30/11/2011 - 11:20

Libs will sink slipper into speaker

30/11/2011 - 11:20

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The minority government in federal parliament has thrown another curve ball with the appointment of the new speaker of the house.

The minority government in federal parliament has thrown another curve ball with the appointment of the new speaker of the house.

WHATEVER the merits of former Liberal MP Peter Slipper’s decision to take up Labor’s offer of the coveted post of Speaker of the House of Representatives, the move is another reminder that politics is simply the art of the possible.

In normal times, the post of speaker is just another job that goes to the political party that wins government. It’s usually a consolation prize for missing out on the ministry.

And a good prize it is, too. The pay is generally only marginally lower than that of a minister, but the office and entertainment facilities at Parliament House are very comfortable indeed. And when parliament is adjourned there are usually meetings of presiding officers from parliaments around the Commonwealth – often at exotic locations – providing the opportunity to compare notes and experiences.

And for what? Effectively chairing the proceedings of the parliament in a generally even-handed way, as well as being nominally responsible with the president of the Senate for the efficient running of the building. 

That’s why there was a sense of disbelief, especially on the opposition side, over the story that Labor speaker Harry Jenkins actually volunteered his resignation to Julia Gillard in a 7.30am phone call last week so that he could get more involved in ‘policy and parliamentary debate’.

Labor quickly sounded out – so the story goes – the deputy speaker, Peter Slipper, a Liberal from Queensland who just happened to be under challenge for endorsement from former Howard government minister Mal Brough. In a flash, Mr Slipper accepted the offer and was required to resign from the Liberal Party.

So the Liberals lost a vote on the floor of the house and Labor gained one. Normally not an issue of note, except in this finely balanced parliament where Labor is effectively in minority government.

And you could almost hear the collective sighs of relief from Labor MPs, who had been terrified at the likely impact of Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie’s demands for tougher measures on poker machine gambling. The leagues clubs that rely on poker machines for their profits and subsidised meals for members and visitors are heavily concentrated in Labor seats on the east coast. 

In fact I recently enjoyed several such meals at the Mooloolaba Surf Club on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. With marvellous ocean views thrown in, the beef carvery at lunch and dinner, plus ice cream, is $15.50, and $9.50 for seniors and children. A glass of wine is a competitive $4 ... all thanks to the pokies in the next hall. No surprise, then, that the dining room was very well patronised.

Mr Wilkie has said he would withdraw his support for the government if Labor did not back his demands for mandatory limits on how much gamblers could lose on the pokies. With the new voting pattern, however, such a threat would no longer bring down the government. The pressure is off.

So the Gillard government will get some wriggle room in the parliament, although the relations between the new speaker and his former Liberal colleagues are likely to be poisonous. Not ideal for the smooth running of debates, but extremely pragmatic.

But the job of speaker is not without its hazards. It’s unwise, for example, for a speaker to forget his origins and bite the hand that feeds him. 

Veteran MP Jim Cope was speaker in the early days of the Whitlam government in Canberra. But his rulings – impartially dispensed as far as he was concerned – so enraged the headstrong prime minister that Labor moved that he no longer enjoyed the confidence of the house. Not pleasant, but he was gone, replaced by Gordon Scholes.

I saw some amusing tactics in the NSW parliament in the late 1970s, when Labor’s Neville Wran governed with a wafer-thin majority. Mr Wran had a wonderful capacity to provoke the opposition. On one occasion when he had the Liberals and Nationals in uproar, the premier stopped in mid flight and simply looked at the speaker, on the basis that no-one could effectively hear what he was saying. 

It took the speaker, Laurie Kelly who hailed from Wollongong, some seconds to realise what was happening and immediately demand order. This was a frequent occurrence. It became clear who was calling the shots, and it wasn’t Mr Kelly.

The Nationals’ Grant Woodhams has proved to be a generally relaxed speaker of the WA Legislative Assembly, especially when compared with his predecessor, Labor’s Fred Riebeling, who adopted an authoritarian approach towards the end of his term. Mr Riebeling may have been influenced by his previous job as managing registrar of the Karratha Courts, while Mr Woodhams had enjoyed a long broadcasting career in the presumably more relaxed studios of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

But Mr Woodhams did flex his muscles last week when he ejected two Labor MPs from the chamber after they tested his patience. Ben Wyatt (Victoria Park) was sidelined for the day for constant interjecting, and Tom Stephens (Pilbara) was out for the rest of the week after being ‘named’, which is more serious.

Ejecting MPs for indiscretions is a significant power, but it must be used judiciously. Sometimes MPs want to be ejected to draw attention to an issue or gain some notoriety. The speaker is usually a wake up to that, and very rarely does it happen that an MP from the government side is placed in the sin bin. Most won’t push the speaker too far on a issue, even if they might feel aggrieved occasionally.

If there is one thing political parties don’t like it is one of their own MPs jumping ship. Becoming an independent is one thing; joining the other side is totally different altogether.

That’s why in the state parliament, North-West MP Vince Catania is constantly niggled by the Labor opposition in the Legislative Assembly. He won the seat wearing the Labor guernsey at the 2008 election, but opted for the National Party’s colours once he saw what was being offered to country seats under the Royalties for Regions scheme. He reckoned his seat would do better if he joined the Nationals. 

Needless to say, Mr Catania is not very popular with his former Labor colleagues. They will do all in their power to ensure he is not returned at the next election.

The same goes for Mr Slipper and the Liberals. In fact I will predict he will not serve another term. But he will have up to two years enjoying the responsibilities and perks of the speaker’s job, and no doubt the government will be able to get more legislation passed. It will also feel more comfortable about serving its full three-year term.

There’s an old saying that there are no friends in politics, just shifting alliances. The Slipper move is testimony to that.

 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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