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!’
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.