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.