News National Filibustering: How it started and why it’s used

Filibustering: How it started and why it’s used

The federal opposition and crossbenchers were left frustrated by the Morrison government's delaying tactics. Photo: Getty
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The first sitting year of 2019 has been a real rollercoaster, as Australia lurches towards an election.

Dr Kerryn Phelps’ medevac bill passed both houses following last-minute Labor amendments, while a mid-week scuffle involving Senator Brian Burston and Pauline Hanson’s chief of staff, James Ashby, resulted in the One Nation staffer having his parliamentary pass stripped and being banned from entering Parliament.

But the government, already reeling from a maiden loss on the floor of the House of Representatives, avoided a second defeat in three days with extraordinary filibuster tactics.

Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John’s push for a royal commission into institutional abuse of disabled people was scuttled after the Morrison government extended Question Time for a record-breaking 150 minutes.

However, the government indicated it would not block the passage of the proposal when Parliament resumes next week.

Filibusters like that witnessed this week have a long history in global politics. So where did they come from, and in what contexts are they used?

Watch: Jordon Steele-John criticises the Morrison government over delaying tactics

The history of the filibuster

Filibustering relates to a stalling tactic used by lawmakers, where they, sometimes in tandem with other parliamentarians, speak for hours in hope of delaying a vote.

The Roman Senate provided the origins for the use, and abuse, of the obstructive political procedure that is as much a mental endurance test as it is a physical one.

One senator in particular, Cato the Younger, became notorious for his lengthy addresses in opposition to proposed legislation, dragging on until sunset – when Rome’s Senate was required to disband for the day.

The US Senate became the most notable site of filibustering after a loophole was exposed in the early 1800s, though today, a majority of senators (60 out of 100) can bring a debate to a vote.

US Senator Huey Long was one of a number of American politicians to take advantage of the constitutional loophole. Photo: Getty

However, some of the longest filibusters in history have tested the patience of listeners and speakers alike.

In 1935, colourful Louisiana Democrat Huey Long attempted to obstruct his political enemies from obtaining jobs in his home state by reciting the US Constitution, Shakespeare and recipes for salads and oysters.

Strom Thormund broke the record for the longest solo US filibuster 22 years later in his objection to the 1957 Civil Rights Act, rambling on for 24 hours and 18 minutes before concluding: “I expect to vote against the bill.”

Other houses of parliament around the world have also engaged in the practice, albeit on a smaller scale.

The floor leader of South Korea’s then-opposition party attempts to stave off a vote on anti-terror legislation. Photo: Getty

South Korea’s then-opposition Minjoo Party holds the record for longest combined filibuster – party members spoke against against an anti-terror bill for a combined 193 hours in 2016.

Closer to home, New Zealand politicians in 2009 delayed the passage of local government reforms by proposing thousands of amendments in Maori, all of which had to be translated into English.

How did filibustering enter Australian politics?

Both Australian houses are governed by strict rules that limit the amount of time a sitting MP can speak. However, this was not always the case.

Then-Labor leader in the Senate, Albert Gardiner, spoke for a monumental 12 hours and 40 minutes on the Commonwealth Electoral Act on August 15, 1919, prompting rule changes to match the lower house.

In the present day, speeches are generally limited to 20 minutes, except in rare circumstances.

Female House of Representatives crossbenchers abstain from a vote to suspend standing orders on the last day of parliament in 2018. Photo: Getty

In 2016, the government, annoyed by the House of Representatives frustrating the passage of legislation, was forced into extended speeches on their favourite TV shows and superfoods, because they had nothing else to talk about.

And notably, the Morrison government filibustered in the Senate to prevent Dr Phelps’ medevac laws from entering the House of Representatives before its adjournment on the final sitting day of last year.

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