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New Speaker Must Get Order In The House: The Australian Editorial

A scathing editorial in The Australian today calls for the appointment of a new Speaker to replace the incumbent, Neil Andrew.

AndrewThe editorial says “Mr Howard should resist pressure to return Mr. Andrew to the chair in which he did not distinguish himself”.

The newspaper claims that Mr. Andrew has been inconsistent in his rulings, despite the fact that he was willing to stand up to government ministers, as shown when he expelled Tony Abbott in the previous parliament.

Of Parliament, the paper says it is time to restore “some public faith in this tarnished institution” and ridicules the idea reported in some newspapers today that dumped minister Bronwyn Bishop may get the Speaker’s job: “If Bronwyn Bishop, still stinging at her ejection from the ministry, is the best hope for an impartial Speaker, we’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel.”

This is the complete editorial:

Editorial in The Australian, November 28, 2001.

New Speaker Must Get Order In The House

John Howard scored a reasonable pass in his first test as Prime Minister by shipping out has-beens and replacing retiring ministers with some fresh blood. Now he has the opportunity to take renewal and reform to the next level. Appointing a Speaker who will pay more than lip-service to the notion of independence and might even stamp some authority on our too-often disorderly parliament would be an important contribution to the task of raising standards of governance. Who knows, a cynical public might perhaps regain some respect for the political process. Neil Andrew, the Speaker in the last parliament, appeared to be making a play for reappointment yesterday, going so far as to suggest he has prime ministerial backing. Whether or not this was a wise thing to announce on national radio remains to be seen, but Mr Howard should resist pressure to return Mr Andrew to the chair in which he did not distinguish himself.

We need more order in the House, but Mr Andrew is not the person to provide it. True, he was the first Speaker in 40 years to throw a government minister, Tony Abbott, out of the chamber. The problem is not that Mr Andrew is “too soft on the Opposition”. Mr Andrew’s greatest flaw is that he is inconsistent in his rulings, a trait that severely undermines his authority. He simply can’t make up his mind, and too often backs down. It doesn’t help that he frequently mangles his syntax (“the Member for Prospect knows better than she does”), gets easily flustered, shows few signs of wit or humour, and comes across as a harried schoolmaster unable to control an unruly class of clowns.

Mr Andrew is also a willing censor, and should not be rewarded for his anti-democratic tendencies. His pre-election clampdown on the media’s right to photograph our representatives’ antics in the House amounts to an unacceptable impingement on the people’s right to know. The People’s House should be opened up to full exposure, not concealed from view with the Monty Pythonesque justification that photographs of MPs reacting to debate might be used for “satire and ridicule”. The Speaker should welcome the threat of public exposure for unruly politicians.

Sadly, the other likely candidates for speakership are in the same vein – those overlooked for senior ministries, or party hacks. If Bronwyn Bishop, still stinging at her ejection from the ministry, is the best hope for an impartial Speaker, we’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

The political reality is that for all the talk of raising standards – remember Mr Howard’s pledges before he won in 1996 to make the Speaker more independent and restore integrity to question time? – the main parties are in agreement. They will not seek a British-style independent Speaker who resigns all party positions on appointment. The elevated Speaker’s job remains as one of the privileges of office doled out by the prime ministerial patron. The problem is that Speakers must maintain the support of the prime minister of the day, and if they fall foul of him, their days are numbered. Former Speaker Bob Halverson was relatively independent and he was dumped for his efforts.

The Opposition is at least calling on the Government to embrace bipartisanship and begin genuine reform of the standing orders. The sentiment is commendable but we’ve heard the talk of bipartisan action to make question time meaningful before. During the Howard government’s last term, parliament too often degenerated into an ugly slanging match that was all about personal attacks rather than vigorous policy debate.

Parliament must be much more than a rubber-stamping bearpit where politicians hurl personal insults. It’s time for action to restore some public faith in this tarnished democratic institution. Appointing a Speaker with some independence and authority would be a good start.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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