of theatre
in the Parliament and for lining up the order of speakers on legislation and motions before the
House.

The so-called new paradigm is taking quite a bit of adjustment, not just for the whips, but for all
the members, especially those who are used to the days when the Government ruled the roost in the
Parliament and the occasional long dinner break out of the building would go unnoticed.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: The longer people have been around the place, the more difficult it is for them to
get used to the new environment. New members of course have known nothing else and don't expect to
get out of the place whenever it suits them. But those who've been around for a while are finding
it hard to adjust, and that's to be expected.

WARREN ENTSCH: So you crawl all over the new ones very quickly in the piece, and make 'em
understand, you know, the whip is everything that they read about and feared. And that works.

HEATHER EWART: To reinforce the point, the former Queensland crocodile farmer likes to give new
members added incentive to toe the line.

WARREN ENTSCH: This came from my crocodile farm. This is one that I personally skinned. And I
thought this is one that stepped outta line. And so, that was a result of not doing the right thing
by me and I thought it's a great message to be sent to any of my colleagues when you're trying to
whip them and get 'em to co-operate. Mate, have a look at that crocodile. He was one that didn't do
the right thing.

HEATHER EWART: The Labor whip thinks you can catch more flies with honey, so he has plates of
lollies and cake at the front door of his office to keep his team happy.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well it's difficult for them to learn, but I've often made the point that making
sure they're all here for divisions is not the hardest part because each and every one of them know
that if they miss a division and cost the Government, in my case, a vote, they'll be on the front
page of every newspaper tomorrow for all of the wrong reasons. So there's a fair bit of motivation
there.

WARREN ENTSCH: Including in their own electorate.

HEATHER EWART: While Labor boasts it hasn't lost a vote yet on a piece of legislation, the
Opposition doesn't have the same unblemished record, but it's learning fast. When those division
bells are ringing, the head count is on.

But keeping track of divisions on legislation, the whips say, is the easiest part. Under new rules
negotiated by the independents, there are a lot more private members bills where voting patterns
can be unpredictable.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Obviously that builds tension around the place and Warren and I and others, I
suppose, spend a lot of time trying to manage what goes into the Parliament and what doesn't. And
then after that, making sure that our respective sides get the right outcome.

WARREN ENTSCH: And it's also managing - and I have to say this - managing the expectation of the
independents and the crossbenchers too because that can be a challenge at times.

TONY WINDSOR, INDEPENDENT: Well I know both of them personally and they are challenged. (Laughs).

ROB OAKESHOTT, INDEPENDENT: (Laughs). It's a back-handed compliment.

TONY WINDSOR: And I thank them for their wisdom. I do. We get on well with both the whips. They're
good people. They know the game.

HEATHER EWART: The biggest change of all happens in a conference room twice a week near the front
door of the House of Representatives when the Parliament is sitting. That's when all the party
whips, the Speaker of the House, Greens member Adam Bandt and independent Rob Oakeshott decide the
order of business in the House and what time is allocated for debates on bills and motions.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Most powerful committee in the Parliament.

WARREN ENTSCH: And we do have moments in that process, but it's ...

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Come on, come on, come on, come on - brawls, I would call them.

WARREN ENTSCH: Well, that too. I mean, we don't talk about the time I jumped across the table, OK?
I But, I had to be restrained. But the Speaker did a good job.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: That's only half true.

WARREN ENTSCH: But the reality is that it's only about five weeks. It's a totally new concept. And
sometimes things can be a little bit difficult there. But I guess as we move into next year, you
get a much better understanding of what you need to do and how to achieve things and I'm sure that
we all concede that at this stage we still got our trainer wheels on.

HEATHER EWART: Do you think everyone still has their trainer wheels on?

ROB OAKESHOTT: Oh, they shouldn't talk about themselves like that.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE, MANAGER OF OPPOSITION BUSINESS: Mr Speaker, I regard the last three words of the
leader's question and answer, which was the leader of the House's answer, which was clearly
designed to impugn the Member for Wentworth as highly disorderly.

SPEAKER: Sit down.

TONY WINDSOR: I think people would like to see Christopher Pyne have a puncher on his training
wheels. I've enjoyed the Parliament and I'm getting a bit sick of seeing Christopher every day on a
monocycle.

HEATHER EWART: The theatrics of Parliament set aside, what's central to its smooth operation is
that the Opposition and Labor whips get along. Their offices are right next door to each other and
the occasionally share a bottle of red to iron out problems and differences. At the end of this
tumultuous political year, they're pretty happy with their lot.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: People sitting back looking on the Parliament now I think would say, "Well,
despite all the fuss post-election, the Parliament seems to be functioning OK and we seem to be
getting good government."

WARREN ENTSCH: Hasn't shut down.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Enstchy and I of course take a fair bit of the credit for that.

WARREN ENTSCH: Take all the credit - what do you mean? All of the ...

JOEL FITZGIBBON: OK, we'll take all of it.

TRACY BOWDEN: Political editor Heather Ewart there.