Sexism, misogyny, and a Speaker’s scalp

October 9, 2012

We’re pretty much inured to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s regular attempts to suspend Question Time. Almost every time the Parliament sits, a new ‘crisis’ manifests that forces him to his feet in order to yell across the chamber for ten minutes or so. Usually it’s either the ‘Toxic Tax Based on a Lie’ or how the government’s ‘Lost Control of our Borders’. At this point, there’s often a collective switch-off from those watching. After all, we’ve heard it before – and every time, the attempt to suspend Question Time fails.

Not so today. This time, the government said, bring it on.

And the reason? The Opposition wanted Speaker Peter Slipper gone. It wasn’t enough that he stepped aside while the court case brought against him by James Ashby was still underway. He had to go. Immediately. It was time to make history, and use the Constitutional power granted to the Parliament to remove the Speaker.

Abbott started in high gear, and just got louder. Slipper was a misogynist, he said. He was sexist. Look at the disgusting text messages he’d sent, comparing a vulva (though he used a far less polite word) to the kind of mussels you buy in a jar at the Fish and Chip Shop. Look at his behaviour towards James Ashby. Look at the way he just happened to boot Sophie Mirabella from the House so that she couldn’t cast a vote on the carbon price – that was not only sexist, it was also partisan! Forget that Mirabella was being continually disruptive; apparently if she’d been a man (or, presumably, a woman on the government benches), she could have escaped discipline.

Of course, none of this is proven. The case is underway, the judgment currently reserved. Some of the text messages were released to the media, but there were no grounds for saying that Slipper was guilty of the allegations Ashby’s brought against him. It’s a niggling little detail, and one Abbott seemed happy to skip over. So, for that matter, were the other Coalition speakers, notably Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop and Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne.

With Slipper’s character thoroughly delineated as a sleazy, woman-hating popinjay (oh yes, the formal procession through the halls of Parliament House came in for plenty of ridicule), it was time for the Opposition to turn on Prime Minister Julia Gillard – and it was quickly apparent that she (and through her, the Labor government) was the real target.

The least of Gillard’s sins was poor judgment in appointing Slipper in the first place. What was that? The LNP backed Slipper for pre-selection since 1993, and only dumped him when he became Speaker, leaving them down a vote? Pshaw. Details. Astonishingly, according to Pyne, it was one thing to support this man – who had allegedly brought the Parliament into utter disrepute – in his quest for a local seat, but quite another for him to be Speaker. Pyne didn’t elaborate on exactly where the line should be drawn, but presumably there’s a sliding scale. I’m sure the good people of Fisher would be pleased to know that the LNP were happy to help them elect a man of such low character.

But back to Gillard. She ‘forced’ former Speaker Harry Jenkins aside (oh, and let’s not forget to slip in a mention of the midnight assassination of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd). She dared to ‘lie’ to the Australian people about carbon pricing just so she could hold onto power. She was ambitious, grasping for power (and isn’t it interesting that ambition is only a failing in a woman). The Opposition even intimated that she knew about the Slipper/Ashby issue when she appointed the Speaker, making her culpable in this denigration of the Parliament. Finally, she was a hypocrite. Some of her own members had made sexist remarks, and she hadn’t told them off.

She, she, she, she, she. Over and over, the Coalition speakers refused to give the Prime Minister the benefit of her title, or even adopt the convention of using her surname. As my grandmother used to say, ‘She’s the cat’s mother’; ironic when you remember Julie Bishop’s cat-scratch moment towards Gillard in another memorable Question Time. And as Leader of the House Anthony Albanese said when he spoke against the motion: ‘If you used the Prime Minister’s title instead of just ‘she’ all the time, you might have a shred of credibility’.

For a series of speeches designed to make the case that Slipper was a sexist and misogynist who needed to be dismissed at all costs, there was a remarkable degree of sexism shown by the Opposition. But nothing matched up to one comment from Abbott, which sent shock waves through the chamber and those watching on social media:

‘This government should have already died of shame’.

And just to make sure we heard, he repeated it. Again and again.

It was utterly unconscionable. Barely a week after the Daily Telegraph reported that Radio 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones had told the Sydney University Young Liberals Club that Gillard’s late father had ‘died of shame’, there was Abbott invoking the same sentiments.

It’s a familiar theme for the Opposition. Sophie Mirabella, after organising an anti-carbon price demonstration outside Albanese’s electoral office (featuring placards with such lovely sentiments as ‘Tolerance is our demise’), told him that his mother had died of shame.

Quite a coincidence. But who really believes that? Abbott had to know what he was doing. After all, he’d been hounded by the media for nearly a week about Jones’ comments, and forced to defend his decision to keep accepting invitations to appear on Jones’ show (from which over 70 major sponsors, including Mercedes-Benz, have withdrawn their support). It was clearly aimed straight at the Prime Minister. Perhaps Abbott hoped to throw her off her stride when she rose to reply.

He couldn’t have picked a worse tactic.

Gillard let fly. Almost shaking with rage, she condemned Abbott for his hypocrisy in bringing this motion, given his history of sexist comments and alleged unacceptable behaviour towards women. Pointing at Abbott, she declared, ‘I will not be lectured by this man on misogyny and sexism. Not now, not ever.’

With devastating effect, Gillard used Abbott’s own sexist and misogynist words against him. His assertion that inequality might not be a ‘bad thing’. His claim that women were ‘physiologically’ unsuited to positions of authority. (Here he was echoing Alan Jones, who infamously declared that women in power in Australia were ‘destroying the joint’.) The outrageous statement that abortion was ‘the easy way out’. And so it went.

Gillard declared that Abbott was using a double standard in seeking to remove Slipper for sexist comments, and vowed that she would not allow that to rule the Parliament. Her fury was palpable, and for once, Abbott didn’t turn his back. There was a court case under way, and Parliament had no right to pre-empt the judgment. Slipper had voluntarily stepped aside, she reminded the House. She would not permit Abbott to impose a standard to which neither he, nor his Opposition colleagues, would adhere.

There was one moment when Gillard’s emotions threatened to overcome her – when she finally spoke about Jones’ comments, telling Abbott, ‘The government is not dying of shame. My father did not die of shame. If anyone should be ashamed, it is the Leader of the Opposition who should be ashamed of his behaviour.’

The motion was defeated by the narrowest of margins: 69-70. There were no questions, no points of order. Just an incredible eruption, immediately followed by business as usual.

But we saw something today. We saw an Opposition attempt to paint itself as a champion of morality and a protector of women – led by a man notorious for sexist language and bullying behaviour. We saw an Opposition attempt yet again to turn the House into a kangaroo court; Julie Bishop went even further, stating that it didn’t matter that there was as yet no verdict.

But we also saw a Prime Minister who seems to have finally been pushed too far. The bland, polished, vaguely condescending voice reminiscent of a tranquillised Margaret Thatcher gave way to a passionate, cutting anger. No mockery, no stock phrases, no cut-and-paste speeches praising the government’s record. This was the Gillard of old, the Deputy Prime Minister who took on all comers and did more than hold her own.

It’s a Gillard we haven’t seen for a long time.

Whether the government’s successful defence today of Slipper’s position as Speaker will prove a continuing problem remains to be seen. The outcome of the court case will, presumably, determine his future in the chair. In the meantime, the Opposition will undoubtedly find yet more ‘reasons’ to attempt a censure, or force an election. Having embarked on this course from the moment he was denied government, Abbott will not let up until after the next election – an election he expects to win with a majority comparable to that gained by the LNP in the Queensland state election.

The question is, though: will Gillard return to the measured, soporific cadences that many have described as seeming ‘fake’, ‘put on’? (And the question must be asked: did she adopt that way of speaking in the first place because she was told she’d appear ‘shrill’ otherwise?)

Or will it be the Prime Minister we saw today, who takes the fight to Abbott and confronts the Opposition tactics forcefully and without apology?

For Labor’s sake, it will need to be the latter.

UPDATE:

Peter Slipper has just announced in the House of Representatives that he will tender his resignation from the Speakership to the Governor-General. In an emotional speech, he said the House was more important than his own future. ‘Nothing is more important than the preservation of the dignity of our parliamentary institutions.’ According to Anthony Albanese, Slipper made his decision after today’s vote and informed the government. Slipper’s likely successor is his Deputy, Anna Burke, who has been fulfilling the Parliamentary role of Speaker since he stood aside.

This comes four minutes after Slipper tweeted, ‘Sources say Steve Lewis/News Ltd plan 2 run story based on untruths from certain LNP members&volunteers who worked on my last LNP campaign’. We can only wait to see what comes next, but one thing is clear; Abbott gained a valuable scalp today, as Slipper now joins Craig Thomson on the backbench. It’s a victory that – for all his sober words tonight as he said Slipper had done ‘the right thing’ – Abbott won’t hesitate to exploit. Stay tuned for more claims that the government relies on ‘tainted votes’ to stay in power.

It’s a pretty ugly day in Australian politics.

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A reality check on the Peter Slipper ‘scandal’

April 23, 2012

It’s not exactly news by now that Peter Slipper has stepped down from his Parliamentary role as Speaker. That much is clear – but that’s where the clarity ends, and the obfuscation, spin, accusations and general idiocy begin.

So let’s take a look – and a bit of a reality check – at what we actually have before us.

We have a compensation complaint made by James Ashby, a former staffer for Slipper, and lodged with the Federal Court, that alleges Slipper handed him blank Cabcharge vouchers for personal use. That’s an allegation of fraud, a criminal offence.

That complaint also alleges a raft of sexual harassment claims that would do any Hollywood thriller proud. Ashby claims that Slipper only hired him in order to pursue a sexual relationship, repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances, and even that Slipper asked him for a massage – which he provided – and responded to it in a sexual way.

Along with this Ashby claims that Slipper’s alleged behaviour was known about as far back as 2003 (and that there is video evidence of this), and that there was a cover-up by the then Howard government. For this, he is suing the Commonwealth, claiming that it did not provide a safe workplace.

The accusations of fraud – and, now, misuse of other entitlements – are under investigation from the Finance Ministry. The Australian Federal Police confirmed it was notified, and would ‘assess’ the claims.

Slipper denied – strenuously denied – all of it. Nonetheless, he stepped aside from his role as Speaker, saying that he believed that was appropriate pending the outcome of those investigations.

Ugly, right?

But let’s get a few things straight.

No criminal charges of fraud have been filed to date. (Not for lack of urging on Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s part, mind you – it really seems as though he believes the Australian Federal Police as his to order around.)

No criminal charges of sexual offences have been filed to date, despite some of the accusations potentially falling under stalking and breaches of the Telecommunications Act.

There is no formal investigation being undertaken by the Federal Police. Their spokesperson has confirmed only that ‘the AFP is aware of the new allegations of fraud and will be taking action to assess that information’.

No allegations have even come before the Court, let alone been proven. Documents were lodged. That’s it so far.

Given all of this, Slipper is absolutely entitled to the presumption of innocence. There’s no question about it. Abbott and his colleagues should not be out there referring to these matters as though they were beyond question. In particular, his Shadow Attorney-General, George Brandis, who is always so quick to remind us that he is a qualified lawyer (and so quick to forget that so is the Prime Minister), should be the first to remind his own party of this fact.

Oh, Abbott’s clever enough to avoid saying anything that’s actually defamatory. He talks about the government, not the man – but no one can mistake the message. It’s ‘tawdry’. It’s ‘squalid’. The government should ‘die of shame’. And let’s not forget the ‘sleazy’ deal made to elevate Slipper to the Speakership. The language is clear – it’s the language of gutter sexuality.

And the media is quite happy to go with it. It’s a ‘scandal’. Some are even happily adopting Abbott’s actual language – Paul Sheehan in the Sydney Morning Herald seems to like the word ‘tawdry’. A few moments ago, Channel Ten asked itself, ‘How did Labor not know who it was getting into bed with?’ (my italics) All the focus is on the sexual allegations, even if only as metaphor.

(And just by the way, media – what’s with the constant repetition of ‘a male staffer’? We can all see Ashby’s male. We know his name, and it’s not ambiguous. Why do you keep reminding us of his gender? Could it be that you think you can drum up a bit more outrage, make it more ‘dirty’ or ‘disgusting’, by focusing on alleged sexual behaviour between two men? Perish the thought.)

It’s worth repeating. Slipper did not stand down because of civil complaints of sexual harassment. He stood down pending the outcome of investigations into alleged financial impropriety.

It wasn’t required of him – after all, it wouldn’t be the first time a Parliamentarian continued to serve while his use of entitlements was under investigation – but he judged it the proper thing to do.

That’s not good enough for the Coalition, apparently. Christopher Pyne wants Slipper to be ‘suspended’ until the civil allegations are also resolved. Never mind that when former Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull and former Education Minister Michael Wooldridge were involved in civil actions – in Turnbull’s case, for hundreds of millions of dollars – both continued to serve in the Parliament.

Of course, there’s politics at the heart of all this. It’s as though someone wrapped the whole issue up in a big bow and handed it straight to the Coalition. With Slipper stepping down, the government returns to its previous one-seat majority. This won’t make it impossible to pass legislation – the best the Coalition could likely hope for is a tied vote, which would be resolved by Deputy Speaker (and Labor MP) Anna Burke – but it does give Abbott even more ammunition for his tried-and-tested diatribes against minority government.

(Always carefully failing to mention that any Coalition government would also be a minority, of course. That’s what happens when four different parties decide to work together.)

Abbott says he’s unlikely to try for a no-confidence motion when Parliament resumes on May 8. He says he doesn’t do such things ‘lightly’ – but that rings rather oddly against his other assertions. He’s claimed that ‘the strength of the whole democratic process relies essentially on the good name of the Speaker’s office’. If so, why isn’t he rushing to place a no-confidence motion on the Parliamentary agenda, and making his case to the Independents and Adam Bandt? Surely that would be the only appropriate, and responsible action?

Or could it be that Abbott won’t even try because he knows such a motion would fail? Perhaps he realises that he’s gained a reputation as the Opposition Leader Who Cried Wolf for his many attempts to censure the government (now around 50) for everything from legislating a price on carbon to allegedly bringing Australia to the point of financial ruin. No-confidence motions are traditionally incredibly serious – you just don’t attempt them unless the situation is urgent and potentially threatens the Parliament.

But then, censure motions are also supposed to be used only for serious purposes. Abbott’s made that into a joke – to the point where people now informally bet on what time he’ll move his next one. Perhaps now he’s reaping the consequences of that.

But back to Peter Slipper, and the allegations against him.

In December 2010, I wrote about the arrest of Julian Assange. At the time, I commented on the storm of accusations of ‘conspiracy’ that surrounded this issue. There was a rock-solid belief that Assange was little more than the victim of what amounted to a multi-national conspiracy designed to bring down Wikileaks – that the allegations made against him, and contained in the Interpol warrant under which he was arrested, were entirely fabricated. There was no evidence to suggest that this was the case at all – what we had instead was an appalling outbreak of rape apologism and ‘blame the victim’ mentality aimed at the two women involved in the complaint.

And this belief wasn’t confined to any one area, either. Mainstream media, politicians, bloggers, tweeters, Facebook users – the outcry was amazing. Leaving aside any question of Assange’s guilt or innocence (which is for a court to decide, if the cases ever come to trial), and leaving aside the question of conspiracy, one thing united these people – their absolute adherence to the presumption of innocence.

Assange is entitled to the presumption of innocence. But – and here’s the thing – we’re not seeing the same courtesy being extended to Peter Slipper. Mainstream media have all but convicted him of being a serial sexual predator. Opposition politicians likewise skate right up to the edge of a defamation suit. And as for social and new media – well, some of what’s being said doesn’t bear repeating. Dip a toe into the #auspol thread on Twitter if you’re feeling particularly like being revolted.

The reminder today that Slipper is an Anglican priest only added fuel to the more vicious of these commenters. Of course the allegations must be true, right? Everyone knows that priests abuse children, so Slipper must be guilty.

Yes, it really is that ugly.

What it comes down to is this: Peter Slipper is entitled to the presumption of innocence. He is entitled not to have his reputation destroyed. He is entitled to expect that any and all investigations into his alleged conduct will not be subject to political pressure, if not outright interference. In short, he is entitled to the same rights as every other citizen of Australia.

If – and I stress if – investigations conclude that he is guilty of misconduct, or a court finds him guilty of fraud, or sexual harassment – then he will pay the appropriate penalty. Until that time, he is an innocent man, and it’s about time organisations like the Opposition and News Ltd started remembering that.

The only truly shameful thing about this entire business is that anyone should have to point that out.


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.


Crisis averted – for now

June 1, 2011

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.


The beginning of the end?

September 28, 2010

On this, the opening day of the 43rd Parliament of Australia, I’d like to pause for a moment, and extend my deepest sympathies to Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie and Adam Bandt on the death of their hopes for political goodwill and electoral responsibility.

It’s a sad tale. A Parliament, brimming with potential and enthusiasm, fired up with possibilities for reform, cut down before its time – really, it’s enough to bring a tear to the eye. Devastated mourners are everywhere, wailing, ‘It could have been so beautiful!’ Their voices are almost loud enough to drown out the embittered mutterings of those gathered in the corners – ‘We told you this would happen. You were foolish to get attached’.

Actually, it’s not a sad tale at all. It’s a shameful one.

First, the wholly undignified scramble to form government, in which we saw the Coalition alternately instruct, cajole and threaten the Independents. That episode also featured the birth of the ‘Labor-Green’ scare campaign, using a sadly out-of-date ‘Reds under the Bed’ playbook. The whole business was redeemed, though, when both major parties signed on to a raft of parliamentary reforms designed to streamline government business, give backbenchers a voice and encourage bipartisanship.

Then, when it looked like Rob Oakeshott might be a candidate for Speaker, the Coalition suddenly ‘discovered’ that some of the reforms to which they’d agreed might be ‘constitutionally questionable’. They ignored the fact that their own strategist, Grahame Morris, had suggested to Oakeshott that his appointment to the Chair might prevent deadlock or outright failure of Parliament. They dodged the question of why they’d signed on in the first place. They engaged their own ‘independent expert’ to test the constitutionality of the agreement to pair the Speaker – said expert being Senator George Brandis. Now, Brandis does happen to be a constitutional lawyer, but ‘independent’? Well, given that the Coalition’s choice of firm to test their election costings was associated with former Liberal WA Premier Charles Court, perhaps there is more than one definition of ‘independent’ out there.

The Solicitor-General was consulted. His verdict? Pairing the Speaker was no different to pairing any other two MPs – an informal ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ did not breach the constitution. Good news, right? But wait. The Coalition decided that the Solicitor-General was, in fact, wrong, and chose to believe Senator Brandis instead. On the basis of that, they withdrew their support for pairing arrangements.

You have to give them points for consistency, I suppose. First the Treasury, now the Solicitor-General – it seems the Coalition doesn’t trust any government department.

Faced with that, Oakeshott felt he had no choice but to back away from the idea of taking the Speaker’s Chair. Predictable political manoeuvring followed, and it seemed for a while that former Coalition Whip Alex Somlyay might step into the role of Deputy Speaker and agree to pairing – in direct defiance of his party’s position. He too, though, changed his mind, amid speculation that Tony Abbott had applied a great deal of pressure to get him to do so.

In the end, the Speakership fell to Harry Jenkins, reducing Labor’s nominal majority in the House to one seat. Now, given how vocal that Coalition had been in advocating his appointment, you might expect a degree of respect and goodwill. Not so. The traditional opening statement of the Prime Minister – containing a slap at the Coalition’s behaviour regarding the Speakership – was greeted with rowdy heckling and scornful laughter from the Opposition benches. The Opposition Leader’s reply contained remarks about the Speaker that went well beyond cheeky, and earned him a rebuke from the Chair.

We still don’t have a Deputy Speaker. The Nationals popped up and reminded their Coalition partners that, traditionally, the Deputy should be drawn from their ranks. The Liberals challenged Labor to nominate one of their own MPs, which would bring the House into parity. Labor sat back and watched the Coalition argue with itself, while Rob Oakeshott on QandA last night vehemently rejected the idea of taking the position himself. All indicators point to Bruce Scott of the Nationals, but with the way things have proceeded up to now, who knows?

In a few moments, the House will be officially open for business, and the Governor-General will announce the government’s agenda for this term. Usually, this is straightforward – but the Coalition have already fired their first official salvo in this ‘kindler, gentler polity’.

Simon Crean, the Minister for Regional Australia, is scheduled to appear at the National Press Club tomorrow afternoon. Customarily, when an MP or Senator appears at the Press Club, or undertakes official duties that require their absence from the Parliament, the opposing side agrees to a pairing arrangement. If any vote takes place during that time, someone from the other side of the House will sit out, maintaining the usual balance of seats.

The Coalition have refused to allow a pair for Simon Crean, should any votes be called tomorrow. This placed Crean in an untenable position. The government’s majority is fragile, and the absence of a single vote might be the difference between workable government and a slew of blocked legislation and no-confidence motions. Under those circumstances, Crean had no choice but to apologise to the Press Club.

The strategy is clear. The Coalition intends to hold the government to ransom. Effectively, they wish to control the movements of government ministers – and the Prime Minister herself. If this tactic of withholding pair arrangements continues (and there is no reason to think it will not), we may see Tanya Plibersek’s vote lost because she is not granted a pair when she is in labour. We may see the Foreign Minister shackled to a Canberra desk instead of attending G20 meetings. The Prime Minister could well find herself having to schedule her official duties and the legislative agenda based on the whim of the Opposition. This is pure obstruction, designed to frustrate the government and bring about a premature end to the 43rd Parliament.

This is not ‘robust debate’. This is not ‘ferocious opposition’. This is a blockade, a siege. It’s a more blatant version of the ‘Just Say No’ strategy employed by the Coalition during the last Parliament.

And it goes further than votes. With the Coalition threatening to withhold pairs, government ministers may find themselves unable to fulfil vital parts of their duties. The National Press Club Address isn’t just a nice lunch for the media – it’s broadcast live, and is a way for the public to hear their government representatives speak at length on their portfolios, and be questioned. Community Cabinets provide unprecedented access to Parliamentarians. Meetings with leaders of foreign countries, important trade talks, meetings with business – all of these now stand threatened.

Undoubtedly, some will now call for an early election, claiming the situation cannot be resolved satisfactorily. Perhaps that’s a Plan B for the Coalition – but I think Abbott’s words to his party room say more about its real goals. The Coalition want to force a situation in which they can win a vote of no-confidence. All they have to do is wait until Labor simply cannot cancel a couple of official engagements, and they will strike.

At that point, the Governor-General traditionally asks the Opposition if they can form government. The Coalition may be counting on the Independents’ desire to keep Parliament running at all costs, and expect them to support an overthrow of the Labor government. I think that’s an unreasonable expectation – Windsor and Oakeshott have already expressed their disgust at the Coalition’s tactics thus far, and Bandt is unlikely to support a party that has already ruled out any form of carbon pricing.

Which puts us back to an early election – and then watch the spin. The Coalition will claim they ‘had no choice’. The Labor government was ‘unworkable’ – they didn’t have a mandate, they had unreasonable expectations, the Coalition is the party of stable government, etc.

What they won’t say is the truth – that, from the moment they were denied government by the Independents, they have worked tirelessly to ensure that this Parliament cannot work. That they made a decision to deliberately destabilise government, hamstring the legislature and harm the nation, and ruthlessly set about accomplishing that aim – in short, to acquire executive power at any cost.

This is a dreadful prospect for Australia, and I have no doubt that there will be those who strive to prevent such an outcome. Those people – Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor, Adam Bandt, Andrew Wilkie and Tony Crook – deserve our absolute support, because they will be working for a higher goal than personal political power. They may be the only ones who can lift us out of this situation – and hopefully, they haven’t yet accepted the idea that the dream is dead.

And if the worst happens, and we do end up back at the polls? I can only hope that there will be enough voices reminding the public of just who was really responsible for putting us there – and that the electorate will respond accordingly.

UPDATE

Reports are now coming in that the Opposition has changed its mind, and will offer Crean a pair arrangement for tomorrow – but only because the booking with the Press Club had already been made. That immediately raises the question: why refuse the pair in the first place? It’s unclear as to whether this reversal is in response to loud criticism from Labor and some areas of the media, or whether it’s simply another tactic. This might well be the Coalition’s way of saying to Labor, ‘You depend on us for permission to act’ – a shot across the bow, so to speak – and making it clear that, next time, Labor might not be so lucky.


Oakeshott – mad with power or man of good intentions?

September 17, 2010

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.


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