Christopher Pyne: There Are Only Two Speeches In An MP's Career When They Can Really Cut Loose

The term “maiden” for a Parliamentarian’s first speech to the Chamber in which they sit is one of the few politically incorrect terms to survive in the modern era.

There was an attempt in the 1990s and Noughties to describe the maiden speech as “the first speech” but it didn’t really take off.

The maiden speech is one of the few speeches a Parliamentarian gives when they can talk on any subject and say virtually anything they like without interruption. The other, of course, is the valedictory, which is the last speech a Parliamentarian gives. I delivered literally thousands of speeches across 26 years in the House of Representatives. But almost every one was on a particular subject or in response to my political opponents.

In only two can you cut loose!

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When I say you can’t be interrupted, that isn’t always the case but it's super rare. Then Prime Minister Harold Holt shouted at Edward St John, the Member for Warringah, in the 1960s during his maiden speech when St John accused the government of bad faith over the Voyager naval disaster. But Holt’s interruption was a scandal in itself. The thinking goes that as new Parliamentarians are ‘babes in the woods’ -- they should be given great latitude.

In an unprecedented outburst, Australian PM Harold Holt interrupted Edward St John's maiden speech to parliament in 1967.

I always took my colleagues' maiden speeches seriously and was one of the few politicians that would try to sit in the chamber for every one of their contributions. I would even try and get to the other sides’ first speeches, but I can’t claim to have been as good at achieving that goal.

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There are many kinds of maiden speech. Some good, some bad.

There is the speech that is like a travel diary of a Member’s electorate -- “my seat is God’s own country, bordered in the west by the magnificent <insert mountain range here> and the crashing waves and deep blue sea of the <insert body of water there>”. You get the picture. I often wondered why a new MP would waste their precious minutes on a travel log of a part of Australia that we could look up on one of the myriad Australian travel websites.

Then there is the speech that attempts to thank every person who ever played a part in that politician's journey to their particular chamber. “I’d like to thank my mother and father for bringing me into the world and my first grade teacher, Mrs Kafootsis*, for instilling in me a love of life-long learning”, right through to “and everyone who made this possible, including Bruce* the Commonwealth car driver who brought me here this morning and Jaslyn* at Aussies who made me my first macchiato today”.

No, the best maiden speeches are ones that give us an insight into what a politician believes and what they want to achieve. We all know they want to represent their electorate well and be a good local MP. We know they want to help build their state and their country.

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We want to know: what is their philosophical persuasion, what is it that drives them, why did they go through the rigmarole of preselection and campaigning, fundraising, putting up posters at 2am, delivering birthday cakes to voters for their 90th birthdays, to get themselves on the green or red leather benches?

Beyond this, the best maiden speeches are a call to arms on issues that matter to the deliverer -- is it solving homelessness, the alliance with the United States, delivering a budget surplus, good management of the Murray Darling Basin, ensuing the Adani mine goes ahead, increasing Newstart Allowance, whatever? When I listen to a maiden speech, I want to hear that the politician has passion and that they are going to fight for something, for a great cause that they will lead!

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One of Great Britain’s great prime ministers, Benjamin Disraeli, once said:

“...a great statesman is one who represents a great idea -- an idea which may lead him to power; an idea with which he may identify himself; an idea which he may develop; an idea which he may and can impress on the mind and conscience of a nation.”

Hear, hear!

So, I’m looking forward to the maiden speeches of the 46th Parliament. They are important milestones. They point the way forward. When you are introduced at events and the Fourth Estate writes about your retirement, inevitably they hark back to your maiden speech. They tend to show you who is going to be good, who will be a Minister, who will be a backbencher for most of their careers. You can recover from a poor maiden speech, but a great one sets you apart from the crowd.

Good luck to all those new MPs and Senators in this Parliament as they set about crafting their first speech!