Question Time in the House of Representatives yesterday was anything but business as usual. For a few minutes, we teetered on the brink of a Parliamentary crisis.
It started when the level of rowdiness and generally un-Parliamentary conduct finally proved too much for Speaker Harry Jenkins. He issued a general warning to every member. Now, as he often reminds the House, if the Speaker formally warns someone, it’s the equivalent of telling them they have one strike left. Any further misbehaviour would see that member ‘named’ – and when that happens, the member can be suspended from the Parliament for 24 hours.
In a situation where one party has a clear majority, this is not such a dire prospect. When the numbers are as tight as they are in this Parliament, however, a 24 hour suspension might be the difference between winning and losing a vote. Every member knows this – and usually the warning is sufficient to pull them into line. Yesterday, however, Bob Baldwin (Liberal member for Patterson) apparently chose to risk it, and for his pains was formally named.
Anthony Albanese, Manager of Government Business, immediately moved that Baldwin be suspended. It should have been a pro forma vote; after all, the motion was merely designed to support the Speaker’s decision.
It wasn’t. The Opposition, effectively challenging the Speaker’s authority, called for a division. In the resulting vote, Independent MPs Bob Katter and Tony Windsor were conspicuous by their absence. My feeling is that they’d decided to unofficially pair themselves, thus having no effect on the eventual outcome (since Katter has generally sided with the Opposition on most votes, and Windsor with the government). The Greens’ Adam Bandt and Independent Andrew Wilkie voted with the government. The real surprise, though, was Independent Rob Oakeshott. His was the deciding vote – and he voted against the Speaker.
By voting against him, the House had in essence declared that they had no confidence in him.
At that point, Jenkins announced that, following Question Time, he would ‘consider his position’ – in other words, that he might resign. You could see the shock on some members’ faces.
In doing so, he was following the example of Speaker Jim Cope, who resigned from the chair in 1975 after the government refused to support his decision to suspend Minister for Science and Consumer Affairs Clyde Cameron.
There’s no rule that compels a Speaker to do this, although it’s considered Parliamentary protocol. Jenkins could have simply continued with the business of the day. In declaring his intention to consider resigning, however, Jenkins was sending a message.
That message was clear; the current House consistently disrespects the Speaker. Anyone who’s listened to or watched Question Time will be familiar with Jenkins’ frequent cries of ‘Order!’ and the extent to which those instructions are ignored. Members, particularly those on Opposition benches, argue with many of his decisions. At times, four or five Opposition MPs have risen, one after the other, to challenge a single ruling.
In itself, questioning a ruling is not objectionable; when the challenges are simply repetitions of the original objection, however, it ceases to be anything but bullying. When that bullying goes on day after day, it’s scarcely a surprise to find that the Speaker might consider that the House has no confidence in him. And when his own ruling is overturned, that can only confirm such a suspicion.
Almost before Jenkins finished speaking, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott leaped to his feet and moved a motion of confidence. In speaking to that motion he was both eloquent and – unexpectedly – heartfelt. He didn’t quite acknowledge the Coalition’s role in bringing about this crisis, but he admitted that the minority government situation was difficult for everyone to navigate. Nonetheless, he had complete confidence in the Speaker. ‘Please, please, Mister Speaker, please do not take this as anything other than an example of the difficulties of this new paradigm’. In fact, he said ‘Please’ nearly half a dozen times, and each time it sounded genuine.
Gillard clearly had long to think about her answer, and didn’t shy away from making a political point in her speech. The government had always supported the Speaker, she argued. It was the Coalition that had voted against the motion to suspend Bob Baldwin.
Finally, Rob Oakeshott stood. He was unapologetic about his role in the vote, stressing that he would always consider the rights of a private member in such situations. In this he was at least consistent; he voted against a similar motion to suspend Christopher Pyne back on March 23rd). Nonetheless, he too supported the Speaker – ‘Don’t go,’ he said. ‘Don’t go, Mister Speaker’.
Jenkins finally called the vote, which passed unanimously without a division – and business resumed. A potential crisis was averted yesterday – but had the Speaker followed through and actually resigned, it could have been a very different story.
Remember, Labor holds government by the slimmest of margins – only two seats. One of those seats needed to be sacrificed to install Jenkins as Speaker, reducing their margin to 1, which is incredibly tenuous. Should the Independents decide to vote against the government, any given bill or motion can be defeated just as happened yesterday. If Jenkins stepped down, the government would return to its 2 vote margin – but a new Speaker would need to be immediately elected.
Logically, Deputy Speaker Peter Slipper would be next in line. He is a member of the Liberal Party, however – and if elected, the Opposition would have only 73 seats, making it much harder to defeat any government bills or pass their own. It’s fair to say that Abbott would probably resist any move to reduce his bargaining power.
When the Parliament was first formed, there was considerable speculation that Oakeshott would take the chair. If Jenkins stepped down, no doubt that speculation would resurface. His support for the government on crucial issues such as carbon pricing and the National Broadband Network is very solid – the loss of his vote could jeopardise these two initiatives. The same would be true of any other Independent.
It’s likely, then, that the government would be forced to fall back on another of their MPs, returning us to the situation we have now. But there’s always the possibility that both parties would simply engage in a staring contest, and hope that the other blinked first. And if neither did … well, we could end up back at the polls. Given Abbott is positively champing at the bit to fight another election – and you could be forgiven for thinking that’s what he’s been doing ever since the last one – Gillard would be crazy to let it go that far.
So for now, the crisis is over, and it’s back to business as usual – yelling across the chamber, trotting out the lies and distortions, and pushing talking points instead of answering question. The government avoids giving out any information, while the Opposition reverts to the same kind of rowdy, disrespectful behaviour that provoked the situation in the first place.
I’d like to think Abbott’s speech to the confidence motion was an indication that he realises the tenuousness of the situation, and the extent to which his Opposition has contributed to nearly plunging the Parliament into a potentially disastrous situation. I’d like to think everyone took a step back and re-evaluated their behaviour, and decided to put the country ahead of the opinion polls.
I’m watching Question Time now, though – and it’s like yesterday never happened. Christopher Pyne has already received a warning.
But it did. And it should not be allowed to pass out of people’s minds with the next day’s news cycle. Jenkins showed that he has a point beyond which he won’t be pushed. And perhaps next time, it won’t be resolved so quickly and easily.
The kind of spectacle that Question Time has become is neither desirable nor irreversible. Debate and challenge can be respectful and rational. It requires discipline, and a willingness to set aside opposition for opposition’s sake.
Our Parliament has been given another chance. It should make the most of it.