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Members' seating and office space arrangements before the opening of Parliament are prepared by the Serjeant-at-Arms' office.

BRUCE WEBSTER: This week, provocative views on some forthcoming legislation; we investigate orientation programs for new Members, and where they will be seated in the House of Representatives for the start of the 36th Parliament.

Lyn Simons has been the Serjeant-at-Arms in the House of Representatives for the past five years. She performs various public duties such as carrying the Mace into the House, escorting suspended Members from the Chamber, or strangers from the public galleries, and delivering messages from the House of Representatives across to the Senate. However, a significant proportion of her time is spent on administrative duties and she's been particularly busy over the recent non-sitting period.

LYN SIMONS: Immediately the election was announced, my office actually goes into full red alert. A lot of the rest of the parliamentary departments of course, have very little to do during the great break. Usually when an election is called, we have quite a few Members that have already announced their retirement, so in the lead up to the election, we start helping them pack their offices and sort of finish up their role as Member.

Immediately after the election, that's when we really get busy. We have to work out an allocation of rooms for the Whips. The Whips actually allocate the specific rooms but we need to provide a ratio based listing for the Whips, to make sure that each Whip gets his fair share of the good rooms - the rooms with the view, the rooms that are close to Chambers, close to the dining room, those sorts of options. We've been incredibly busy for the last couple of weeks. In the old building, we always assumed there would be a lot of room changes because the rooms varied dramatically in size and in location.

In the new building, we assumed that because the rooms are mostly similar, in terms of the facilities they offer, that there wouldn't be quite so many changes, but unfortunately, we miscalculated greatly. We had over eighty room changes, and that's not too bad when you've only got 148 Members. As well as that, we've got massive amounts of equipment to move. In the old building, the rooms were so small that a Member was lucky to get his briefcase in, much more than anything else. Now the rooms are so large, we've got lots of computer systems, most Members now have faxes, and if you've got a large amount of space, you will fill it up, so lots of papers, books, libraries - they almost all have their own mini-libraries now. Of course, Members move the furniture around to suit themselves, so we then had to put the furniture all back to the way it was meant to be. Although the furniture is all modular, it's still very solid furniture and it takes some time to pull it down and then reconstruct it.

JENNY HUTCHISON: We've been talking about the allocation of office space. What about the allocation of seats within the House of Representatives Chamber?

LYN SIMONS: The way the seats are allocated varies according to the party. The National Party allocates the seats themselves, usually in consultations between the Whip and the Leader. The Liberal Party and the Labor Party is done in the Serjeant's office, so in fact, often immediately after an election, if one Member looks slightly unwell in terms of the numbers, I have quite a few Members ringing up, saying, look, Fred's seat looks as if it's a little bit dicey. Can I have his seat please, if he loses his seat. So I usually run a sort of a preference list on a first come, first served basis, and then allocate the seats, you know, once the numbers are actually known and we know who has been defeated.

JENNY HUTCHISON: So what sorts of preferences do Members have?

LYN SIMONS: It varies on what their history has been within the party. I mean, if you've got a Member that's young and going places, obviously they'd like to be close to the frontbench, where they feel they are in the thick of things. If you've got a Member who has perhaps already been on the frontbench and for one reason or another, is no longer on the frontbench, occasionally they are quite happy to go and sit up the back. In the last Parliament, we had a couple of Members like that, so John Brown, Mr Cohen, for example, sat up the back. The new Members, it is interesting to see how they choose their seats.

Sometimes they really feel they want to be up the front, but when they go into the Chamber and try out a few seats, often they're perfectly content to be up the back for their first little while in Parliament, until they settle down and get the feel of the place. From the back rows, in fact, you've got the whole of the Chamber in front of you and they feel much more comfortable up there, at least for the first few months.

JENNY HUTCHISON: There were allegations which may well have been false, that in the last Parliament, the placement of certain Labor Members immediately behind the frontbench, was specifically to give them a possibility of being seen on television. These were people in very marginal seats.

LYN SIMONS: I think there was probably quite some truth in that and I don't think it was only the Labor Party. These sorts of moves can be achieved much more subtly than everyone changing places on one day. The installation of the cameras in the Chamber, of course, made quite an impact on who is in view, and the seats you're talking about are the ones immediately behind the dispatch boxes, so that if Question Time is televised, you're obviously going to have a Minister at the dispatch box and the questions are often asked from the Opposition side from the dispatch box as well. Sure, a lot of Members consider that it's in their interest to have their faces brought to the public's attention. I think that not only brings with it the publicity but also a responsibility. I mean, I frankly wouldn't like to have the cameras on my face at any lengthy periods of time. It means you have got to really be aware, you can't appear to yawn at the wrong time. I mean, anything you do then can be misinterpreted and I think they run some risk of having their actions in the Chamber taken out of context. Double edged sword, that one.

JENNY HUTCHISON: I understand that the new Parliamentary Secretaries will be in fact, in those positions in the new Parliament.

LYN SIMONS: Yes, that's true.

JENNY HUTCHISON: And on the Liberal side too?

LYN SIMONS: No, on the Liberal side, they've chosen to put the Parliamentary Secretaries on the side aisle. The main reason for that was that they have better access to the table, if it's decided that they will speak from the table.

BRUCE WEBSTER: Lyn Simons with Jenny Hutchison. The Serjeant-at-Arms is currently fine tuning plans for the formal opening of the Parliament on Tuesday afternoon. Other members of the parliamentary departments have been involved in orientation programs for new Senators and Members. Michael Salkeld was director of studies for the Lower House seminar.

MICHAEL SALKELD: Our big problem is that in trying to ascertain the content of such a program, as you would expect, there is a lot for parliamentarians to come to terms with, and what we attempt to do is give them a brief introduction to what they're going to be confronted with here in their early days as Members of the House of Representatives. But as always, we had many things that we could have included but weren't able to because of time constraints. In this Parliament we had a former Senator, now Member of the House; we had five or six members of State Legislatures, five from New South Wales and one from Victoria. And of course, what you're trying to do is balance a program that will allow those Members to get some information that they're not aware of, but by the same token, you need to look after the new people.

The sorts of things that we cover, we start with normally a welcome and introduction - or that's what we did this time, where we had the Speaker, the Honourable Leo McLeay, MP, to introduce the senior officers of the department, and then we went on and talked about explanation of the opening procedures for the new Parliament, and the swearing in ceremony, etc etc. We followed that with a short, a very useful piece by Bruce Webster of the ABC, who explained to parliamentarians how to make the best use of the parliamentary broadcasting system. I should say, this time that the program had to be curtailed as to the number of actual face to face presentations because this was the first seminar to be held in the new building and of course, in the old building, whilst it took a little bit of getting used to, the fact is, this building is so vast that because we didn't want the parliamentarians to get lost in their first few weeks, we spent a number of minutes, broken up over a period of the two days, where we took Members in groups around the building, so that they became familiar with some of the places that they may not need to go to regularly, but at least now they had an idea of where to go.

On the last day, we covered things like the running of an electorate office and the personal effect Parliament and its sittings have on the Member and the Member's family, but we actually had the Opposition Whip, Mr Halverson, MP, and we had Mr Michael Lavarch, MP.

As well as that, we had Ms Bertha Williamson who was private secretary of the Speaker, and used to work in the Speaker's electorate office, and Mrs Linda Lavarch, the wife of Michael Lavarch, and they covered all aspects concerning running of an electorate office, hiring of staff, the sort of issues they're going to be confronted with continually, on a day to day basis. Plus, Linda Lavarch gave a very good presentation on the effects on a Member's spouse, with the constant travelling to attend sittings of the House and also when they're required to travel in connection with their parliamentary duties, or committee activities. And that was received very well by the Members and there was a number of questions, probably more in that session than in any other, as they had a group of people there who had experienced it over a long period of time and they were able to get a great deal of feedback.

JENNY HUTCHISON: So there's some very practical sessions in this two day ...

MICHAEL SALKELD: Oh absolutely. Well, it's very little theoretical. It's practical things that they need to know.

JENNY HUTCHISON: It is a rather intriguing concept, isn't it? We have this amazing group of people - your 32 people last week, which include Ian McLachlan, people of such ...


JENNY HUTCHISON: ... an incredible range of past activities and achievements.

MICHAEL SALKELD: Oh absolutely.

JENNY HUTCHISON: But all being treated as new boys and girls.

MICHAEL SALKELD: That's right, and Minister Crean did attend for almost all the sessions. He had to return to Melbourne there for a short period but he came back the next day because he was really interested in what was being provided and he recognised the importance of being involved in such a seminar.