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Australia needs a speaker who will encourage healthy debate

By Jeffrey Wall - posted Thursday, 13 November 2003


On the day Ian Duncan Smith was deposed as Tory Leader, the following question was asked during Prime Minister’s Question Time in the British House of Commons:

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): In view of the reviewed interest in crime figures, especially on the Tory Benches, will my Right Honourable friend consider whether back-stabbing should become a criminal offence?

Even the outgoing Tory leader joined in the laughter.

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In the Australia's House of Representatives under Speaker The Hon. Neil Andrew, such a question would probably be ruled out of order!

A week later, on the new Tory Leader’s first PM’s Question Time, Tony Blair said he had a dossier on Michael Howard’s record as a Minister in past Tory Governments.

When asking his next question, Mr Howard – a much better parliamentary performer than his Australian namesake – caused laughter on both sides when he prefaced the question with the comment that he has a dossier on Tony Blair’s record “and it did not even need to be sexed up”.

Under Speaker Andrew, that would most certainly have been ruled out of order, and Mr Howard would have been admonished like an errant schoolboy.

Question time in the House of Representatives has never been worse – thanks to Speaker Andrew's rigid interpretation of the standing order that interruptions are disorderly.

As a result, every time even a funny interjection is made, he calls “Order”” and warns the “offending” member. Sometimes he sits or stands there in an embarrassing silence for what seems an eternity.

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If a Minister dares respond to an interjection, he is likely to be reprimanded as well.

This is a nonsense approach that reflects poorly on the Speaker - and, frankly, on the government that tolerates it.

Interjections have been an essential part of the House of Representatives debates since 1901. Sir Robert Menzies would have been lost without them. Those who served with him have told me he became frustrated when his regular interjectors were absent or silent!

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About the Author

Jeffrey Wall OBE is a Brisbane Political Consultant and has served as Advisor to the PNG Foreign Minister, Sir Rabbie Namaliu Prime Minister 1988-1992 and Speaker 1994-1997.

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