Time for an Appointed Speaker

Andrew-LewisThe debate about reforming the role of the speaker needs to move beyond 'pairs', writes Andrew Lewis.

If you thought a pair was a piece of fruit that was a not-so-distant relative of the apple, then you haven't been keeping an eye (or ear) on what has been happening in Australian Federal Politics recently.

A hung parliament, the result of Australia not really deciding on August 21, leads to all sorts of issues, not the least of which is the common practice of the Speaker of the House being taken from the government ranks, leaving them with one less vote on the floor than they normally would have, except when there is a tie when the Speaker can cast a deliberative vote to break the tie.

Now, I'm not calling on Harry Jenkins to use that vote to ensure a premiership for St Kilda. But the razor thin majority the Gillard Government has in the House of Representatives is effectively halved when Jenkins gets up in his high chair and starts presiding over parliamentary proceedings.

This means that any planned government travel during sitting days, illness, parental leave or unexplained absence at an inconvenient time could leave the government without the required numbers to pass legislation, regardless of the whims of Messrs Bandt, Wilkie, Oakeshott and Windsor.

Government ministers need, on occasion, to travel overseas to meet important people, and that opportunity may not always present itself during a week where parliament is not sitting. If Tony Abbott insists on playing hardball with parliamentary numbers, this may render the House of Representatives largely unworkable from a government standpoint until the minister returns to the House.

Which begs the question: why does the Speaker still need to be a member of the House?

It has been mentioned during the process to attract the support of the independents previously mentioned that taking the role of the Speaker would render the member unable to represent their constituents through Adjournment Debates, Matters of Public Importance, Member's Statements, and debates on individual pieces of legislation. To summarise, the Speaker cannot make any statements in the House except to rule on the conduct of the House and its members.

Despite the pay rise and additional staff, this makes the Speaker's job a less attractive one. You also need to be ever present in Parliament House in case of a division, and you need to be an expert on all the Standing Orders and Sessional Orders of the House.

Surely, this is a job that could be given to an appointed public servant, above party politics, expert on parliamentary procedure and practice, who would administer the rules of the House, without having a say on the composition of those rules, which would remain the responsibility of the lawmakers themselves.

In this country, governments appoint judges whose role is to interpret and administer law, but not to write law. The Speaker of the House would be a legal expert on the government payroll but administratively independent, part of the Department of the Parliament.

The person would also not be an elected member of a political party, and would therefore be above accusations of bias and partiality in their rulings in the House, which has often been a problem with governments usually enjoying more favour from the Speaker's chair than oppositions.

This would leave all 150 members of the House of Representatives free to represent their constituencies equally, and would also reflect the totality of the will of the people expressed at the most recent general election. This could also be applied to the Senate, although the reasons relating to representation, as Senators do not represent small constituencies but large states, are not as compelling.

Surely it is time that Australia leads the way, as it did with the secret ballot and the extension of the vote to women, in this important area of parliamentary practice, and made the Speaker of the House an appointed official, rather than an elected politician. 

Andrew is a Melbourne writer, and writes on politics and sport. He is a featured writer on the AFL site www.bigfooty.com, and also has his own blog, which can be found here.

Mutual Responsibility quietly slips into orthodoxy

Stephan_knoll Stephan Knoll praises the major parties for cooperating on good welfare legislation.

During the last federal parliamentary sitting week before the 2010 winter break, the government together with the opposition have moved to improve the principle of mutual responsibility within the Australian welfare system.

Welfare quarantining (a central plank of the Northern Territory intervention) has been extended – initially on a trial basis, to the wider population. No longer is it the subject of racial inequity, but a common sense approach to ensuring that those who require society’s help make the best use of that help and ensuring that those in need receive more than just a paycheque, but guidance and direction into making better decisions for themselves and their families.

There was little public awareness on this issue because it was bi-partisan, and without political conflict there is no story, or so it seems.

These measures are sensible, practical and long overdue. The fact that this has been introduced by a Labor government shows how far the political debate has come on welfare policy. Orthodoxy for mutual responsibility can be counted as a win for Liberal and in particular, conservative forces.

On this very rare occasion, political correctness has taken a back seat to practical action. The arguments by the Greens and the Australian Council on Social Services came across as shrill and irrelevant – using hyperbole and emotion in an attempt to swing sentiment gave way to clear purpose and action.

Even though we may not have been able to personally implement these measures, we are nonetheless able to take satisfaction in their introduction.

The bill passed this week shows that aside from the media hype, sensation and intrigue, there is real action being taken to improve our society and that our system of government is indeed able to deliver reform without having to divide the nation in the process.

In this instance congratulations are fair and due to both sides of parliament. The way in which this debate has been conducted will not bring high praise from many; however praise is indeed well deserved and so from one grateful Australian, well done.

Stephan is General Manager of family meat and smallgoods business Barossa Fine Foods. He is also heavily involved in the Young Liberal movement in South Australia.

Michael Kirby’s call for an apology to gay Australians must be rejected

Alex-Butterworth There's no need to make another symbolic apology, writes Alex Butterworth.

The Left of Australian politics have a self-righteous sense of political monopoly over gay Australians. This is destructive altruism and it must stop.

Demanding an apology is divisive misplaced altruism that will do more harm than good to the people he is trying to help. Kirby’s demand encapsulates the victim mentality of the Left. Rather than feeling proud of our peaceful and democratic history, the Left are ashamed of our past and our culture. The Left are trapped in a victim and oppressor perspective that holds back every minority group they claim to represent.

I am a bi-sexual, but before that, I am an Australian, a Liberal and an individual. Like most non-heterosexual men and women my age, I don’t want to be categorised into a minority group, or typecast as some sort of victim. My generation are not stuck in the anachronistic battles of the past, and don’t have the chip on our shoulder that Kirby thinks an apology will remove.

I have been through the emotionally taxing process of coming out of the closet, but far from being a victim, I believe am all the better for it. Every Australian has difficulties that they will face in their life. To feel victimised and demand an apology every time you face adversity is counter-productive.

While Kirby’s self-righteousness on sexuality issues is one concern, there is a deeper problem with what Kirby is proposing. The concept of inter-generational guilt is entirely inconsistent with individual responsibility. An apology is something you offer to an individual that you have personally wronged. An apology should come from Ministers who have made a personal error, or from the individuals who supported bad policy, not from a government using sexuality as a political football to establish some obscure moral high ground. If anyone should be apologising, it should be Peter Garrett to the families that have lost their homes and loved-ones in house fires as a result of his insulation program.

For this generation of Australians to apologise for the actions of past generations is a contrived attempt to swing a few votes. I know I won’t stand by and let it happen without speaking out, and I know that many other non-straight Liberals in Australia will share my view.

As a bi-sexual I am more offended by a government apology that I don’t require than by any “past wrongs” that I’ve never suffered. If Rudd really wants to do something for the gay community in Australia, he should lower taxes, cut red tape and call us Australians rather than trying to turn us into another victim group. The fact is, Rudd won’t do that, but Tony Abbott will.

Alex Butterworth is the Australian Liberal Students' Federation President and WA Young Liberals President.

Question time or a waste of time?

Alan-Ferguson Question time still needs further reform, argues Senator the Hon Alan Ferguson.

During my term as President of the Senate, I set out to try to reform the procedures for the conduct of Question Time in the Senate.  Some naïve souls may assume that ministers will answer the questions without notice given to them at 2pm on any given sitting day.  I am not one of those.  In my experience, direct answers to questions are few and far between.

For many decades, question time was an opportunity to seek information from the government and ministers answered questions knowing that they faced the threat of severe political sanctions if they gave misleading or evasive answers.  The rot did not start with the televising of question time in 1990.  It was already evident in such well-established practices as the provision of “possible parliamentary questions” to ministers by their departments, with additional gloss from their personal offices.  These increasingly voluminous question time briefs fuelled the plague of what we now call “Dorothy Dixers”.  Before long, question time became a choreographed affair which appeared to be conducted largely for the benefit of the press gallery who reduced their commentary to an assessment of which side landed the best blows. 

All sides of politics, and the media, have contributed to the general degradation of what should be a very important instrument of accountability.  In its current degraded form, question time is a major contributor to declining perceptions of parliament and parliamentarians by a community which sees us as scuttlebutt-peddling politicians.  It is, in my view, in its current form, largely a waste of time.

In August 2008 I issued a discussion paper on the revitalisation of question time.  The paper looked at how to make question time more effective and to focus the discussion even further, specific proposals were circulated.  The main features were:

  • all primary questions to be placed on a Question Time Notice Paper by 11 am on the day of answering;
  • up to six supplementary questions following each primary question (including from questioners other than the primary questioner);
  • up to two minutes for an answer to each primary or supplementary question;
  • answers to be directly relevant to each question.

There was wide ranging debate on the proposals and, I have to say, a degree of disagreement with their objectives. I was keen, however, for the new ideas to be at least tried and when the Procedure Committee reported again in November 2008, a majority of the committee recommended the trial of a modified proposal for a more limited change to question time, while acknowledging the intent of the original proposals to enhance the accountability of ministers to Parliament. The modified proposal’s key uptake was that answers were to be required to be directly relevant to the question.

The Senate has trialled the modified proposals since the last two weeks of sitting in 2008.  Most recently, the procedures were reviewed by the Procedure committee in its fourth report at the end of 2009 whereby it recommended the continuation of the new rules with one further modification be trialled: Supplementary questions would be restricted to thirty seconds to encourage conciseness and to provide time for a further one or two more questions.

Although a work in progress, changing the way Question Time operates in the Senate is something I still feel strongly about; it is the most publicly visible activity in parliament – the bit we're likely to see on the television news or hear on the radio and so it helps to shape our view of politicians. It's hardly surprising then that some members of the public hold our elected representatives in fairly low regard, since Question Time remains a farce. It is my hope that in trialling these new rules, we can move towards a Question Time where Members and Senators can hold the government of the day to account for their actions or inactions.

Senator the Hon Alan Ferguson is the Deputy President of the Senate and a Liberal Senator for South Australia.