Parliament will sit for the first time in the new term on September 28. Before they can get started, the House of Representatives needs to elect a Speaker. Traditionally, that Speaker was drawn from the government’s side, often elected unopposed, and dragged to the Speaker’s chair. That last is a quaint holdover from the days when being the Speaker was an unenviable task that no one wanted – although perhaps not so outdated, given the way the Parliament is shaping up.
Before the hung Parliament became a reality, the assumption was that, in the event of a Labor victory, Harry Jenkins would continue in the position. It seems that’s no longer something we can take for granted.
The Independent Member for Lyne, Rob Oakeshott, confirmed a few days ago that he was interested in the job if nominated by another Member. In doing so, he triggered a storm of criticism.
Media commentators suggested that Oakeshott’s central role in determining government had gone to his head, that his ego was out of control. Perhaps he had been lured by the substantial pay rise. Andrew Wilkie worried that Oakeshott would lose his independent voice through the necessity of working closely with Labor. Moreover, since the Speaker does not traditionally have a vote, a valuable independent could effectively find himself muzzled. Unnamed sources told Malcolm Farr that the Member for Lyne was ‘too soft’ to deal with what promises to be an unruly House. Rumours that the Coalition intends to fight every possible point of order have those same sources worried that a tough, experienced Speaker will be needed to counter such obstructionism.
From the Coalition’s side has come a considerable amount of character assassination. Snide remarks about Oakeshott taking 20 minutes to deliver a ruling might be appropriate, even funny, when coming from a comedian, but they hardly constitute legitimate concerns about someone’s fitness for the job. Christopher Pyne even suggested that it was a matter of not knowing how the Constitution operated.
As for the commenters on various News Limited articles – well, I won’t bother repeating rhetoric worthy of the Tea Party.
Abbott refuses to support Oakeshott. Gillard, hedging her bets, has sought legal advice as to whether it’s even possible.
And the man himself? Interviewed this morning, Oakeshott said he was concerned that the House might fall at the first hurdle. With both major parties deadlocked on 72 seats, it’s likely that neither would want to give up a vote, leaving them even more dependent on cross-benchers to pass or block legislation. There might well be a ‘Mexican stand-off’, he said, and he was ‘trying to unlock the situation’. He pointed out that he would be happy for someone else to take the Speaker’s chair if agreement could be reached on both sides, but the way things were shaping up, he felt it might be a case of ‘if not me, then who?’ and wanted to see where people stood.
Oakeshott also said he worried that the Coalition appears to be reneging on the Parliamentary reforms to which both major parties had agreed – in particular, the agreement to ‘pair’ the Speaker. This reform would offset the loss of the Speaker’s vote by sitting out someone else (probably the Deputy Speaker) who could be expected to vote differently. Liberal strategist Grahame Morris suggested the change, Oakeshott noted, but now it seems that the Coalition has no intention of honouring the agreement.
There might be ego involved, but Oakeshott has apparently considered what most people don’t want to face – that, for all the landmark reforms and undertakings given in the post-election period, simple political manoeuvring may derail the Parliament before it even gets started. Electing a Speaker from the cross-benches safeguards against that possibility. It doesn’t need to be Oakeshott, of course – any one of the six could fill the position – but he seems to be the only one who’s putting his hand up.
Is he inexperienced? Of course, but so was every Speaker who first came to the chair. As he pointed out, ‘there’s no Speaker’s school’. Nor is there any test of office – convention often dictates the nomination of a senior backbencher, but this election has already shown that convention can be overturned. It’s an open question as to whether or not Oakeshott would be up to the challenge of bringing an unruly House to order; like most Speakers, he’s untested.
Would he lose his independence? That’s a real danger. Pairing the Speaker would alleviate the problem to an extent, but in reality, most Speakers have tended to support the government of the day. There are only a handful of significant situations in which this has not happened; in 1982, for example, Speaker Sir Billy Snedden refused to support the Coalition government against Opposition frontbencher Bob Hawke. Again, though, we have no way of knowing how Oakeshott would behave (despite the Coalition’s new epithet for him, ‘Labor Independent’).
All in all, Oakeshott appears to have good intentions. If he’s guilty of any failing here, it might simply be that he’s more focused on the workings of the Parliament as a whole than on simply representing his electorate.
And that is a flaw that one might well wear as a badge of pride.