One last ‘Order!’ for Harry

November 24, 2011

To some extent, we’ve come to expect ambushes from our Parliament under the minority government. Maybe it’s Opposition Leader Tony Abbott trying for yet another censure, or an Independent suddenly announcing ‘no deal’ on legislation unless certain conditions are met. Regardless, we know that there are some constants. One is the utter lack of anything resembling a non-party line from the major parties. The other is the presence of the Speaker, who gets dragged to the Chair when a new Parliament opens, and stays there until the next one begins.

All that changed today when Harry Jenkins, Member for Scullin, dropped a bombshell. He announced that he after 1387 days, he would step down as Speaker, effective immediately.

He explained that while he had done his best to uphold the Speaker’s traditional neutrality, distancing himself from party matters in this minority government situation, he had become ‘progressively frustrated at this structure’. He wanted to engage in Parliamentary and policy debate, and therefore his resignation was necessary. Without further elaboration as to his reasons, Harry – as he is affectionately called by thousands of Twitter fans and political wonks both amateur and professional – simply thanked his staff and the Clerks, not forgetting to tip a nod to his ‘trouble and strife’, Michelle, in the gallery.

Clearly caught unawares, Abbott was nonetheless quick on his feet. As might be expected, he praised Harry’s service to the Parliament – but apparently, he couldn’t resist the temptation to make a few political remarks. He commented no less than three times in his very short speech how unexpected it all was, how ‘out of the blue’. Not content with that, he then surmised that there must be ‘extraordinary’ things happening in the Labor Party for this to happen – and there was no mistaking the smirk on his face.

For her part, Gillard withheld her remarks until later today. It’s expected she’ll make a formal speech thanking Harry at the start of Question Time, for maximum broadcast coverage.

Harry was appointed Speaker after the 2010 election. Unusually, he’s become one of the most recognisable figures in Parliament – second only to party leaders and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

It’s often said lately that Question Time bears more resemblance to the playground than to halls of statecraft. It’s also often said that without Harry, there would be nothing to stop it degenerating into utter chaos. Harry’s trademark bellow of ‘Order!’ (usually rendered ‘Orrr-daaahhhhh!’in text) came to define him as a man struggling to maintain some semblance of civilised discourse among an increasingly rowdy rabble of politicians.

Any Speaker faces the charge of partisanship, but in Harry’s time in the Chair, it seemed that he erred on the side of caution. Although quick to wield the notorious phrase, ‘The Member will leave the chamber for one hour under 94A’ to those who persistently bucked his authority, Harry was as likely to pull up the Prime Minister for blatant irrelevance as he was Education Shadow Christopher Pyne for arguing a point of order. There were also times when the Opposition Leader blatantly defied the Chair, and engaged in both disruptive and unParliamentary conduct – Harry, respecting the office, declined to do more than issue an informal admonishment.

Although Harry stated his reason for leaving was a wish to engage in Parliamentary process, one can’t help but wonder how far his ‘frustration’ was a product of his daily battle to maintain order. Back in June, defiance of his ruling set the House careering towards a Parliamentary crisis, averted only when Members realised that their behaviour might disrupt their own tenuous positions. Given incidents like this, along with persistent arguments, tantrums at the despatch box and ratbag behaviour that wouldn’t be tolerated in a primary school, it’s likely no one would blame him if he’d resigned long before now.

As tweeter @Riotcub commented: ‘Unexpected resignation? Not to anyone who has watched QT. I’ve been waiting for Harry to say “fuck y’all” for a while.’

With his resignation, Deputy Speaker Peter Slipper takes on the primary role. His situation bears scrutiny; a former member of the National Party, he defected to the Queensland Liberal National Party in 1987. His seat of Fisher is currently under pressure, with the party considering holding early pre-selection votes as punishment for Slipper inviting long-time friend Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd to his electorate. Former Howard government Minister Mal Brough, announced he was prepared to challenge Slipper for the seat. If an early pre-selection is called, Slipper’s remarks on the subject indicate he would seriously consider resigning from the LNP and moving to the cross-benches. From that position, he could comfortably take the Chair and weaken the Opposition’s ability to influence Parliament.

With Slipper in the Chair, and the government holding a 76-73 majority, we could expect to see poker machine legislation and possibly the proposed changes to the Migration Act introduced into the House.

Labor went into caucus, joined by Harry for the first time since the election. By contrast, Peter Slipper was noticeable by his absence from the Coalition party room.

The government has already indicated it would select Slipper as the new Speaker, and Slipper is apparently prepared to take up the role. Abbott immediately responded that no Coalition MP would endorse that selection, which would put the matter in the hands of Adam Bandt and the Independents.

In his media conference, Abbott tried hard to turn Harry’s resignation into a cheap political stunt ‘to shore up its numbers’. ‘This is a government that lost its way, then it lost its majority, and now it’s lost its Speaker’, he said, invoking the spectre of the Whitlam dismissal to bolster his doomsaying. He followed that up with the incorrect assertion that it was the government’s responsibility to provide a Speaker from its own ranks, or it should expect to lose office.

He then made it clear that ‘anyone’ from the Coalition who accepted the Speakership would be expected to immediately resign. Not once would he mention Peter Slipper by name, and even claimed to have ‘not looked for him’ in the party room. The ostracism has already begun – and Abbott’s actions will almost certainly drive Slipper to the cross-benches. And if that happens, the Opposition Leader will have placed his own party in a weakened state with clear evidence of division, no matter how loudly he thunders about ‘a government in crisis’ and ‘a bad day for democracy’.

In all the political wrangling, however, let’s not lose sight of Harry’s contribution as Speaker. He did an oustanding job in a thankless role, and put up with harassment, defiance and outright abuse. Abbott’s attempt to sully his decision to resign should not detract from Harry’s service or from his integrity.

Harry concluded his resignation speech with ‘I go placidly with my humour intact’. As last words go, those would have been particularly good. But there was one last moment that was pure Harry.

As the applause swelled and MPs stood to acknowledge him, Harry bellowed one last cry of ‘Order!’

UPDATE:

As expected, Peter Slipper is the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. Anna Burke, Labor Member for Chisholm, is the new Deputy.

Mind you, this result didn’t come about until after a good 30 minutes of utter farce. After Slipper was nominated, Pyne rose nine times to nominate Labor backbenchers for the position. His speeches for each nomination were little more than cut-and-paste jobs – Labor is trashing the Westminster tradition, the Member for X is honourable and capable, why would Labor overlook the Member for X, etc. Really, he might as well have simply stood and said, ‘I nominate the Member for X – ditto’.

Each Labor nominee, unsurprisingly, declined.

Finally, an exasperated Tony Windsor nominated Christopher Pyne – ‘because it might be the only way we get him to shut up’. Pyne reacted with red-faced fury, accusing Windsor of turning the Parliament into ‘high farce’.

High farce, Mr Pyne? Your Question Time performances certainly qualify as that. Your ridiculous chorus line of nominations qualifies as that. Your Party’s incessant censure motions, your constant bleating that democracy is dead, your currying favour with extremist groups and riot-inciting shock-jocks not only make Parliamentary process a farce, but show absolute contempt for the very traditions you claim to hold so dear.

In a final show of petulance, the Opposition refused to applaud Slipper’s elevation to Speaker, turned their backs and began talking loudly as he was dragged to the Chair (in the best Westminster tradition). A few deigned to notice him – they shouted ‘Shame on you!’

If anyone should feel shame today, it is the members of the Opposition. The government outplayed them, and they did not even have the good grace to congratulate the new Speaker – the man they expelled from their own party because he dared to accept a role of considerable responsibility that demands integrity.

Many warm words were said in praise of Harry immediately afterwards – but no doubt, what makes the evening news will be the spectacle of Pyne’s parade of nominations, and his sputtering rage when Windsor called him out for making a fool of himself and wasting the Parliament’s – and the country’s – time.

And the farce isn’t over. Question Time has just started. Pyne’s first question (or rather, accusation)? ‘We know you did secret deals to make Harry resign, admit it!’

And Tony Abbott, predictably, has just called for a censure.

Same old, same old.


Conscience vote on marriage equality an insult

November 15, 2011

After declaring earlier this year that she supported the ‘traditional definition of marriage’, and saw no reason to change it, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced today that she would allow a conscience vote on same-sex marriage. This is a remarkable turn-around, given the strength of Gillard’s previous declarations on the subject.

But hey – a conscience vote! Not only is the question going to come up in Parliament, but MPs and Senators will be free to speak their minds. That’s brilliant, right? Those who advocate for marriage equality should be dancing in the streets, surely.

Reality check.

A conscience vote on same-sex marriage will almost certainly fail in the House.

Despite polls as recent as this morning showing nearly 70% support for same-sex marriage, enough MPs oppose it to ensure any bill’s defeat, even with a so-called ‘free vote. The Coalition overwhelmingly opposes the issue, while Labor is split.

That’s not to say that governments should be ruled by opinion polls. ‘Weather-vaning’ not only brings no votes, but also contributes to a picture of a party or politician as entirely inconsistent (and therefore untrustworthy). There’s also the question of conviction – if a party makes a decision to support or oppose a particular issue, it then needs to demonstrate unity.

So what is the point of a conscience vote, then?

It helps to take a look at what issues have attracted such votes in the past. The majority deal with so-called ‘social issues’ – sexual behaviour, medical procedures such as abortion, medical experimentation such as cloning, euthanasia and capital punishment. In 1996, for example a conscience vote allowed the Federal Government to strike down a Northern Territory law permitting euthanasia.

The argument for a conscience vote in these instances usually centres on the idea that these are areas of life that are likely to cause division within any given political party. Moreover, they are so important that an MP may feel compelled to vote against their party’s policy, thus demonstrating disunity. ‘Crossing the floor’ is a serious decision. It can result in a member’s expulsion from their party, seriously damaging their chances of re-election.

Arguably, however, the real reason behind assigning a conscience vote on these issues has little to do with their importance, and much to do with the weight of religious lobbying. Groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby wield a great deal of influence in the political arena. By allowing a conscience vote, a party leader can assume a posture of appeasement by publicly declaring a position consistent with theirs, while apparently granting others the ‘right’ to disagree. Former Prime Minister John Howard took that a step further in 2006, castigating those members of his party who conscience votes disagreed with his own, religiously-motivated position.

This is certainly the position taken in a paper produced for the Australian Council of Social Services in 2009.

At first glance, this appears reasonable. Some issues, apparently, should be a matter for the individual conscience, not the party line. But hold on a moment. Let’s take abortion. It’s been a matter for conscience votes in the past (most notably, perhaps, the RU486 bill of 2006). Today, however, Labor does not allow a conscience vote on matters of reproductive freedom. It has a firm, stated policy supporting a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy (albeit with certain caveats). The Liberal-National Coalition also has a firm policy, opposing that stance.

So what changed? Did everyone in both parties suddenly undergo the blinding realisation that their side was ‘right’, thus removing the need for a free vote?

Or perhaps some new facts came to light that took the issue out of the realm of belief and opinion altogether?

Nothing of the kind.

A generous explanation might say it was a decision made by cabinet and caucus that reproductive freedom was an issue that demanded a strong, united stance in support of a position for which the majority felt a strong conviction.

An uncharitable explanation might say that it was simply politically expedient, given each party’s analysis of public opinion.

Either way, it shows that a conscience vote is little more than a sop to party members who agitate for policy change, and a nod and a wink to religious pressure groups. For all the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘too important to dictate a position’, the reality is that these are simply hot-potato issues. Party leaders don’t like that; vehement division in public opinion is a nightmare when you’re trying to attract votes from all areas of society.

Nonetheless, they’ve done it. Gillard sought the moral high ground by proclaiming that the carbon price was ‘the right thing to do’, and did not allow any form of conscience vote on that issue. There’s the abovementioned abortion policy. What’s so different about same-sex marriage?

The short answer is: nothing.

At its base, Gillard’s announcement of a conscience vote on this issue is an insult. It’s a safe bet for the Prime Minister, who’s already announced that she’d vote against it; she knows any such vote will fail. And once it does, she can claim a demonstrated mandate for refusing to revisit the issue on a policy basis. Much like the referendum over a Republic, the details wouldn’t matter. Gillard could hide behind the numbers.

The argument for a conscience vote rests on the premise that some things are too important to be left to party policy.

I’d argue that there are some things that are too important to be allowed to be hijacked by political expediency. As Rainbow Labor said today, ‘Matters of equality should not be the subject of a conscience vote’ (my italics). At its heart, same-sex marriage is just that – a matter of equality.


Gracious in defeat on carbon pricing? Hardly.

November 8, 2011

The government’s package of carbon price related bills has finally passed both Houses of Parliament. Despite months of scare campaigning from the Opposition, hundreds of column inches given over in editorials and opinion pieces, astro-turfed rallies on Parliament House lawns, and hours and hours and hours of hysterical lies, the bills have passed.

Even at the last minute, the Opposition tried every possible tactic to delay the final vote in the Senate. They tried for amendment after amendment, which were designed to render the bills useless and which had no chance of passing. Senator Eric Abetz led a desperate charge to suspend standing orders after debate ended, arguing that there hadn’t been sufficient time to examine the legislation properly.

Of course, he carefully didn’t mention that of the nearly 30 hours allotted for debate, almost all the Opposition’s speeches boiled down to nothing more than, ‘Gillard lied to us and we should have an election’. Virtually no substantive debate whatsoever.

When that failed, votes on the last amendments were held up by Opposition Senators leaving the Chamber to force longer-lasting divisions. And what did they gain from that? Around 12 minutes in total.

In the end, though, the vote was called. Even during the vote, there were objections. Could the Opposition hear the question again? Why were they being asked to vote on a whole group of bills at once? (Never mind that this was agreed upon when the bills first came before the Senate.) They did everything but sneak out and set off the fire alarm – and I’m not sure it didn’t cross their minds.

The vote was decisive – 36-32. And a packed Senate gallery erupted with cheers and applause.

So that’s it. End of story, right?

Foolish optimists.

Within seconds, Abetz was on his feet again wanting a suspension of standing orders. The reason? He wanted to have a chance to condemn Labor politicians for their ‘betrayal’ of the Australian people. By name. At length. It was all about the ‘will of the people’. Why couldn’t Labor just accept it?

Accept what, exactly? The result of the 2010 election, when we voted in such a way as to bring about a minority government? The dozens and dozens of polls showing popular support for pricing carbon dioxide emissions? Oh, of course not. The ‘will of the people’ is what Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says it is, apparently.

Senator George Brandis thundered that it was the ‘most infamous day in politics’ in Australian history. He railed against the government’s ‘alliance of infamy’ with the Greens, and contemptuously dismissed the ‘ragtag bunch of people in the gallery’ who’d applauded the vote. Finally, he warned that, come the next election, the Australian people would make sure that Labor wore ‘the crown of thorns’ and would crucify them.

That particular metaphor might have worked better had not Senator Barnaby Joyce been – at the same moment – telling the media that this was in fact, the ‘biggest betrayal since Judas betrayed Jesus’. The part of Judas, it seems, was played by Independent Tony Windsor. ‘Jesus’ was presumably the mythical ‘forgotten families’ so beloved of the Coalition of late.

Not to be outdone, Senator Ian MacDonald practically frothed at the mouth in his condemnation of the government. In a stunning display of utter hypocrisy, he objected violently to Senator Evans referring to the Opposition as being ‘wreckers’ – and then went on to name the Members for Corangamite and Deakin as ‘gutless wonders’ who were too ‘cowardly’ to speak on the bills. To add insult to injury, he referred to the Prime Minister as a ‘liar’, and when asked to withdraw, he argued with the Chair that he had a right to say it because ‘it’s been said a thousand times’. And besides, he muttered, it was ‘true’.

(Incidentally, this is what the Prime Minister actually said before the last election: ‘I don’t rule out the possibility of legislating a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, a market-based mechanism … I rule out a carbon tax.’ And what do we have? An Emissions Trading Scheme. Not a tax.)

And so it went. Speaker after speaker, all contributing nothing of substance – in fact, throwing a tantrum worthy of a room full of three year olds.

I used to help out at my local university Co-Op childcare centre. If any of those kids tried behaviour like that, we’d have put them in Time Out. It’s a great shame there wasn’t the same disciplinary option available in the Senate chamber today.

The upshot? The vote was defeated on voices alone. The Opposition didn’t even try for a division. But it wasn’t over. Out they trotted to front the media with their dire predictions of imminent doom for the government and the Greens, and the End of All Employment in Australia. Those left in the Senate chamber bravely soldiered on, pulling quorum to interrupt debate over some of the related bills (such as those designed to assist the steel industry) and regurgitating the same tired old arguments.

Many of us had parents or teachers who counselled us to be ‘gracious in defeat’. Certainly I was always told that the grown-up thing to do when you lost was to congratulate your opponent and to move on. Perhaps the Opposition wasn’t as fortunate. Nonetheless, it’s not too late for them to learn.

Mr Abbott? Mr Truss? Mr Abetz? Opposition members? GROW UP. You lost the vote. Accept that. We’re not asking you to congratulate the Prime Minister, although it would be the gracious and adult thing to do.

If you still want to repeal all this legislation, you’ll have your chance to put your case to us at the time the next election is called. And if we don’t vote you in, perhaps you might finally accept ‘the will of the people’. Do us all a favour, and hold your water until then.

* * * * *

Dear Diary,

Day 1 of our oppression under the Socialist Green Carbon Tax of Doom. Sky not fallen. No anarchy in the streets. Dishes still need washing. Cat still needs feeding. Opposition still complaining.

Same old, same old.


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