The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Neil Andrew, has proposed a number of reforms to parliamentary debate.
Andrew, who has been Speaker since November 1998, was interviewed by Laurie Oakes on Channel 9’s Sunday program.
Transcript of Neil Andrew interview with Laurie Oakes.
This coming Wednesday is the centenary of the opening of the first federal parliament, a major moment in Australian history that will be re-enacted at Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition buildings. The first Speaker of the House of Representatives was South Australian MP Frederick Holder who represented the seat of Wakefield. By coincidence, the current speaker Neil Andrew is also a South Australian, also from the seat of Wakefield.
But there the similarities end. A century on, the independent spirit of MPs has bowed to strict party discipline. Many question if the modern Speaker can really be impartial. And the cynics believe that party interests are often put before the public good.
Sunday‘s political editor Laurie Oakes spoke with Mr Andrew in our Adelaide studio earlier this morning.
REPORTER: Mr Speaker, welcome to the program.
NEIL ANDREW – FEDERAL SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: Thank you, Laurie. Pleased to be with you.
REPORTER: Can I ask you first, as a very prominent Liberal MP how you think the row over Shane Stone’s memo has affected the party?
ANDREW: Oh Laurie, I’m on your show as the Speaker and frankly as the Speaker, as long as I’ve had this office, I’ve not made a political comment other than the comments I make to constituents in my electorate. I’m not about to make one this morning.
REPORTER: Well, I noticed an interesting comment in one of today’s newspapers. The writer says that the fact that the memo had to be written, quote, highlights a blight on our democracy that MPs are unable to express their real concerns through the parliamentary system. There’s a fair bit of truth in that isn’t there?
ANDREW: I wouldn’t have thought so. I would have said that as an MP for eighteen years, I’ve not felt constrained at any time. And I say that as the Speaker, recognising that I think MPs on the both sides of the House have not felt unduly constrained in the party room in my experience, and I suspect in the experience of the Opposition, has been a place in which very open debates are held.
REPORTER: Yeah, but the party room is different from the parliament. Now those MPs who went to Shane Stone and said we think the government’s mean and tricky and out of touch and will you tell the Prime Minister? They couldn’t say that sort of thing in parliament, could they?
ANDREW: But Laurie, I’d contend that some of the liveliest debates in Parliament House, in fact, occur in the party room and it’s in the party room that frequently the concerns of constituents are most freely expressed whether in the government party room or in the Opposition party room.
REPORTER: But aren’t you conceding my point? The parliament doesn’t do the job any more.
ANDREW: Oh, I’d certainly like to see some changes in parliament. But if there is any constraint on parliament, it is frequently in the way it is broadcast because Members know that whatever they say runs the risk of being misrepresented in order to make a story for the day.
REPORTER: Well, if they say it in parliament, everyone can hear them. If they say it in the privacy of the party room, it’s leaked and then misrepresented perhaps.
ANDREW: Well, if they say it in the parliament, it’s true that everyone can hear them. But you see, frequently what is said in the parliament is as you know …then used in some sort of colourful form, as has been recognised by recent events. But as I said, as Speaker, I don’t want to get into a debate about the pros and cons of various parties. I simply want to indicate that I feel that every Member has a right to express a point of view. And that I would like to see debate in the parliament, provide a more open expression of points of view, principally by obliging Members to be more passionate advocates for their cause.
REPORTER: But wouldn’t it be better if MPs were free to speak in the parliament as you say they are in the party room? Shouldn’t their constituents hear them speak freely? Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be about?
ANDREW: My constituents know what I believe on any issue at any time, Laurie. And I’m able to advocate that very effectively in the parliament on behalf of constituents. What the parliament provides a constraint on sometimes may be the opportunity for Members to be critical of their own team. But that’s because the way that criticism would be misrepresented by the press, whether in government or in Opposition as recent events have shown.
REPORTER: Well, you seem to be blaming the media for all the ways of the parliament. You certainly don’t agree, I assume, that as it celebrates its hundredth anniversary the parliament is not held in very high esteem?
ANDREW: Don’t let me misrepresent your question. I recognise that there’s a good deal of cynicism about the parliamentary process, some of it well founded, some of it very poorly founded. My experience as the Speaker is that I have in front of me a hundred and forty-seven members of parliament, all of whom do their very best to represent their electorates effectively. And I am frankly quite proud of the role that the parliament plays and I don’t believe it is any more disruptive an institution than it has been at any other stage in its hundred year history.
REPORTER: Well, I notice The Australian yesterday – in a very long editorial devoted to this matter of parliamentary standards – pointed out that just before he died in 1909, the first Speaker Frederick Holder said he was disturbed by the bitter feelings between opposing MPs. And that apparently before he slumped in his chair saying, dreadful, dreadful, and died. So maybe things aren’t that different?
ANDREW: Well that would be my contention but let me hasten to add that since the first Speaker was also the first Member for Wakefield I’m not that anxious to emulate the first Speaker. But it should be said that if you look at the history of the parliament as recorded in the Hansard over the last hundred years, then it is fair to say that what Australians are getting at the start of the twenty-first millennium is a parliament that works every bit as effectively as it has in the past. And given that this country continues to be the envy of much of the world, I’d say the parliament over the last hundred years has served the nation well.
REPORTER: But again I make the point that it’s not held in very high esteem. You’ve spent a lot of time on your feet lecturing MPs, calling on them to improve their behaviour nothing happens. Do you have any proposals that could improve the situation?
ANDREW: Yeah, I’d challenge the fact that I spend a lot of time on my feet lecturing MPs. It’s true that there are times when the odd homily might be offered by (laughs) me, but generally speaking I think the parliament is by parliamentary standards, well behaved. People come into my office and say if they were school children they’d be in trouble. Parliament is not a school, Laurie, as you know. It is the clash of two opposing views, in some ways more akin to a football match and certainly infinitely better behaved than any football match may be.
If I were to make changes, there are some changes you can make to question time but all of those changes would depend on having the standing orders amended. And I’d certainly like to see some changes made to debates.
REPORTER: What sort of things?
ANDREW: Well, for example I’d say that at the end of a Member’s speech there ought to be an opportunity for other Members in the chamber to question that Member about what they have said. This facility exists in the Canadian parliament, I think it would help improve the attendance in the chamber and would also ensure that Members were more reluctant to come in and simply read speeches and more prepared to identify themselves with what they are advocating.
REPORTER: Are you going to put this forward?
ANDREW: It’s one of the things that I have been putting together to put to the Procedures Committee. Because unlike the editorial in The Australian and, I mean, what that editorial fails to recognise is that I am constrained by the standing orders and it takes a change in the standing orders to determine what changes can be made in the way for example questions are answered.
REPORTER: I think that’d be a terrific idea. What about question time, can you do anything to force Ministers to be relevant? I mean, at the moment it’s a bit of a joke and it doesn’t matter what they’re asked they just get up and belt the Opposition?
ANDREW: I might say I suspect it was ever thus. I guess personally I rather resent the discipline that we have on whip’s lists which means at question time you’re somewhat more orchestrated than I would like, but I don’t think that’s going to change in a hurry. I think that question time could be improved if in fact Ministers were a little more obliged to be relevant, but I have only one standing order that it covers the answering of questions and that is simply that the Minister shall be relevant.
If a Minister is asked a question about excise it is perfectly relevant for him to talk about tax. That’s a bind I find and so have all previous Speakers found in discharging the standing orders. But a change is in the hands of the parliament.
REPORTER: The Australian’s editorial says we must ask questions about the partisanship of the Speaker. Now how difficult it is for a Speaker to be truly independent when he has to be a Member basically of the governing party?
ANDREW: Not very difficult at all, in my view. And I say that not claiming personally to be independent but after eighteen years in the parliament the overwhelming majority of Speakers under whom I have sat have done their best, in my view, to be absolutely independent. And if you were to appoint someone from outside the parliament as an independent speaker presumably they would still come with political philosophy of their own.
REPORTER: Is one of the problems of parliamentary behaviour to do with the failure of political leaders to set an example and to insist that their Members behave better?
ANDREW: No I would challenge that. I believe that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are both the sort of people who you’d be pleased to have in your home at any time and who generally in the parliament set a good example.
REPORTER: Will the re-enactment of the original sittings in Melbourne this week do much to help raise the standards of parliamentary and increase the respect in which it’s held, do you think?
ANDREW: Well I can’t guarantee that. But I can guarantee that the re-enactment will mean that Australians are more aware of the fact that they have a remarkable heritage and that’s one hundred years of democratically elected parliament. There aren’t many countries who can make that boast and certainly as I said, this country continues to be the sort of country that I would to live in and I want my children to be raised in.
REPORTER: How big a problem is it that our kids don’t seem to learn much about parliament? Is that one of the reasons that it’s not taken as seriously as it should be?
ANDREW: Actually, Laurie, I challenge that too. Given the role of the parliamentary relations office it is my view that a great deal’s being done to enhance the role of school children visiting parliament, discovering something about parliament. And certainly my children and now grandchildren will know a great deal more about parliament as a result of the education system than I did at their age.
REPORTER: What do kids say, do you think, when they sit up there and watch how parliamentarians behave? Have you heard any reaction from the schoolchildren?
ANDREW: Oh, yes, I’ve heard reaction from the schoolchildren. I have schools from my electorate in the parliament.
REPORTER: What do they say?
ANDREW: Sometimes they’re conc…disturbed about the confrontation. But, what I find is that it takes a very short explanation for them to understand that this is debate in action and in fact they don’t need to have much experience of any other parliament to know that the federal parliament is as well behaved as any.
REPORTER: We’re almost out of time, but one of the Sunday papers has a banner headline saying: Boot Camps For Our MPs. It’s a story about the plan for MPs to do part time training and service in the armed forces. Would that help improve disciple in the parliament?
ANDREW: (Laughs) Laurie, I think that if I were to suggest that all members should salute the whips or something like that this would not go down at all well in the parliament. I don’t find parliamentarians undisciplined. I do think, by the way, that the idea that parliamentarians might have and opportunity to see the Army in action or to see a motor vehicle manufacturing plant in action, has some merit, but I don’t find the people in front of me are generally out of touch.
In fact, thanks to modern communication most of my parliamentarians are well aware of what’s happening in their electorate, the wider experience of what happens in the armed services or in industry, would be welcomed. I think you should talk to David Hawker, who’s committee, I think, put this in train.
REPORTER: I notice one of the proposals is they’d probably be given the rank of major, they obviously don’t want to be treated like ordinary soldiers. Isn’t that typical?
ANDREW: Though, that’s a little ahead of me. I wasn’t right across what David Hawker’s committee was recommending. I just think that the concept of experiencing military life or of experiencing industrial life is to be commended. But, I do not believe the members in front of me are out of touch with their electorates, quite the contrary in fact.
REPORTER: Mr Andrew, we thank you. We look forward to celebrations in Melbourne.
ANDREW: Thank you Laurie.
PRESENTER: The Speaker of the House, Neil Andrew, talking there with Laurie Oakes.
Transcript supplied by Rehame – Custom News and Analysis.