Time for a truly independent Australian Speaker

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It is time for Australia to change its Constitution to provide for a truly independent Speaker, and not allow this position to be used by the parties as a political football, says former Victorian MP Denise Allen.
by Denise Allen

Australia’s Parliament has, for over a hundred and ten years, been extremely proud of how it has been run — especially with the calibre of MP’s chosen to be Speaker and President, which (next to the Prime Minister) are the most highly regarded positions in the Parliament. The MP’s who have taken up the role in the past have, for the most part, performed the role to an exemplary standard, given the state of adversarial game playing that goes on between the two major parties.

However, the Parliament has now twice been bogged down in the quagmire regarding the Speaker: once when Howard appointed Labor MP Mal Coulson as Deputy President of the Senate in 1996, in a Liberal dominated Parliament; and now with Labor appointee, the former Liberal MP Peter Slipper. Both men had extremely controversial “rumours” hanging over their heads when they were appointed and, as most expected, both have caused both sides of Parliament extreme political pain — both cases being just short of a constitutional crisis.

The Australian Constitution provides that the Speaker shall be a member of the House; similarly, the President of the Senate must be a Senator. This provision reflects the situation in the House of Commons and is consistent with the Speaker’s role as a representative of the House. It may also be considered to be consistent with the philosophy implied in the Constitution that each House is master of its own activities and is not subject to control or interference by other bodies.

In the House of Representatives, in appointing an MP from the Government ranks to the Speakership, the Governing party effectively looses a deliberative vote – a vote that would normally be cast should an MP be on the benches – and is only given a casting vote — a vote given by the Presiding officer if there is a tied division. In the Senate, the President is given a deliberative vote.

In other official roles within the House of Reps and the Senate there are two clerks: the Clerk and the Deputy Clerk. The Clerk has two main areas of work. The first is the responsibility of assisting the Speaker and the President (the presiding officers) to run the Parliament in each chamber. The Clerk must know all the rules and conventions of the Parliament and be able to assist members and senators in the day to day running of parliamentary business.

In other words the Clerks are career officials — public servants appointed to the role.

It is now time for the Speaker to be also a “career official” — a parliamentary public servant. This would mean that the Speakership would be truly independent of both parties. It would also mean that neither party would loose a deliberative vote, the Speaker would truly be able to oversee the Parliament in a bi-partisan manner, and he/she could not be used as a political football.

One would expect that this would be in the best interests of both major parties, but would both major parties be interested in changing our Constitution to allow for such a change or would they simply want to hang onto it to be used as a political weapon at times such as this?

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