The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Harry Jenkins, came close to resigning today.
The possibilities that could have flowed from his resignation are intriguing to consider.
In the course of a raucous and disputatious Question Time, Jenkins warned and then named Liberal member Bob Baldwin for “continuing to interject after having been warned by the Chair”. “Naming” by the Speaker is the precursor to a motion to suspend the member from the service of the House.
The government’s Leader of the House, Anthony Albanese, accordingly rose and moved the motion to suspend Baldwin for 24 hours.
Greens member Adam Bandt and independent member Andrew Wilkie voted with the government but independent Rob Oakeshott voted with the coalition, as did Tony Crook. Tony Windsor and Bob Katter failed to vote.
The motion was defeated 72-71. Four members were paired.
His ruling effectively repudiated by the House, the Speaker announced that he would “consider my position” at the conclusion of Question Time.
A political shiver swept through the House.
- LISTEN to the proceedings in the House of Representatives: (14m)
The Speaker’s announcement obviously implied resignation. A Speaker whose rulings are not supported by the House rightly takes that as a vote of no confidence.
Tony Abbott then rose to move a motion of confidence in the Speaker. He spoke fulsomely about Jenkins. The motion was then seconded by Gillard who spoke in similarly glowing terms. Rob Oakeshott also spoke, explaining his vote against the motion as part of his policy of supporting the rights of members.
The motion was then carried unanimously “on the voices”. Crisis averted.
What would have happened if Jenkins had resigned?
Section 35 of the Constitution requires the House to elect a Speaker before it can proceed to any other business. It is the government that therefore must ensure a Speaker is chosen.
The government could simply choose another one of its members to replace Jenkins. Assuming Bandt, Windsor and Oakeshott supported that candidate, the government would survive with a new Speaker. Provided Jenkins did not resign from Parliament, the numbers in the House would be unchanged.
The more interesting scenario would arise if the government could find a member of the coalition willing to be nominated as Speaker. This would deprive the Opposition of another vote on the floor of the House because the Speaker only votes if the numbers are tied.
At present, the numbers stand at 76-74 in the government’s favour. Take the Speaker out and the government wins a vote by 75-74. This margin sometimes increases if Bob Katter or Tony Crook support the government. It can also go the other way if Bandt, Windsor or Oakeshott oppose government legislation.
Last year, the ALP outwitted the Coalition by nominating Liberal MP Peter Slipper as Deputy Speaker. If Slipper was willing to be nominated as Speaker – a distinct likelihood – then the ALP would effectively increase its numbers on the floor.
Of course, Tony Abbott would be likely to instruct his members not to accept a nomination as Speaker. Whether Slipper would abide by this is not certain. The risk for Abbott in bringing on an election of a new Speaker is the possibility that he weakens his position in the House and reduces the chances of defeating the government. A no-confidence motion against the Gillard government will surely come one day and Abbott needs every vote he can get.
A worry for Gillard would be whether the caucus would countenance the nomination of a coalition member as Speaker. The perquisites of the Speaker’s position are substantial, as are the instincts of MPs for personal advancement. On the other hand, anything that increases the government’s chances of surviving a full term would likely be seized with both hands by the ALP.
In the circumstances, it wasn’t surprising that Abbott was so quick to jump to his feet to move the confidence motion in Jenkins.
But there were some other delicious lessons and questions from the moment Labor MP Stephen Jones described as “all stepping back off the ledge”.
- Was Gillard caught off-guard by the vote against Jenkins? Abbott’s reaction to Jenkins’s announcement that he would consider his position was lightning fast. It may have been fear at work but it was also a demonstration that Abbott is a highly agile tactical player.
- Does Rob Oakeshott really understand what he’s doing? His enthusiasm for the democratic benefits of minority government sometimes seems to overlook the brutal realities of the numbers. In part, it was his vote against Jenkins that led to the moment of crisis.
- What was Tony Windsor thinking? Why did he miss the vote? It’s not unheard of for Bob Katter to miss a vote but his support for the government in any division is a bonus, whereas Windsor is a core vote. If both of them had voted for Baldwin’s suspension, the occasion would have passed without issue.
And what would Jenkins have done if Windsor turned up to vote in favour but Katter failed to show? The vote would have been tied and Oakeshott blamed. Jenkins would have been placed in the invidious position of using his casting vote to break a tie on a motion to uphold his ruling against Baldwin.
The recent fracas in the Liberal Party over Malcolm Turnbull and other members missing divisions was at least a sign that the Liberal whips are on the job. The discipline in the ALP seems to be very solid. Adam Bandt looks to be highly reliable in backing the government.
The government’s support in the House seems solid, albeit narrow. If anything, Windsor and Oakeshott seem more rusted on to backing the government than ever. But today shows that accidents can happen. In a hung parliament, accidents can have unintended consequences. Windsor and Oakeshott need to be careful that they don’t bring the whole house of cards down around them.
An interesting side effect of today’s incident could be its effect on the behaviour of members on both sides of the chamber. A visiting British conservative political commentator and blogger, Iain Dale, was in the gallery during today’s proceedings. He tweeted: “The UK House of Commons is often accused of behaving like a playground. It has nothing on the Aussie House of Reps. Unbelievable behaviour.” He also described today’s Question Time as “absolutely shameful”.
It was a brief moment of drama today but it had its amusing side. The Age’s Michelle Grattan noted that “Harry [Jenkins] was the man who got Abbott to go positive”.
But there are lessons for all of the players in this hung parliament and its minority government.
Be careful, be very careful.