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Speakers and Westminster

By John Hargreaves - 30 May 2014 13

In the Westminster system of Parliamentary process, after which the parliaments of Australia are supposed to be modelled, the Speaker is independent of the process, being above the cacophony of debate, chairing the debates and providing an unbiased approach to the whole system.

This seemed ok for the young parliament of the ACT until the cracks appeared in about 2001, widened in 2008 and again in 2012. But it is an abyss in the Federal Parliament and this is totally unacceptable.

Wayne Berry, with whom I served for many years in the Legislative Assembly, was a very capable Speaker, in my mind one of the best. But he maintained a right to come down from the Chair to debate the occasional issue and to make the occasional Adjournment Debate. I admired his commitment to his principles and the issues he held dear but not at the sacrifice of the convention of Speakers’ behaviour.

Shane Rattenbury went further, distributing the hours of occupation of the Speaker’s Chair among the Deputy and Assistant Speakers so that he could enjoin debate on many issues. I didn’t agree with this breaking of the convention and said so on many occasions. But credit where it is due. He was a very fair arbitrator, if anything a bit shy of disciplining members and marching them for a holiday.

The current Speaker seems to ignore the convention even more than the previous two Speakers. It is not for a Speaker to lecture Members, or to indicate an agreement with a position taken by either side. It is to be assumed that she will enjoin debate on the prostitution issue, given a reopening of that debate, since she had that very expensive detour to study more of the Swedish model.

But the behaviour of these three Speakers pales into insignificance with the bias and outright favouritism dispensed by Speaker Bishop in that campsite on the hill. 100 holidays to nil is a great cricket score but a bit rich in a parliament containing the likes of Christopher Pyne. Let us parliamentary purists hope for the day when a return is made to the dignified non-partisan approach to the role of the Speaker is once again a blessing on all parliaments.

What’s Your opinion?


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13 Responses to
Speakers and Westminster
dungfungus 2:23 pm 01 Jun 14

bigfeet said :

miz said :

Maya Maya Maya. We all know we are a mix of State/local responsibilities, but the
‘council’ responsibilities (the majority of functions) could easily be split off and run separately like a local council. We don’t need to run those aspects in Westminster fashion, with a Minister and Opposition. Those functions only really apply to the State level responsibilities, which could be run by a super Department and a handful of MLAs.

You mean something similar to a system which was supported by 65% of the population at a referendum, and was later replaced against the wishes of the people?

Best retort of the month (so far) bigfeet.

bigfeet 1:03 pm 01 Jun 14

miz said :

Maya Maya Maya. We all know we are a mix of State/local responsibilities, but the
‘council’ responsibilities (the majority of functions) could easily be split off and run separately like a local council. We don’t need to run those aspects in Westminster fashion, with a Minister and Opposition. Those functions only really apply to the State level responsibilities, which could be run by a super Department and a handful of MLAs.

You mean something similar to a system which was supported by 65% of the population at a referendum, and was later replaced against the wishes of the people?

miz 11:01 am 01 Jun 14

Maya Maya Maya. We all know we are a mix of State/local responsibilities, but the
‘council’ responsibilities (the majority of functions) could easily be split off and run separately like a local council. We don’t need to run those aspects in Westminster fashion, with a Minister and Opposition. Those functions only really apply to the State level responsibilities, which could be run by a super Department and a handful of MLAs.

Maya123 10:56 pm 31 May 14

miz said :

Slightly off topic but I have always found the Westminster system particularly wasteful of resources in the ACT local govt arena, given that it wastes all of the opposition who could be put to work helping to run the place. Not to mention the small fact local councillors are generally part time.

The ACT Legislative Assembly have more than the duties of a local council. I’m sure you and others who like to throw that cheap line in know that. It make any other argument you might present sound weak and less thought out. Sure if you want to criticise the ACT Legislative Assembly do so, but let’s keep it real.

miz 8:52 pm 31 May 14

Slightly off topic but I have always found the Westminster system particularly wasteful of resources in the ACT local govt arena, given that it wastes all of the opposition who could be put to work helping to run the place. Not to mention the small fact local councillors are generally part time.

Matt_Watts 6:03 pm 31 May 14

Well… now I know what my friends meant when they said the RiotACT had become a venue for John Hargreaves’ rants.

The Speaker’s role has always shifted over time. The role has always favoured the incumbent government. Most of the “bias” alleged against the current Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives is during Question Time, which has been a joke for years. I would like to see more commentary on the ability of the Speaker (along with the President of the Senate) to manage the affairs of APH.

John Hargreaves Ex M 2:45 pm 31 May 14

Masquara said :

What a confused post. Not clear where you’re switching between the Legislative Assembly and the federal arena.

Both systems purport to be the Westminster system and the guardian of the purity of that system is supposed to be the Speaker. In both parliaments, the purity of the system has been compromised, one more so than the other.

I just couldn’t see the justification for allowing a Speaker to occupy the Chair and to be a Party’s spokesperson on a number of issues, notably the Attorney-General. Such was the case in the Legislative Assembly a couple of years ago. Integrity of the system compromised.

Using the resources of the Speaker’s office with all its grandeur and pomp and circumstance for partisan gain, regardless of which Speaker did it, is another assault on that integrity. One wonders what the Commonwealth Presiding Officers Conference would think of it all.

Masquara 11:20 am 31 May 14

What a confused post. Not clear where you’re switching between the Legislative Assembly and the federal arena.

bigfeet 3:28 pm 30 May 14

Leaving aside all his other failings and issues, Peter Slipper was probably the most effective Speaker we have had in recent times.

His lack of loyalty to any party, coupled with his incredible hubris meant that he actually did keep control of the House in a reasonably fair manner.

Of course he could not continue in the role, and probably really should not have been placed in the role in the first place, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t effective in the short time he was there.

dungfungus 11:11 am 30 May 14

Affirmative Action Man said :

If politicians had any sense they would change the rules and make the speaker a permanent, independent appointment just like a judge. There is no compelling reason why a speaker has to be one of the members.

They could force Ministers to answer questions & cut out the rubbish that passes for parliament.

Most judges are progressive liberals so the left would win again.

Garfield 10:41 am 30 May 14

I think you’ll find the current score is 101:1, so it’s an infinitely better proportion than 100:0.

But seriously, if you want to criticise speaker bias in the federal parliament you also need to include the speakers of the Labor governments preceding this one, where 89-90% of disciplinary actions were against Coalition members, and the speakers of the Howard government where 85-96% of actions were against Labor members.

This link has all sorts of information about parliamentary discipline:

http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1314/DisorderlyConduct#_Toc374524766

Given that the bias seems to have been entrenched since day one, maybe the speaker should be someone other than a member of parliament? It may lead to more civilised debate with better outcomes for the electorate.

davo101 10:39 am 30 May 14

I won’t hear a bad word said against Ms Bishop. She’s doing a bang-up job, attentive to her puppet master’s every command.

Affirmative Action M 10:12 am 30 May 14

If politicians had any sense they would change the rules and make the speaker a permanent, independent appointment just like a judge. There is no compelling reason why a speaker has to be one of the members.

They could force Ministers to answer questions & cut out the rubbish that passes for parliament.

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