Rejoining the Canberra Press Gallery: How it happened and what it means

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(Image via @davrosz)

Political editor Dr Martin Hirst talks about being back in the Press Gallery on behalf of IA.

We’ve done it. IA has gained a place in the Canberra Press Gallery. After months of work, putting together our submission, seeking endorsements from IA subscribers and current members of the Gallery, and preparing a portfolio of my work to be scrutinised by the committee.

In the four days our GoFundMe campaign has been live we’ve already reached 75 per cent of our initial goal of $10,000.

Thanks very much to everyone who’s donated so far and to all of you who will donate. With just a little more help, it looks like we will be in Canberra for the Budget session in May.

From application to attending

Getting back into the game was a labour of love for me. I was curious about my chances of getting back into the Press Gallery after such a long absence and on behalf of an upstart media outfit that makes friends and enemies quickly and in almost equal measure. (I’m sure we have more friends than enemies, judging your generosity so far.)

So now I’m pleased, but also apprehensive. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear from you.

I was only a bit confident about the outcome at first. I knew our application was pretty good and that it ticked all the Gallery’s required boxes, but that was no guarantee they’d accept it.

We applied under the rules for ‘Freelancers, Bloggers and New Organisations’, which required us to get endorsements from existing members of the Gallery. And I’d like to thank the Gallery members who endorsed our application.

I don’t know, but our path may have been made a little easier by the fact that I have previously held Gallery accreditation. I worked as a correspondent for SBS for nearly three years from 1990 to 1993, so I had experience and some credibility perhaps.

Anyway, we’re in.

I was in Canberra on the 28th and 29th of March to collect my yellow pass from the Security Pass Office and took the opportunity to escort managing editor Dave Donovan and Sydney bureau chief Ross Jones around the building.

It was quite a nostalgic trip for me and it took me all afternoon to familiarise myself with all the routes around the non-public parts of Parliament House.

It reminded me that one of the missions we have in being in the Gallery is to show you what’s behind the curtain.

A lot of the important centres of power in Canberra are hidden in plain sight. The non-public parts of the Parliament building, like George Brandis’ diaries, hold a lot of secrets that they are unwilling to share with the public.

A peak behind the curtain

The Press Gallery exists very much – and almost entirely – behind this curtain. Journalists share in the privileged access that MPs, senators and senior bureaucrats enjoy, behind the plush velvet curtains and in the quiet, private cloisters that dot the expansive terrain.

The division between those in front of and behind the curtain is symbolically represented by the new chain fence that now closes off public access to the grassy roof of Parliament. If you were to extend the plane of this fence vertically, down through the building itself, its location would almost exactly map the curtain of secrecy that hangs visibly and invisibly inside the corridors of power.

The Parliamentary pass system is used to heavily police the boundaries symbolised by the fence and the curtain. Public access is restricted to several gallery-type spaces and entry is gained only after a serious security scan.

The galleries are there to display the trappings of power; but they are carefully chosen so as to cow the beholder with a "look, but don’t touch" attitude and with a sense of "See, these are the tools and badges of the powerful. Your role, citizen, is to honour and obey, not to question or challenge."

The Press Gallery knows this; it always has. This is not a critique of individuals, I’m not singling out anyone or any organisation. The Press Gallery is as much an attitude as it is an institution.

Collectively, the Gallery polices its own behaviour and its rules are crafted in such a way that those who are really "in-charge" in Parliament House know that journalists and media people will follow the rules.

IA''s only allegiance, however, is reporting the truth to the public — one of the reasons we may have had do much difficulty gaining entry to the Gallery (Image via pressgallery.net.au)

And there are lots of rules — 30 pages. Many areas behind the curtain are also off-limits to journalists. Sure, we can walk around the corridors, but in these off-limits areas no reporting or recording of news is allowed.

In fact, the rules are so tough and so opaque that, on our first afternoon, Dave and I were told off and Dave escorted from the Press Gallery above the Reps’ chamber.

Yep, I’ve had that pass for less than 24 hours and I’m already in trouble. You see, I hadn’t read the rules for a while – 25 years to be exact – and they had been "updated" several times during that quarter of a century.

Dave and I were not allowed to take photographs from the Press Gallery because of a few reasons and the Serjeant-at-Arms threw the book at us.

  1. Only accredited Gallery members can take photographs. On Dave’s escorted pass he should not have been in the Parliamentary Press Gallery with me during Question Time, and certainly not taking pictures.
  2. Only those accredited photographers can take still images inside the chamber (from the Gallery) and are subject to another half page of terms and conditions.
  3. Taking pictures on hand-held devices is not permitted in the Press Gallery.

These last two seem to make a mockery of new digital and citizen journalism modes; it protects an out-of-date model and means that if there’s not a photographer present, it didn’t happen.

Anyway, between us, Dave and I broke all three rules and, to make matters worse, I did all these things while not wearing my jacket. Yes, I was in breach of the dress code too.

The whole incident was a surreal reminder that the media’s tenure in Parliament is no more than a tolerated tradition; it is not a "right" of "press freedom". At any moment, the rules can be invoked to prevent a journalist’s access to the news makers and the democratic process, such as it is.

But there are much more important rules about access to those who exist behind the curtain. The conditions of access are skewed to favour the already rich and the already powerful and to disenfranchise those whose labour produces the wealth of the wealthy.

Who really gets to "access all areas" in Canberra?

The politicians and their few trusted aides get passes, which allow them access to all the restricted areas behind the curtain. Access is coded and some secrets are really well protected. Journalists are in a privileged middle ground. We have access, but there are still limits.

For example, I shouldn’t have tweeted on Tuesday night about seeing a Senator in a well-appointed Canberra restaurant. Even though it’s off-campus, it is still protected by the outer folds of the invisible curtain.

The access gate-keeping starts a long way from the Parliamentary precinct. It kicks in at Canberra airport itself. There are very few who travel to the nation’s capital on a tourist visa; most of the weekday arrivals and departures in Canberra are mission-related.

The serious mission in Canberra is lobbying — influence-peddling. There are armies of privately-employed suits whose sole job is to facilitate access to the offices of the powerful few who live behind the protection of walls and curtains that obscure our everyday view of politics.

As you drive into the capital city there are constant reminders of just how well-cocooned Australia’s political elites are in Canberra.

Royal Military College, Duntroon, is the first discernible Canberra landmark you see on the road into the parliamentary precinct. Duntroon is the home of Australia’s military elite; a training ground for officers and an unhappy place for many recruits. Then Russell Hill, home to Australia’s defence establishment and spies. It’s not on the scale of the Pentagon, but it contains Australia’s share of dark military secrets.

As you get closer to Parliament House the landscape thickens with massive post-war office blocks, austere and menacing, but somehow rendered less sinister by the established parklands that soften the built environment. Interspersed with the official buildings are the semi-official office blocks, with names like Motor Trades Association House, Pharmacy Guild House, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry''s building Commerce House.

These corporate bunkers server a dual function. They protect Parliament from the rabble, they are the front line, the trenches and foxholes occupied by the shock troops of capitalism. They are an effective barrier – physically visually and symbolically – between the "representatives" of our failing "democracy" and the "people", the "populi".

Here the voice of the people is muted by the blaring of corporate power. The voice of the people is similarly muted inside the Parliament itself.

Not only is the explicit role of people inside Parliament bear silent witness, thereby signalling the public’s tacit agreement with the actions and ideologies expressed inside; the ‘Rules’ also prevent journalists from seeking comment ‘vox populi’ from members of the public while they are in the Parliamentary precinct.

However, there is no rule to silence the corporate lobbyists and the CEOs when they come to town.

Diaries are cleared and the honoured guests are ushered through the curtain quickly so that they can deliver their message directly to the representatives. Then, on cue and perfectly in tune with the rules – written and unwritten – the CEOs and the lobbyists front the Press Gallery which, almost without question, amplifies and passes on the key thoughts, the spin and the reification, once again, of the "powerful" as the "natural".

We got a great example of this operational double standard while in Parliament House last week.

After Dave and I left the Gallery under a cloud, we were walking though the non-public area and found ourselves outside Aussie’s Café (a coffee shop behind the curtain) and in the middle of a crowd of trade unionists from the Australian Services’ Union (ASU).

These unionists – among some of Australia’s lowest paid workers) – had been lobbying MPs about the proposed Fair Work Australia cut to penalty rates. We weren’t allowed to interview them in that location – Aussie’s is specifically mentioned as a place where journalism is prohibited – but during our chat we learned that the delegates had not secured one single appointment with a coalition member, except for Social Services Minister Christian Porter.

We got the distinct impression that Mr Porter’s response to the delegation was not what they wanted to hear.

However, a lobbying effort by the Business Council of Australia to back in the Government’s proposed corporate tax cuts was warmly received behind the curtain and accorded front page treatment in the business pages of the press.

By contrast, The Australian found a way to vilify the union delegation on its front page by smearing a cleaner and part-time (unpaid) union official for daring to be in Canberra politicking when she should be at her miserable low-pad job, with her ungrateful head down and keeping well and truly STFU.

Well, you know what?

If I’m going back to Canberra, back to the Press Gallery and back into that depressing pit of ego, subterfuge and sucking up that is our Federal Parliament, I’m doing it for only one reason: To expose what goes on behind the curtain; not to be complicit in ensuring only the approved messages and approved images get past the gate-keepers.

I’m doing it so that the cleaners and cooks from the ASU can have their stories told when they come to town to fight for wage justice. I’m doing it so that when the highly-paid corporate lobbyists try to sneak behind the curtain to grease the palms and seek the favours, they don’t get to do it in secret.

I’m going to tell you that I think the member for Goldstein, Tim Wilson, is a loud and arrogant bully from his hideaway on the Government’s backbench. He is a jeer-leader for Trumble and he’s obnoxiously blatant about enjoying his shitstirrer role. You won’t see that when Question Time is televised, but if I’m there to witness it and I think you need to know; then I’ll tell you about it.

That, as I see it, is my new job.

I’m taking a few weeks off from my column. I need to work on another project and I need a break before I venture back to Canberra in May.

See you soon.

Support Independent Australia's crowdfunding campaign to get Dr Martin Hirst to the Canberra Press Gallery HERE.

You can follow Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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