An independent Speaker

more.jpgLabor’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.

Alan is wrong, There is nothing in our Constitution that would preclude a UK-style independent Speaker. Section 35 of the Commonwealth Constitution provides:

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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, I agree with you about its importance but it seems to me that the major difficulty lies in the fact that the House of Commons is much bigger than the House of Reps and the first past the post voting system almost guarentees large majorities most of the time. There have been several examples at State level in Australia of very closely poised or hung parliaments where the government has been reluctant to appoint one of its own members as speaker because of the need to maintain a working majority on the floor of the house. So the choice usually turns to an independent member. The difficulty here is that there are usually very few from whom to choose, and you might end up with an unsuitable choice. It may also be that there are no independents in the house. It seems to me that the system of exempting the speaker from major party competition would for these reasons be difficult to implement in Australia.

There is also the issue of democracy. In effect, electors in the speaker’s electorate would be denied the chance to have a say on the most important democratic choice – the formation of the government through winning a majority of MPs.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark

You have a point, but I don’t think the size of the House of Reps is an insuperable obstacle. In fact governments usually DO have a reasonable working majority in the Reps, and invariably HAVE elected a government MP as Speaker (although, as you say, that often isn’t the case in State parliaments). Moreover, as I suggested in the main post, if we adopted the new UK secret ballot system it would be possible for a senior, well-regarded opposition member to be elected. It might well look an attractive proposition for someone like that to end their career as Speaker rather than sitting around in opposition on a backbench salary. And the government probably wouldn’t be too concerned as long as the nominee was a person of undoubted integrity. It would also avoid reducing the government’s working majority. For example, someone like Tim Fischer or Sinkers in their latter years would have made a good Speaker and would probably have commanded some ALP support in a secret ballot. With the ALP in opposition, a senior member like Kim Beazley might be attracted to the Speaker’s role and might command some Coalition support.

Nor do I think that denying the Speaker’s local electorate a choice is a real issue either. It’s essentially just like having an Independent as your local member. Most people feel pretty comfortable about having good, hard-working local independent members like Peter Andren, and don’t feel that they’re being deprived of the opportunity to decide on the government through supporting them. It’s already fairly common in by-elections for safe seats for the non-incumbent major party not to run a candidate or to make at best a token effort. In fact, in general terms if you live in a safe seat for either party you’re not getting a meaningful say in which party forms government. Thus, making the Speaker’s seat a “no-contest” as well is hardly a big issue, especially given the major enhancement it effects to democracy in a wider sense. As long as the Speaker (and the government of whichever party) made sure that his seat was well serviced, voters would probably be very pleased to have the Speaker as their local member.

Doug
2022 years ago

I’m not also entirely convinced that an independent speaker would raise the standard of debate in the Chamber in a way that would make a difference in the public mind.

The British House of Commons still manages to be a complete zoo with an independent speaker.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Doug

I’m sure you’re correct. An independent Speaker won’t stop robust debate, testosterone-driven aggression, posturing for media headlines, or members who behave strangely while tired and emotional after a few sherbets in the members’ bar. And the combination of those factors does indeed tend to make the whole joint look like a human zoo full of badly-behaved animals.

But that sort of immediate public perception is only one factor. Despite all the above, an independent speaker DOES ensure that oppositions get a fair go at Question Time, and DOES have an effect in forcing Ministers to answer questions instead of waffling. And DOES referee bad behaviour from both sides in a strictly impartial way (which often doesn’t happen under the present system). These are all significant improvements to the standard of debate and therefore the genuineness of accountability/responsible government. Who cares about the histrionics if Ministers are forced to account? The House will be functioning better even if it looks on a superficial glance just as much of a rabble as ever.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

abolish the seat for the speaker and have a national vote for a speaker on election day!

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, well argued on the possibilities for selecting a senior member of either side, but I’m still not 100% convinced on the democracy argument. People in safe seats still have a say – in that if they favour the party who holds the seat, they’re contributing to the base of that party’s potential majority, and if they don’t, then the seat could change hands if enough people feel the same (safe seats are lost occasionally). While people may be happy with representation by an independent, they’ve chosen that candidate, while those in the speaker’s electorate have effectively been deprived of any such choice. And I think I’ve shown that they are denied a choice that electors in a safe seat have (even if it doesn’t always count for too much – but that’s how democracy has to work).

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

I used to wish that they were still beheading Catholics when Harridine was around. Now I’d like to see Abbott boiled in rancid month old fish and chip shop oil.

Jozef
2022 years ago

Democracy is too good to share with just anybody.
-Nigel Rees

We’ve got to pause and ask ourselves: How much sunshine do the corridors of power need?

No more Dorothy Dixies? Questions with meaningful answers? Where is the presiding officers exclusive Marco Polo club heading to?

Jozef
2022 years ago

There is one parliamentary Speaker I greatly admire, a former Speaker, Father of the House, Kevin Rozzoli who practiced the independence more than any other Speaker I know and even before the Hung Parliament (1988 -1995.)

I encourage anyone doing journalistic or political thesis to consider digging deeper into the career of this quiet achiever. His ideas in relation to the independent speakership, MP mentoring and democracy should be disseminated among a wider readership…

The definition of ‘democracy’ is Government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers elected by them. In modern use often more vaguely denoting a social state in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege. http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=1920

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

There was some speculation in the Press today that King may be Labor’s choice for Speaker if he runs in, and wins, Wentworth. I wonder if Labor are running dead in the seat and allocating him preferences? Don’t know that the local candidate would be overjoyed – he’s been fairly vocal since Turnbull was preselected about Labor’s chances.

Jozef
2022 years ago

Only Antony Loewenstein king counter-spiner can have long memory … (smile)
http://www.smh.com.au/blogs/counterspin.html

The most perceptive commentary of the day came from Michael Brissenden of the 7.30 Report. Mark Latham yesterday launched a document aimed at restoring “truth and integrity” in government but the ABC reporter had a good memory:
http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2004/s1189331.htm

TJW
TJW
2022 years ago

I suspect that Howard (in 1996) and Latham (in 2004) use the word ‘independent’ in a totally subjective sense. In other words, someone they perceive to be independent.

trackback
2022 years ago

Fear, loathing, etc #3

Some days you get lucky. Yesterday was one. Good policy launch on governing with at least some integrity, Worth gaffe, clear over the 7.30 Report hurdle, and then the juicy Brandis gaffe to end a perfect day. Some argue Kerry…

trackback
2022 years ago

Fear, loathing, etc #3

Some days you get lucky. Yesterday was one. Good policy launch on governing with at least some integrity, Worth gaffe, clear over the 7.30 Report hurdle, and then the juicy Brandis gaffe to end a perfect day. Some argue Kerry…

trackback
2022 years ago

Political Party Origins, 100 kmh and Interest Rates

Short shots. How Hamilton’s central bank bill led to the party political duopoly in the US. How the organizational innovations of the Australian Labor Party led to the party political duopoly in Australia. Interest rates as an electoral ploy. Governors…