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Reforming the office of Speaker

By Rob Gascoigne - posted Friday, 10 September 2010

With a government finally determined, the first question for the new Parliament will be which member will serve as speaker. There has been plenty of noise in the past fortnight about the proposal to make this role independent. If such a reform is made, it will be a challenge to our political culture and history. For more than a century, Australian governments of all persuasions have seen the position of speaker as a spoil of victory. This is not solely due to governments pressing their advantage. The Australian Parliament is a unique entity and the speaker reflects this.

The speaker is the umpire of the parliamentary process. The Westminster tradition expects the speaker to operate impartially. In the British House of Commons, the speaker is structurally independent and is free from party affiliation, standing for re-election in an uncontested electorate.

In Australia, there has been no such requirement for this independence. Speakers have remained members of their party and some have been active enough to become ministers after retiring from the chair. There is nothing new about this. Australia's first and only truly independent speaker died in 1909 trying to keep order in a house newly split into two large factions. Since then, oppositions have accused speakers of partisanship and have promised to reform the office. None has done so.


One reason for this inaction is that the comparatively small size of the House of Representatives makes it difficult to give an independent speaker the protections available in Britain. Whereas the Commons has 650 seats, the Representatives has 150. The effect of this is that, in Australia more than in Britain, majorities can be very slim and every seat matters. It is extremely optimistic to expect that parties would not contest every seat in an election. Australian speakers, to be re-elected, need to be engaged with their party.

It would be possible to install an independent MP as speaker. However, this option offers little long-term surety. Independents have not been elected in roughly 40 per cent of Commonwealth elections. There would also be few independents who would be willing to serve in this position, thereby giving up the opportunity to debate matters before the House. Perhaps most importantly, this option provides the House with a very small quorum of talent to draw on. The Constitution's requirements that the speaker is an MP make it impossible to recruit an external person for this role. Accordingly, an Australian speaker is most likely to be drawn from a major party and is likely to remain a member of that party. If reforms are made, we should expect, at most, an impartial, rather than independent, speaker.

With one exception in the last century (portentously, under the last minority government), the speaker has been a government member. The reasons for this are twofold. First, a speaker earns a significant salary and the position is a good prize for a party member who has failed to get a ministerial position. Second, in our adversarial political culture, governments are more likely to trust one of their own to manage procedures.

The fact that a speaker is a government member does not necessarily mean the Government will be favoured. Oppositions are rowdy by necessity and usually require more discipline. However, governments can be merciless when they feel betrayed. Littleton Groom lost party endorsement in 1929 for siding against the government and Jim Cope was forced to resign in 1975 for reprimanding a disruptive minister. It's impossible to know how many speakers have been privately cautioned outside the chamber. It would take an impressive stand of authority and principle for a prime minister to stamp out this deep-seated expectation of party loyalty.

At a broader level, it is important to recognise that a speaker's affiliation with the government is representative of House procedures that are dominated by the government of the day. The Government and the Opposition have agreed to reform the speaking times for ministers. But what about the other standing orders, the rules that govern the House? The standing orders inherently favour the Government by, for example, allowing it to stop debate on certain matters or allowing ministers to determine whether a particular motion will be put to the House. This means that a truly impartial speaker would favour a government just by enforcing the rules. Reforms to the role of the speaker would only be effective if coupled with reforms to House procedures.

Governments may be reluctant to make real reforms that deplete their authority in the House on the grounds that they could have the effect of slowing the passage of legislation through that chamber. Unlike other national parliaments in the Westminster tradition, legislation also needs to be passed by a popularly elected Upper House with equal powers. A government may regret a more deliberative Lower House if it makes it harder to promptly implement its legislative agenda.


In order to install a non-partisan speaker now, when governments have dominated the position for so long, Ms Gillard and her successors would need to reform the attitudes of their own parties and future Oppositions. Any real change would need to remove any dependence a speaker may have on a party, possibly, as in Canada and New Zealand, by expecting a speaker to retire at the end of his or her term. This might minimise a speaker's compulsion to keep future colleagues happy. At any rate, there should be a commitment that the reforms would continue under later governments when it is no longer necessary to placate crossbenches. History suggests that lasting reform to this office is unlikely.

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First published in ABC's Unleashed on September 9, 2010.

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About the Author

Rob Gascoigne is a freelance writer and solicitor based in Melbourne. His honours thesis was on the role of the Speaker in the House of Representatives.

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