2 September 2004

clucking about the speaker

The ALP has promised an independent speaker. This is a customary opposition promise. John Howard promised it in 1996. It was meaningless then, it is meaningless now, and it will be meaningless in three years time when whoever is then opposition leader again promises it. In 1996 John Howard promises

The Coalition will seek to invest the Speaker of the next parliament with greater independence similar to his or her counterpart at Westminster.

In 2004 Labor promises:

An independent Speaker for the House of Representatives and improved Standing Orders.

The constitution provides:

35. The House of Representatives shall, before proceeding to the despatch of any other business, choose a member to be the Speaker of the House, and as often as the office of Speaker becomes vacant the House shall again choose a member to be the Speaker. The Speaker shall cease to hold his office if he ceases to be a member. He may be removed from office by a vote of the House, or he may resign his office or his seat by writing addressed to the Governor-General.

An independent speakership is impossible under those provisions. The Australian speaker is endowed with powers unknown to the House of Commons, including unilateral suspension. No governing majority is going to vest those powers in an independent speaker. No political party is going to (or should) declare one of the 150 house electorates off-limits to election challenges. More to the point, the electors are not going to take kindly to being told they are not allowed to elect their own MHR because he happens to be speaker. Most of all, when a speaker is unwise enough to name a government minister, as Speaker Cope discovered in 1975, the majority will not back the speaker who then has little choice but to resign.

If you asked any speaker since federation if they were independent and impartial they would all insist they were. Short of drastic constitutional change that situation is not going to change in the future.

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