House and Senate Standing Orders are the “bible” and the “rule of law” in parliamentary procedures and govern everything from rules of debate to time limits for discussion, behaviour in the chamber and a host of other processes. The disrespecting of Standing Orders is not tolerated and is unacceptable behaviour in all parliaments. Disregard can mean expulsion from the House.
Accompanying these Orders are conventions which have been developed over centuries. All parliaments of which I have some knowledge apply conventions to grease the wheels of operation in the chamber/s. Some conventions are the selection of presiding officers, the criteria for granting pairs, the use of electorate names rather than surnames of members, the standard of dress in the parliament.
In Britain, there is a convention that the Speaker shall resign from a political party in order to become absolutely neutral. The convention which swings into play here is that the Speaker is not challenged at the general election by the Opposition, usually guaranteeing the Speaker a lifetime tenure as an MP. However, if he resigns or is persuaded to depart, all bets are off. Again, convention swings in and the ex-Speaker is elevated to the House of Lords (as an independent Member of that House) after being given a life peerage. All very gentlemanly!
In our federal parliaments, these conventions are observed and respected in the main. It is true also of the state parliaments of which I have some experience. But they are not observed particularly well in the ACT.
It is a convention in most parliaments that ministers receive a pair when they are on ministerial duties. Thus convention has been honoured by all Labor governments since self-government came into being. It was not honoured on numerous occasions by the Liberal Opposition with threats made to the Chief Minister on one occasion that a pair would be refused.
In a Chamber with so few Members, the absence of one Member critically affects any vote on legislation. It is also a convention that pairs are granted in the case of illness or family crisis. It has always been the case that the Member applying for the pair, through the Whip, is not asked the personal details on the understanding that the convention is based on honesty. On more than one occasion, as Whip for the Government, I was asked by the Opposition for the personal details of the request, something I refused.
The choice of Speaker is the subject of convention but again this has not been honoured by the Liberal Opposition. The convention is that the Government provides the Speaker and the Opposition provides the Deputy Speaker. The convention is that there is no vote, in that there is only one nominee for each position, and if a cross bench challenge appears, the Government and Opposition vote together to respect the convention. This was never respected in my time in the Assembly.
It is also a convention that the Opposition’s shadow Treasurer chair the Public Accounts Committee. This was not respected by the Liberal Government in 1998 – 2001. The chair of this committee and the Legal Affairs Committee (under various names) are conventionally the remit of the Opposition. It was always offered by a Labor Government but again not by the Liberal Government in 1998-2001. The Liberal Government and its cross bench allies used their numbers to award these prizes to themselves. I served as the Labor nominee on the Justice and Community Safety Committee (Legal Affairs by another name) as the Deputy Chair under both Liberal and Labor Governments. One did not respect the convention and the other did.
Another convention is that the parties will nominate their own Members for membership of Committees, suggesting that it is the business of a particular party which Members it chooses for which committee and no one else’s business. The same prerogative applies to the nomination for Speaker and Deputy Speaker. We are now witnessing the Liberal Opposition disrespecting the convention of prerogative yet again in its vendetta against Joy Burch. Frankly, it is none of their business who Labor chooses for which job. To try to hide a hideous vendetta under the guise of parliamentary purity is beyond belief!
This vendetta has serious overtones. It insults the Parliament by the ignorance of well-established Westminster conventions, but then they have always believed in their divine right to rule and thus they are entitled to ignore custom and practice. A respect for the institution of Parliament is essential for good governance and good accountability. The rules of engagement are set down in the Standing Orders and interpreted by Odgers and May, but the quality of engagement is not.
The elements of respect and trust are embodied in the custom and practice and if these are ignored, a hostile and unprofessional environment ensues. It is rank bullying and not a contest of ideas. This vendetta could also be construed as workplace bullying. Having hounded Joy Burch into submission and contributing to her decision not to contest the ministerial position, they are now continuing their aggressive attacks, clearly intending that she should leave the Assembly entirely, and if she won’t, then they will deny her any position of contribution to the Parliament by the use of their numbers.
The Opposition’s threats to deny Joy Burch the Deputy Speakership and to deny her the committee chair or deputy chair position exceed their authority and responsibility in and to the Parliament. The abrogation of the convention that a Party will select its own nominee is unacceptable but more unacceptable is the rank hypocrisy of people wearing white ribbons in the Chamber and then deliberately going steadfastly about diminishing a woman in the Chamber.
The constancy of these attacks takes it to another level. I recall being a bit aggressive and being on the receiving end when in that arena but I don’t recall anything so constant in its personal attack since the attacks on me personally in the period 2004-2008. The sad part is that a deliberate and targeted attack on another human being at work would be illegal in every other workplace. One can’t sue for harassment and when it is called out, then a debate ensues in the very Chamber the offence occurred, with the attendant speeches of viciousness and venom. The attacks on Joy Burch now with no letup nor any remorse, are uncalled for and should cease immediately. The Speaker is charged with protecting Members from such practices. Where is the Speaker now?