Knee humbles government

by Chris Griffith
Published 13 Oct 1996 in The Sunday Mail


my face


I t's been daubed "Connor's kneecap nightmare", the fateful twist of Public Works and Housing Minister Ray Connor's knees that on Friday night saw the Borbidge Government limping from crisis to crisis in State Parliament.

In a humiliating 90 minutes, the Government not only found itself missing one politician in State Parliament and defeated on a key amendment to its Public Service Bill.

It found itself again defeated when Gladstone Independent Liz Cunningham voted with Labor to stop the Government breaking the rules of Parliament.

And in a triple whammy, Queensland's key gun law debate which was scheduled to begin on Friday night had to be jettisoned only after one speaker so that the Government could address its self-inflicted crisis.

So how did it all happen?

At around 11pm on Friday night, State Parliament was soberly and meticulously debating four amendments moved by Premier Bob Borbidge to clause 116 of the much troubled Public Service Bill.

"The question is that the clause as amended be part of the Bill", the Clerk announced.

A division was called.

Four minutes later, he read the result: "the ayes' 39, the nos' 40's".

Wild cheers and laughter erupted as it dawned on Labor that it had won the vote, and the Government effectively had lost control of Parliament.

The reason: Public Works and Housing Minister Ray Connor had not made it to the House to vote.

As Labor continued to cheer and laugh, Government members had their heads in their laps.

Government whip Lawrence Springborg looked dejected, his Liberal counterpart Frank Carroll was rolling his eyes in disbelief, and Premier Borbidge was fuming.

One excited Labor frontbencher quipped that the Government should hold an official inquiry into where Mr Connor was, and another protracted round of laughter followed.

Not knowing what to do, a dazed Government immediately dumped its debate on the Public Service Bill.

Labor frontbencher Tom Barton was called to give a pre-arranged speech on the gun laws while behind the scenes the Coalition sought to come to grips with the crisis and regroup - and to find Mr Connor.

Reporters found a shaking Mr Connor standing with his chauffeur outside his room.

"You ask him, you ask him, he was there," was his opening remark before anyone posed a question.

Mr Connor was referring to his ministerial chauffeur Michael Catton, who he said had tried to carry him to the chamber when the division was called.

"See that there", said Mr Connor pointing to his leg. "I've had knee operations, 8 or 9 years ago ... I just couldn't stand up."

He said he was sitting at his desk when the division bells rang warning him that he had four minutes to be inside the House.

As usual, he allowed himself about 1 1/2 minutes to finish his work. His office is not far from the chamber.

"When I tried to stand up, my knees collapsed beneath me. I fell on the floor, on my shoulder.

Mt chauffeur tried to lift me up.

"I was yelling `Get me to the chamber!' He (Mr Catton) tried, we got out in the corridoor, not far from the chamber, but we just didn't make it."

"I can't believe it! I can't believe it! I've never missed a division, ever!"

Mr Catton corroborated the story. He said: "I was there at the time, and his knees just went ... he tried to get up and he just kept on falling to the ground.

Mr Connor said Orthaopaedic surgeon Dr Dodd had performed knee reconstruction surgery on him 10 years ago to repair his long-standing football injuries.

He said he had played prop for Manly Boys' High in a Sydney Rugby Union competition, and 2nd row for Chatswood in a NSW Police Rugby League competition.

Meanwhile, Parliament was abuzz with activity. MPs on both sides were running around behind the scenes, including Mr Borbidge.

He said he wasn't angry once he understood what had happened.

"He hadn't fallen asleep, he wasn't absent without an excuse, it wasn't one of those circumstances," Mr Borbidge said.

"His legs collapsed, he had knee surgery.

"He's now sitting in the chamber and we shall reput the question.

"Obviously, I want him to go and see the doctors and have it checked out. It's not the sort of thing we would want happening regularly.

When asked what did the defeat mean to the Government's Public Service Bill, Mr Borbidge said: "It doesn't mean much at all, all it means is that we effectively have to adjourn debate, and reput clause 116."

Standing in the corridor, Mr Borbidge outlined the government's plan for the rest of the evening.

"We'll adjourn the gun debate, go back into the Public Service Bill, reput that particular clause, go through the rest of the Public Service Bill, and we might come back into the gun debate."

He certainly sounded reassuring, but as events panned out, the best-laid plans of mice and men were to come unstuck.

It was now after 11.30pm.

By then, opposition members were seen running around with curiously large pieces of paper - giant photocopies of Parliament's standing orders.

Having heard a whiff of Mr Borbidge's plan, they made it known that Mr Borbidge's plan would contravene Parliament's standing orders.

"We have a circus, not a government," quipped a buoyant Peter Beattie.

"How can you have a minister who misses a division. He should be sacked. There is no discipline in the government."

He said Mr Connor had been walking normally around Parliament since the incident.

Former Speaker Jim Fouras then provided an impromptu briefing about standing orders, quoting section 86.

It says: "A Resolution or other Order of the House may be read and rescinded; but not on the same day as that on which it was passed. A Motion for recission must be made by a Member who voted for the Resolution or Order proposed to be rescinded."

According to Mr Fouras, the government could not rescind the lost amendment on the spot, and what is more, at least one Labor MP would have to agree to it.

That was, unless the government did the unthinkable - throw out Standing Orders altogether, and then put its recission motion.

Alas, that was to be the Government's planned course and its undoing.

"It's a joke," an impassioned Mr Fouras said.

"We do suspend standing orders to make a Bill urgent, to bring it forward, but this is not common practice, this is just a joke, they can't resubmit it today.

"They're throwing the rule book out the window, and now it is Rafferty's rules.

It's absolutely outrageous."

He said if the Government were to act decently, it should resubmit the changes to its Bill at the next sitting.

Meanwhile, the huddles around the backblocks of the House continued while Tom Barton expounded the virtues of gun laws in the House.

The Sunday Mail again ran into Mr Borbidge in the corridor.

When asked whether he had Mrs Cunningham's support for his motion, he said: "She's still determining her position. You know as much as I do".

A couple of minutes before midnight, all MPs filed back in and all eyes were back on the House.

The Leader of the House, Lockyer MP Tony Fitzgerald, moved the government's recission motion including the words necessary to suspend Parliament's standing orders so that it could be put straight-away.

As midnight came, Parliament again was in uproar as Mr Beattie stood to speak.

He said the motion "to rip up" the standing orders implied that "certain political parties are above the law".

"How do you say to say to those young kids out there who are offending: `you must respect the law', if the Premier doesn't respect the law?", he told Parliament.

"You make Faulty Towers look like a tragedy.

"You say the CJC is the Keystone Cops. You are the Keystone Cops."

As time passed, Mrs Cunningham began to look noticiably troubled by this debate.

As Mr Beattie continued, and later former minister Matt Foley spoke, Cunningham was busily walking around the Parliamentary Chamber negotiating on the amendment - with Mr Borbidge and Mr Fitzgerald on the one hand, and Mr Elder and Mr Wells on the other.

She returned to her seat and furiously began scribbling notes.

Coalition members began to look tense when she rose to speak a little later.

The tension in State Parliament was reminiscent of the day in March when she had called a news conference to announce which side of politics she would support to govern Queensland.

At first it seemed she was going to back the Coalition.

She slammed the Labor Party for its past breaches of standing orders. She said in 1994, Labor did "exactly what they are criticising the Coalition about"

Labor members jeered. But then came her punchline. "However, two wrongs don't make a right."

Mrs Cunningham confirmed she would vote with the Opposition against the recission motion.

The Government had just been told it was about to suffer its second humiliation within the hour.

The result was that Mr Fitzgerald withdrew the recission Bill to avoid any further lose of face by the Government.

But Mrs Cunningham gave a promise to support the Government's ill-fated amendment if it was moved at the next sitting - without suspending standing orders.

This means the Government's Public Service Bill last night was passed without Clause 116.

An amendment Act will now be drafted to reinsert the clause at the next parliamentary sitting.

Later, Mr Borbidge said the Government believed it had negotiated Mrs Cunningham's support for its recission motion.

But it though Mrs Cunningham had also agreed to support suspending standing orders. This turned out not to be the case.

After Parliament rose, Mrs Cunningham said her decision was "difficult in the sense that I knew the implications for the government".

"There was an option, it wasn't as if the thing couldn't be revisited."

She said she was not critical of Mr Connor missing the division "after all I missed a division yesterday".

"Everybody is entitled to make a mistake."

Ironically, I had met Mrs Cunningham in the Parliamentary Canteen an hour before these traumatic events.

She was accompanying the Liberals' Ted Radke, himself hobbling around on a crutch following his recent knee operation.

Mr Radke looked soemwhat alarmed when, during the conversation, she warned Mr Radke there was a division coming up.

Mr Radke, however, made that division despite the long trek from the canteen to Parliament.

For much of the night he sat beside Mrs Cunningham. His crutch, placed prominently in the Legislative Assembly aisle, was the symbol of the events.