Treasure the Regalia, Not the Rat

by on 8 February, 2012

ChrisThe wig and formality add dignity to the office of Speaker, even where the present incumbant does not, writes Chris Ashton.

Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph reported the imminent return of the Speaker’s wig and gown, but my hopes were dashed as I tuned in to Question Time to see Peter Slipper bedecked in a half-arsed set of regalia. He wore an academic gown, together with a court jacket over a business shirt and tie. Missing was the traditional wig, the stiff wing collar and the jabot or bands, although he perhaps imagines that deficiency will be offset by a weekly parade. But it should be all or nothing.

No doubt the irony of the former Liberal, turned “independent,” planning to robe up and process has not been lost on Julia Gillard, Harry Jenkins and the Labor caucus – probably not what they had in mind when they schemed to instal him in the speaker’s chair. And so it is easy to dismiss this as merely another instalment in the litany of bufoonery that is the life and times of Peter Slipper MP. But there is a sense in which it is precisely because of the current incumbent that the past formality of the Speaker’s office should be revived.
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The wig, gown and court coat of the Speaker of the House of Representatives were never intended to bring honour to the wearer, but rather to signify the dignity of the office, and indeed of the parliament over which he presides. And who wouldn’t want that? And who would suggest that our current parliament doesn’t need that?

But as I said, it should be all or nothing. In fact, it should just be all! Forget Slipper’s mix-and-match outfit that looks as if he read somewhere that robes wore worn in antiquity. Instead, he should be fitted for a new QC’s wig (leave the former Speaker’s wig in the Museum of Democracy), as well as the gown and all the appropriate accoutrements. Likewise, the clerks at the table, and other parliamentary officers should be in short wigs, robes, perhaps (indulge me here) with white bow ties. In  light of recent events, no one would suggest that this apparel is about the dignity of the wearers, but the Speaker, the Clerk and the other officials should be seen to be more than mere functionaries, rather they are present holders of high and historic offices that will outlive the names we currently associate with them.

Slippery Pete (or the Rat, if you prefer) will probably be a decent speaker and as impartial as any recent incumbent, but I couldn’t care less whether he lost the job tomorrow. The point of the regalia and the pageantry is to point to something beyond the man or woman in the robe, and that something should be retained, treasured and reinstated.

Chris is a postgraduate student in Arts and Theology. He is the Religion Editor for Menzies House and occasionally tweets @ChrisAshton


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