After Bronnie: The next Speaker

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Speaker Bronwyn Bishop is being dragged from the chair by her fingernails, writes Andrew Elder, but don't expect her replacement to be much of an improvement.

Here comes the new boss

Same as the old boss

~ The Who, 'Won’t Get Fooled Again'

THE IDEA that the Abbott Government might appoint a fair-minded speaker with a commitment to hearing from all members – someone like Sharman Stone or Cathy McGowan, say – is crazy. The ministers in the current Government are much less across their briefs than those in the supposedly chaotic former Government. A fair and balanced speaker would, however unwittingly, expose this Government before an increasingly emboldened and focused Opposition.

The speaker was traditionally the voice of the parliament to the monarch. Between 1394 and 1535 seven speakers were executed. From that history, candidates for the speakership in the UK (and Westminster-derived Parliaments like Australia’s Federal and state parliaments) have to make a show of appearing reluctant to take on the position. Members moving and seconding a candidate for speaker pretend to "drag" them to the chair. 

As Bronwyn Bishop is being dragged from the speaker’s chair with her characteristic lack of wit and grace, it’s time to ask: who’s next? Who will be the next Speaker, and, more importantly, how will their performance determine the fate of this Government?

The Queen is the least of the Speaker’s worries.  We have an authoritarian Government and it will want a Speaker who facilitates the passage of bills in an orderly manner, with minimal nonsense from the Opposition and independents.

Look at what happened when the Prime Minister’s Office decided to sack Phillip Ruddock as government whip in February.

The government whip is, by tradition, a position independent of the party leadership (as is the speakership, technically). It can often act as a safety valve for backbench dissatisfaction with the leadership. Ruddock would have been careful and subtle in conveying dissatisfaction to Abbott, which would have been lost on him. When Abbott narrowly won a leadership ballot despite no declared challenger, he blamed Ruddock and sacked him.

Ruddock was replaced by Scott Buchholz: appointed by Abbott’s office, not elected. Buchholz was a staffer for Barnaby Joyce. Turning Joyce, a one-man rabble, into an effective politician has to take phenomenal discipline and organisation. Since Buchholz began as whip, the backbench has locked in tight behind Abbott. This isn’t to say Abbott has lifted his game since February – he hasn’t – but you don’t see Coalition backbenchers queueing up to leak against the Government.

Even now, with Bishop embarrassing the Government, the odd minister might make an anonymous or indirect dig at her, but the backbench is not in open revolt thanks to tight work by the Whips. Assisting Buchholz are nasty snitches like Andrew Nikolic and George Christensen.

The speakers in the 2010-13 Parliament – Harry Jenkins, Peter Slipper and Anna Burke – were renowned for their scrupulous fairness. The Government in that Parliament passed hundreds of bills through the House, but a commitment to fairness meant that the then Opposition were disruptive. Regardless of ancient notions of speaker independence, chaos in the House reflects badly on the Government.

As the economy worsens, the treasurer will need to bluff and bluster away the indicators and claim credit for achievements that are not his; a speaker who demanded he answer questions could kill what little remains of this Government’s economic credibility. Now that the fiction of stopped boats has been exposed and deplorable conditions in the camps has come to light, a speaker who allowed scrutiny of refugee policy could turn a strength of this Government into a gaping wound. I could go on.

Within the Government, Bishop’s shutting down scrutiny of them is seen as a plus. A fair speaker would have them screaming for Bishop to return. You could only suggest the Abbott Government would support a fair and balanced speaker if you haven’t been paying attention to Australian politics in recent years.

The next speaker will be someone who does what they’re told.

This might include the entire Government, but we can eliminate the following:

  • Those who entered Parliament at the last election or the one before, even though these MPs are most loyal to Abbott. The speaker needs to have been around for a while, someone alert to custom and procedural complexities.  
  • Those who hold marginal seats: what they might gain in profile they would lose in administrivia and time on the ground shoring up their re-election.
  • Aspiring ministers or leaders: the speakership is a career dead end.
  • Russell Broadbent, who is under investigation for questionable donations.
  • Veterans like Bruce Scott, because when people of that age lose their temper (as a speaker inevitably does) they look pathetic — and so would the Government.

Labor will be emboldened by knocking off a speaker, particularly one so close to Abbott, and so the new speaker must have the measure of tough and wily operators like Tony Burke and Anthony Albanese.

Disclosure: my forecasting skills are rubbish. I thought Abbott was so bad he’d lose the 2013 election! That said, keep an eye on long-serving deputy whips Nola Marino (Lib, WA) and Mark Coulton (Nat, NSW). Buchholz and Ruddock aren’t out of the running, but former whip Warren Entsch would be too independent of the PM’s office.

Of course, an ideal speaker would keep 150 MPs focused on the business of government and allow members to have their input on the big issues of the day. They would also reform the press gallery and the way goings-on are reported. But, as with much that is sensible and achievable by people of goodwill working together, that will have to wait until this Government loses office.

You can read more by Andrew Elder on his blog Politically Homeless and follow him on Twitter @awelder.

The John Graham cartoon featured in this piece may be purchased from the IA store.

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