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Sir Billy Snedden Retires From Parliament; Asserts Tradition Of Former Speakers Departing

Sir Billy Snedden resigned from the House of Representatives on its first day of sitting, following the 1983 election that brought the Hawke government to power.

SneddenSnedden had been Speaker of the House since 1976, following the appointment and subsequent election of the Fraser government.

He did not contest the election for a new Speaker when the House met for the first time on April 21, 1983. He told the House that he supported the tradition of former Speakers leaving the Parliament when they left the Speakership.

Snedden was first elected to Parliament in 1955 as the member for Bruce. He was Attorney-General under Prime Ministers Sir Robert Menzies and Harold Holt, between 1964-66. He was Minister for Immigration between 1966-69, Minister for Labour and National Service 1969-71, and Treasurer 1971-72. He became leader of the Liberal Party after its defeat in 1972 and led the Coalition to another defeat in 1974. In November of that year, his leadership was unsuccessfully challenged by Malcolm Fraser. He was defeated by Fraser in a second challenge in March 1975.

After 27 years in Parliament, Snedden was 56 when he retired. He died in 1987, aged 60.

Following Snedden’s announcement that he would retire, the Labor Party chose Dr. Harry Jenkins, the member for Scullin, to be the new Speaker. In 2008, Jenkins’ son, also called Harry, became Speaker during the Rudd and Gillard governments.

The video below is from the ABC’s Nationwide program on April 21, 1983. Compered by Peter Couchman, it includes a profile of Snedden and an interesting interview with Richard Carleton.

Watch Nationwide’s coverage of Snedden’s retirement (13m)

Hansard transcript of remarks by Sir Billy Snedden on April 21, 1983. He resigned immediately after making this speech.

Dr THEOPHANOUS — It is my privilege to propose to the House for its Speaker in the Thirty-third Parliament the honourable member for Scullin, Dr Harry Jenkins. I therefore move:

That the honourable member for Scullin do take the chair of this House as Speaker.

Mrs Darling — I take pleasure in seconding the nomination.

Dr Jenkins — I accept the nomination.

The Clerk- Is there any further proposal? If there is no further proposal, the time for proposals has expired. I declare that the honourable member for Scullin (Dr Jenkins) has been elected as Speaker.

Mr SPEAKER (Hon. Harry Jenkins) —I wish to express my grateful thanks for the high honour the House has been pleased to confer upon me.

Mr Speaker having seated himself in the chair-

Sir BILLY SNEDDEN —Mr Speaker, I wish to congratulate you on your nomination from the majority party for the office of Speaker. Likewise, I was very pleased that there was no contesting nomination and we were spared the scarring of past parliaments when there was acrimonious debate on the matter. You, Mr Speaker, are a man of great integrity and your friendship I have enjoyed for many years, especially during my own term in the office of Speaker. You have great experience in the chair and your skill in the conduct of the House has earned respect from all sides.

Apart from the duties seen in the House, a Speaker must give leadership in the interests of all members. He must speak for all members. He must put the protection of members and the discharge of their duties above all party considerations. Each member of this House has a duty to speak the truth and to demand the truth, and the Speaker is guardian of the right of each member to do so. The Speaker must be above party politics in this House.

Significant advances in the role of parliament in the national government in the last few years have brought opportunity for members to contribute better their abilities and their energies. Of all reforms achieved the most significant is that this Parliament has gained control over its own budget, with the passage last year of the Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill. If Parliament is to discharge its constitutional role it must be served by highly competent staff. Parliamentary staff are now independent of the Public Service, with the Presiding Officers assuming complete autonomy in respect of parliamentary staffing arrangements. Functions previously carried out by the Executive concerning members of the Parliament have been transferred to the control of the Parliament and further functions are being progressively transferred. However, many reforms remain to be achieved. I was elected last month by the electorate of Bruce hoping-indeed, expecting-that I would be Speaker and could pursue these reforms. That is not to be and it will now be for you, Mr Speaker, to carry the reforming thrust. I know that you fully understand the need and I am confident that you will do so.

I have constantly argued both here and in the public forum for the adoption by this House of the Westminster convention in relation to the Speaker. Under that convention, a Speaker upon being elected to that high office resigns from his political party, does not engage in partisan controversy inside or outside the chamber, is re-elected unopposed as Speaker, is not opposed at general elections by the major parties, casts his vote on a casting basis so as to avoid any judgment on the merits of a question and resigns from the House upon resigning from the Speakership. Under that convention the Speaker is not only impartial but also is seen to be impartial. I believe it to be an essential ingredient for the best parliamentary democracy. Here the convention has not yet been adopted. Nevertheless, general knowledge and consideration of the convention have expanded and I believe the status of the Speaker has thereby been enhanced, together with an increase in the public perception of the status of parliament.

That the Westminster convention will eventually be adopted in this House is inevitable if the standing of the Parliament is to be further raised. During my term of office I endeavoured to apply such of the features of the convention as were consistent with reality. I rarely attended party meetings and confined my attendance to occasions when major issues of principle were to be discussed. I took no part in the development of day to day policies or in the examination of legislation. I knew nothing of the political tactics to be adopted in the House. I endeavoured always to act independently and fairly and I will do nothing which may subtract from the status of the Chair.

I believe it is essential that the incoming Speaker should not be handicapped in carrying out his onerous tasks. There should be no focal point in the House which may be seen as a potential challenge to the Speaker and certainly there must not be any capacity to politicise his conduct or his rulings. The presence in this chamber of a former Speaker would increase enormously the load that the new Speaker would have to bear. I do not want to see that happen and I will not see it happen. My presence can only subtract from your role, Mr Speaker. Inevitably, if I were to stay I would be called upon for advice in any questioning of your rulings. This could only undermine the Chair and must not be allowed to happen.

I am very conscious that, under the Westminster convention, when the Speaker leaves the chair he leaves the House. I think this is right. This Westminster practice has been firmly in place all this century and considerations of which I have spoken have led to its acceptance. I have weighed this principle against other considerations, both political and personal. I have concluded that the Westminster practice is correct and, pursuant to it, I intend to leave the Parliament and will resign forthwith. I have given 27 years of service in various capacities in this House. The first eight years were spent alongside my old and honourable friend Jim Killen. In our early days we were both called ‘ oncers’. Now we are the joint fathers of the House. As from the next sitting father of the House will be his undisputed and honourable role.

This occasion is traumatic to me and fills me with great sadness. I look at the magnificent chair that I had the honour to occupy for seven years. The chair is itself a replica of that which stood in the House of Commons at Westminster. It was presented to the Australian House of Representatives by the Empire Parliamentary Association to mark the opening of this House in Canberra on 9 May 1927. The arms and the canopy are carved in oak from the timbers of Westminster Hall, which date from 1399, and the hinged arm rests are taken from the oak of the Victory, Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar in 1805. A replica of that chair, a gift from this Parliament, has now been installed in Westminster to replace the original, which was destroyed in the bombing of London.

To all new members, I wish you success. I trust that you will acquire a deep commitment to the House and that you will be true parliamentarians. Mr Speaker, as the new occupant of the chair, you have a tremendous responsibility and duties to perform. I know that you will do the job well, and I wish you well.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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