Speakers Corner

Published last week in Crikey

Speakers of parliament are well remunerated. In the commonwealth they receive nearly $200,000, more than most ministers and 75 per cent above the salary paid to parliamentarians. And they are well cosseted. They enjoy extensive office suites with private dining facilities and a shop-full of antiques. In grand parades, they rank only after heads of state and heads of government. And their portraits are hung in parliament.

In exchange, they have two functions important to democracy. A parliamentary paper on the Speaker of the House of Commons emphasises that the speaker is “responsible for protecting the interests of minorities in House.” After all, majorities – unless corralled – oppress minorities which compete for powers and privileges. Speakers are also responsible for the proper conduct of parliamentary business.

No doubt the speaker in the Commonwealth parliament, David Hawker, knows his job. A parliamentary paper adorned with Hawker’s photograph shows that the speaker, as well as being responsible for the orderly conduct of parliamentary business, is meant “to protect the right of individuals and minorities in the House.”

These functions are tested during question time, the 60 minutes available on about 75 days a year for members to question ministers. Hardly an overwhelming burden. But Hawker has shown there is a difference between knowing what his responsibilities are and delivering them.

We need not examine again how Hawker condemned and ostracised the opposition health spokesperson, Julian Gillard for saying what the health minister, Tony Abbott, previously uttered without penalty. We have enough other examples from the following days to see that proceedings were not orderly and minorities were not fairly treated.

ABC radio broadcasts all proceedings in the House and ABC television airs question time. Cable television and the internet also show proceedings to the misfits who watch. Such audiences as participated in this ritual are regularly served a dish of mayhem, confusion and, on Hawker’s behalf, indifferent judgement; all of this in a daily hour.

Take Kim Beazley’s first question on June 1, hardly completed before a government member objected. Presiding officers, including Hawker, typically allow members to comment on the validity of unusual points of order, but not that Thursday. Hawker wanted no opposition help before he ruled the question out of order. You see, the question about government unity (or disunity, given a proposed merger of Queensland’s conservative parties) would have embarrassed the government.

There was further tumult when an opposition member asked the Prime Minister, John Howard, whether Spotlight’s Australian Workplace Agreement – one which eliminated several entitlements for two cents an hour – would spread throughout Australia. Howard said, “The answer to the question is no.” But he went on at length deriding the opposition. Hawker might have concluded that Howard, having answered the question, had no call to continue. Instead he issued warnings, all to opposition members.

Eighteen minutes latter, the Prime minister answered another query on AWAs, whether there was a push to reduce the real minimum wage. “The answer to that question is no”, Howard said again, before again attacking the opposition. Hawker would not accept points of order on the relevance of the Prime minister’s laborious assault. While he noted that the question “was relatively long”, as if to explain Howard’s monologue, he failed to note that Howard had answered the question with one word in his first sentence. Another set of warnings were issued and three members of the opposition were ejected; all of this in 60 minutes.

Question time on June 13 saw several warnings, again overwhelmingly for opposition members. Hawker issued nine warnings during question time on June 14 and excluded two opposition members. You can see a pattern, one not favourable to Hawker.

Certainly a testy opposition frustrated Hawker’s efforts. But the opposition are entitled to remonstrate against speakers if they outrageously favour government members who grant them their high and lucrative post. Hawker either does not wish to or cannot protect minorities.

And he is ignored by ministers. Contrary to the rules, ministers turn their backs on the speaker, better to entertain their backbenchers. They also ignore his instructions.

None of this is complementary. All of it suggests that Hawker should resign the rewards of office, for the benefit of parliament.

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Lin
Lin
15 years ago

Tony Harris does us all a great service by highlighting the disregard that the two major parties have for the rights of the rest of the parliamentarians (and the people who voted fpor them). It seems to me that the problem is not sourced in the major parties, however. It is sourced in the type of voting that we do to elect people to the various parliaments. Instead of the electoral system trying to ensure that a reasonable representation of the electors intentions is converted into representation the system attempts to ensure that just one person, party or whatever you want to call it, gets to represent all of the various voters. It isn’t just a first past the post system in Australia, it is a take-all-the-little-blokes-votes and convert them into a big-blokes-vote system. Would that there be a proportional system of representation and all of those abuses would die.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

However bad Hawker is (and yes, he is bad), the opposition have no right to complain. Wwho can forget Leaping Leo’s efforts?

C.L.
15 years ago

Abbott’s “grub” comment was made to a gutless Labor member who was trying to question the propriety of John Anderson uner parliamentary privilege. Gillard’s was merely a childish show of macho bravado with no context in what was then occurring.

Questions about party matters are contrary to the standing orders and have always been ruled out of order.

There is no requirement – and never has been – for a Prime Minister to be sat down by a Speaker when the Speaker judges the answer to have been answered. Most of Labor’s IR questions are of the “is the PM aware of Herbert Bloggs, a man in my electorate who was unfairly made to work 18 hours a day for wages of a half-loaf of bread etc etc…” The PM has taken to answering these questions by saying that, no, he isn’t aware of Herbert Bloggs but he is aware of other generic facts about the labour market. When Labor is then reminded that real wages have grown far more healthily under his government than the previous Labor government, the Opposition becomes irritated. To suggest that the PM should just answer “no” when asked if he is aware of idiosyncratic personal stories russled up from all over the country is ridiculous.

The biggest abuser of points of order in the House is Kim Beazley who usually stands to rebut something said by the PM or another minister. He can’t take it.

The Opposition attracts most warnings from the Chair because the Opposition is usually more disorderly. This has always been the case.

A notable Labor tactic in recent times has been Anthony Albanese turning his back on both the Chair and the PM or minister answering the question. As the Treasurer pointed out, this is an old tactic. I have never seen any speaker demand that government ministers not swivel away from him at the Dispatch Box. Never.

Yes, I am a Question Time misfit.

C.L.
15 years ago

erratum: “…judges the QUESTION to have been answered.”

C.L.
15 years ago

PS: Nice to see a blogger writing on parliamentary matters. I think people have begun to underestimate the importance of how politicians fare in the House vis-a-vis the strength or weakness of governments and Oppositions.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
15 years ago

CL is being cute.
Abbott made the claim after Kelvin Thomson asked some questions of John Anderson that Anderson has NOT answered indeed has given various misleading statements to.

Gillard clearly read from Hansard when using the exact same language.

The first time it was used it should have been ruled against.
Gillard clearly showed the double standards of the Government which has clearly beaten the Keating benchmark.
However she should have never uttered the words.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
15 years ago

Question Time is constructed as political theatre. The role of the Speaker is to keep the amateur dramatics within bounds. Hawker is a somewhat hesitant Speaker and certainly not blessed with fluency or devastating wit – and its a pretty thankless task. His rulings aren’t all that outrageous; it’s more the diffidence and nervousness that’s unsettling and of course, manna from heaven for the opposition. But, I suspect that he’s probably more unsettled by Bronnie’s stentorian bellowing than anyone else’s – I know I would be.

Ultimately, the ALP is on a hiding to nothing with calculated whining about perceived Question Time injustice. PJK’s Prime Ministerial approach to Question Time was reminiscent of Charles I’s attitude to parliament generally and any party that thought that Leo McLeay was the appropriate person to preside over the House of Representatives isn’t all that well-placed to offer critique.

saint
15 years ago

I used to be a Question Time tragic as well. Now I can’t bear to watch it. It’s gone past theatrics playing up to the media gallery to an unadulterated national embarassment. A pox on both their houses.

C.L.
15 years ago

My dear old friend Homer is being very cute. The “Keating benchmark” was that he didn’t show up for Question Time.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Yep,

I can’t bear question time AKA abuse time. What a waste of time.

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
15 years ago

“Ultimately, the ALP is on a hiding to nothing with calculated whining about perceived Question Time injustice. PJK’s Prime Ministerial approach to Question Time was reminiscent of Charles I’s attitude to parliament generally and any party that thought that Leo McLeay was the appropriate person to preside over the House of Representatives isn’t all that well-placed to offer critique.”

Once again, the standard Geoff Honnor relativist line.

Once again, how does the fact that the ALP once upon a time did it make it right?

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
15 years ago

CL is not understanding.
The standards have dropped since PJK was PM and they were pretty poor then

C.L.
15 years ago

Yeah, nobody has threatened to “crucify” anyone since Keato left.

vee
vee
15 years ago

Question Time is a joke and should be dismissed from parliament altogether, as others have noted – it is theatre and neither side is interested in genuine debate.

Then again its politics and I don’t think either side ever has been and if any politician had a modicum of integrity they would debate from outside the protectionist walls of fabled parliament.

As for the speakership – given the cosy rewards I’ll take the job but I don’t hold a parliamentary seat :'( but one thing I certainly would be is even-handed and follow the appropriate constitution not some made up party convention.

Geoff R
15 years ago

Some American authors see question time as a role model (Pierson & Hacker’s Off Center) for increasing presidential accountability. But Australia doesn’t seem to be doing well. Parliament is expensive and it seems we are not getting the maximum bang for the buck in using MPs are agents of accountability. Ian Marsh’s work is useful here.

FDB
FDB
15 years ago

Sheesh, imagine if GWB had to front up to actual hostile questions without a prepared statement. Now THAT would be a train-wreck worth seeing!