Smith must beat partisan poison
THE Australian Parliament has moved on from Bronwyn Bishop’s demise and chosen Victorian Liberal MP Tony Smith as the new Speaker. In all probability he’ll be a calming figure after the tumultuous recent Speakerships of Peter Slipper and Bronwyn Bishop.
Picking over the bones goes on despite the Government’s attempts to draw a line under the saga.
There’s the question of whether Bishop resigned for the greater good (her version) or was pushed out the door (everyone else’s view). Then there’s the debate about whether the problem was only the allowances system (Tony Abbott’s line) or whether Bishop was also “addicted to privilege” (everyone else’s view).
Bishop’s problems were compounded because Australian Speakers can remain politically active and Bishop saw her primary role as fighting on the Government’s frontline.
She continued to participate in partyroom meetings; used her office to raise funds for her party; she publicly argued for the Government’s views; of the 400 MPs she ejected from the chamber, more than 390 were Labor; and, of course, the infamous helicopter ride was to a Liberal Party fundraiser.
The role of Speaker is inherited from Westminster and Australian parliaments use many of the British traditions, like the ancient tradition of dragging new Speakers to the chair ostensibly against their will.
In a tradition with more substance, dating from the mid-19th century, the Australian Parliament uses Speaker Denison’s Rule in all but name. When a vote is tied, the convention says the Speaker votes for the status quo over change.
Other traditions effectively depoliticise the British Speakership and Australia should consider adopting these too.
Although British Speakers come from one of the major parties, they renounce their party affiliation, cease attending partyroom meetings and don’t use their office for political fundraising.
At British elections other parties don’t stand in the Speaker’s seat so they don’t have to fight a partisan election campaign. And following a general election the existing Speaker is traditionally re-elected to the post regardless of who wins power. Unlike in Australia, former Speakers don’t return to normal party politics.
Having a properly independent Speaker frees the holder to be a champion for the rights of Parliament against the government.
If the current British Speaker, John Bercow, is remembered for one thing it will be fighting for the rights of Parliament and for a series of reforms that have helped ordinary MPs assert themselves against the Government.
De-politicising the role wouldn’t need legislating let alone require a constitutional change. Reform could be introduced via a clear understanding between the major parties, as is the case in Britain. Smith could set the ball rolling by returning to the practice of presiding over Parliament in a genuinely impartial manner while championing the idea of a genuinely independent Speaker.
Reforming the role would be an important step in restoring the reputation of the office of Speaker and of Parliament more broadly.