Day in the life of a political journo

Parliament House

14 March 2012

7.30am Doors.

Hot air balloons festoon the sky above Parliament House, greeting our pollies as they arrive for work. I’m sure there’s a great hot-air pun to be made.

“Doors” is our morning tradition of greeting our MPs and Senators with a grilling as they arrive for work.

There’s a lot of talk about Bob Carr and company tax cuts this morning. Senator Eric Abetz confuses the carbon tax with the mining tax, then gives us his take on Bob Carr’s first day: “There was a waft of napthalene through the Senate as Bob Carr walked through.”

Good one Senator. Mothballs. Funny.

Pollies love to get their heads on TV. Doors can be a free kick for them. They hop out of their car, step up to the mic and have let us know what’s giving them the irrits. But they have to face the media to do it, and sometimes it gets feisty.

We’re lucky it’s sunny. In the dead of a Canberra winter, we can be standing for 45 minutes or more, in below zero temperatures. I’ve been mocked for wearing a beanie. Sometimes a girl has to choose bad hair over frostbitten ears.

8.30am Coffee time.

Aussies Café is infamous. It’s full of politicians, lobbyists, staffers and journos all gossiping and scheming. It’s where ABC journalist Chris Uhlmann first got wind of the 2010 coup on Kevin Rudd.

It’s THE best place to network and eavesdrop.

I catch up with Jamila Rivzi, adviser to Kate Ellis. I’m chatting with her about some upcoming stories for Mamamia… stay tuned!

10.15am The PM visits a small business.

When Parliament is sitting, the days are filled with doorstops. Pollies will send out an alert and we all gather in one of the courtyards to listen to their spiel and throw some questions at them.

Occasionally we go “off campus”. It’s usually Tony Abbott dragging us to a small business in Queanbeyan or Fyshwick, where we don high –vis vests and follow him around a factory, while he tries out some power tools and makes a clever pun about how the government is “screwing” or “nailing” or “hammering” the people with the carbon tax.

Today he’s going to a solar heating business to talk about the government’s cancellation of the solar rebate.

Unfortunately at the exact minute we receive his alert, the PM issues her own, saying she’s heading to a bookstore in the city.

The PM trumps the Opposition Leader. I head to the bookstore.


Julia Gillard gives a speech

We love the chance to get out of Parliament House, the sun is warm and there are books. We’re happy. But the PM makes us wait. Some of the senior journos start to get a bit grumpy (the grumps come easy for some of them).

There’s a growing crowd outside the store. The mass of journos and cameras has tipped them off that someone important is coming. They’re right; eventually the PM arrives. Julia Gillard spends some time with the staff at the store. It’s for the cameras and it’s awkward to watch the staged conversation.

We park ourselves on some chairs and a couch in the shop. It’s not often we get to sit, so we’re taking advantage.  When the PM walks up to the microphones, she giggles and comments, “We don’t often offer a couch at press conferences do we?”

Julia Gillard is friendly with the Press Gallery journos. She has a “school marm” air about her. She treats us like her unruly students who annoy and amuse her in equal parts. She’s warm and respectful compared to some other pollies, who treat us like a recurring case of nits.

The PM announces the creation of a Small Business Commissioner to help communication between the government and small businesses. She then slams Tony Abbott for his opposition to small business tax cuts.

“I never thought I’d see the day that the Liberal party would join the Greens to vote against a tax cut for business,” she says.

When she has the time, Julia Gillard is very fair, giving everybody a chance to ask a question, even us young journos. There’s a hierarchy in the Press Gallery. If any of the senior journalists are in attendance it’s best if you shut up and let them ask the questions, or suffer their wrath for asking something they deem trivial. It’s intimidating.

Today, I do get a chance, and ask the PM if it would be such a bad thing if the tax cuts were blocked. The government needs to save some money; this saves a couple of billion dollars.

“Won’t you be secretly relieved if it doesn’t go through?” I ask.

The PM says she’s very keen for the tax cuts to go through.

“The situation today is Mr Abbott has said he’s going to betray businesses around the nation,” she says. Fair ‘nuff!

2pm Question Time

On sitting days (there are only 71 sitting days this year) your schedule revolves around Question Time, which starts at 2pm on the dot.

It’s when any member of parliament can ask a question of the government. It’s the most entertaining part of the day.  The performances can be gobsmacking.


The Press sits in a gallery above the Speaker’s chair. This is the actual “Press Gallery”, even though a lot of reporters will never enter it. The bureaus can all get a live feed to their TVs, so they’ll watch it from their office.

Question Time

I head to the Senate press gallery for the first time ever. It’s Bob Carr’s inaugural Question Time. There’s about a dozen journos in the gallery. It’s a record. (The House of Reps gallery would get more than a dozen every single day).

Penny Wong is in smack down mode, trashing the opposition for blocking company tax cuts.

“The Leader of the Opposition will be the first Liberal leader in living memory to vote against a tax cut for small business,” she proclaims.

About 20 minutes in, Bob Brown rises and asks a question of Bob Carr. There’s so much commotion from the Opposition, we can’t really hear the question, but it’s something about Afghanistan.

Bob Brown has a lovely, rich, deep voice. When I was in radio, I always had to hold the mic a bit further away, because he’s so loud. But when Bob Carr starts to speak, he projects like a Shakespearean actor on stage at The Globe. The room falls completely silent. It’s eerie.

Senator Carr says he wants out troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible but we can’t withdraw too soon or we risk creating a terrorist safe haven.

He’s cut off by the time limit and sits down looking a little unsettled that, He, Bob Carr, even has a time limit. He’s Bob Carr, you know.  Sadly, the time limit applies to everyone and The Bob Carr’s cut off every time he stands up. Someone needs a watch.

3pm Time to work

It’s after question time that the frantic work begins in the Press Gallery. Everyone’s madly writing their stories, editing their news packages ready for the evening bulletins or tomorrow’s papers. Heads down, bums up.

Time for a drink

If you’re ever in town, make sure you come on a Wednesday night.

Parliament rises on Thursdays and the pollies fly home on a Thursday evening, so Wednesday night is their last night in Canberra for the week. They make the most of it. Kingston and Manuka is always filled with pollies and journos having boozy dinners.

Naturally my lips are sealed on what actually happens…. But it will be a little harder than usual to make it to Doors tomorrow morning.

Take a look at some of the other images Lauren has snapped over the last few weeks…

Lauren Dubois is Mamamia’s Canberra-based political contributor. You can follow her on Twitter here