Labor’s promise to implement an independent Speaker of the House of Representatives is, as Christopher Sheil comments, a potentially major reform. It deserves a post of its own, because if implemented it would greatly improve the standard of Parliamentary conduct and debate, and hence significantly improve ministerial accountability to Parliament.
Responsible government (i.e. ministerial accountability to Parliament) is supposedly a cornerstone of Westminster democracy, but it exists in a fairly attenuated form in Australia, in part because the tradition of independence of the office of Speaker never became established here. An independent Speaker ensures, for example, that the Opposition gets a fair go at Question Time, and that Ministers don’t so easily get away with bullshitting and avoiding answering tough questions.
Unfortunately, Labor’s “integrity” policy gives no details about what they mean by “independence” of the Speaker. In Chris’s comment box, Alan from Southerly Buster asserts that Australia’s Constitution would effectively preclude implementation of an independent office of Speaker:
The constitution requires the speaker to be an MHR, specifies how the speaker is elected and removed and does not leave a lot of wiggle room for changes. If we’re talking about a ‘cultural change’ we’re actually talking about nothing.
The House of Representatives shall, before proceeding to the despatch of any other business, choose a member to be the Speaker of the House, and as often as the office of Speaker becomes vacant the House shall again choose a member to be the Speaker.
The Speaker shall cease to hold his office if he ceases to be a member. He may be removed from office by a vote of the House, or he may resign his office or his seat by writing addressed to the Governor-General.
These provisions in no way restrict the possibility of implementing a British-style system. It would be surprising if they did, since our Constitution is itself an enactment of the British Parliament. The UK conventions of independence mostly operate once the Speaker has been elected by the Members of the House of Commons, as explained in this factsheet:
The Speaker must, of course, be above party political controversy and must be seen to be completely impartial in all public matters. All sides in the House rely on the Speaker’s disinterest and respect that he or she must stand aside from controversy. Accordingly, on election the Speaker resigns from his or her political party. Even after retirement, a former Speaker will take no part in political issues, and if appointed to the House of Lords will sit as a Cross-Bencher. Assuming the office of Speaker will, to a great extent, mean shedding old loyalties and friendships within the House. The Speaker must keep apart from old party colleagues or any one group or interest and does not, for instance, frequent the Commons dining rooms or bars.
There is also a convention that the major parties don’t run candidates against an incumbent Speaker in his or her seat at a general election. Maintenance of bipartisan support for that custom is itself a powerful self-interest reason why Speakers in Britain are always careful to be fearlessly fair, impartial and independent. As a result of this convention, Speakers can and do remain in that role even after the government of which they were once a member loses office
Although traditionally a new Speaker has always been drawn from the government side of the House, he or she effectively becomes an “independent” once appointed to the Office. In March 2001 the House of Commons implemented new Standing Orders providing for secret ballot for election of new Speakers. As with the other independence traditions outlined above, nothing in Australia’s Constitution would prevent such an innovation. It will no doubt mean that a Speaker from a non-government party will one day be elected in Britain. The current Speaker, Michael Martin MP, is only the fourth Labour Speaker, the second Scottish Speaker and the first Catholic Speaker since the Reformation. He was first elected in 2000 under the old rules, but re-elected in July 2001 under the new secret ballot provisions.
I think adoption of this aspect of Westminster tradition would be a very valuable addition to Australia’s democratic system. Competent political journalists would be quizzing Latham on just what he means by his commitment to an independent Speaker. If he means the full UK-style system, they should also be asking John Howard whether he supports it (given that he too promised it back in 1996 – presumably another one of those infamous “non-core” promises). Coalition support would be necessary to a fully effective UK-style independent office of Speaker, because both sides need to agree not to oppose an incumbent Speaker at a general election.
Even though this issue is in many ways one for the “elites”, if Latham is smart he could actually turn it to good effect in terms of his core campaign message. If Howard fails to clearly support the independence of the Speaker (once the meaning of Labor’s promise is spelled out), and given both Howard’s previous promise and the centrality of this principle to a truly functional Westminster democratic system, Howard could be painted yet again as devious, insincere and untrustworthy.
Incidentally, the independence of the Speaker in Britain is a very longstanding tradition. No less than seven Speakers were beheaded during the two centuries up to 1535, the last being Sir Thomas More (pictured at top). More was, like the present Speaker Michael Martin, a Catholic. In the days of Henry VIII, that was much more dangerous than it is today.