John Howard declared on election night that he wanted to make sure that the Coalition’s victory would not be going to its head. He could help his cause by changing the way in which the next Speaker of the House of Representatives is selected. If history is any guide, there will soon be calls for a more independent Speaker from those wanting to make the Parliament more accountable to the people. But again, if history is any guide, despite these calls for reform, the new Speaker will be picked behind closed doors in a government party room (backroom) vote.
And once again politicians will be percieved as appointing a Speaker to suit their own ends.
If the Coalition is genuine about stopping the hubris brought on by its dominance of both Houses of Parliament, it might be time for a rethink and a bit of old-fashioned democracy.
For the Speakership to be made truly independent - and it needs to be - let there be a free vote of all 150 members of the House of Representatives. Everyone should be entitled to stand and the public should know who the candidates are. Voters might even be given some real input by nominating a MP to be the Speaker. Candidates should be free to canvass and to state their beliefs - which would inject some real democracy.
Many have called for reform to the Speakership over the years. John Howard, for example, told the Nine Network’s Sunday programme back on June 4, 1995:
We want a Westminster type Speaker, somebody who's genuinely independent. For that to be fully realised you'd need the co-operation of the Labor party and agreement about not contesting whoever's chosen by us as Speaker. I think that would do a lot to enhance the authority of Parliament.
Since the Howard Government was first elected, Parliamentary standards have improved in some respects. Howard shows up to question time every day - unlike his predecessor, Paul Keating. And also, unlike his predecessor, spiteful and bitter bad mouthing is no longer the order of the day in the House.
However, remarkably little has been achieved when it comes to getting an independent Speaker.
The first Howard Government Speaker, Victorian MP Bob Halverson, tried hard to implement a number of reforms, but got nowhere. As Speaker he was well-liked, authoritative and firm. Halverson relied on these qualities to make the Chair more impartial. Importantly, he did not attend party meetings. But ultimately, there was little government support for Parliamentary reform. Halverson took the hint, resigned from the Speakership in 1998 and was made Ambassador to Ireland and the Holy See. The subsequent Speaker, Neil Andrew endeavoured to be fair, but still owed his job to the government.
The British House of Commons does it better: The Speaker is not opposed by major parties at elections and remains Speaker even if the Government is defeated, does not engage in party politics, and resigns from Parliament upon resigning as Speaker. No major party opposition to Speakers in their electorate enables the Speaker to remain in office even when there is a change in government. These rules help make the Chair more impartial.
Australian objections to the Westminster approach are that the office would no longer serve as a “plum job” for party loyalists, or that the Speaker will be a “thorn in the side” of the government, as he or she would no longer be subject to the party discipline.
It is true that voters in the British Speakers’ electorate have less choice of candidates, because the Speaker does not face major party opposition in their electorate upon seeking re-election. However, it is a relatively small price to pay for a more effective Parliament.
The British Speaker’s casting vote can only be used in accordance with certain established conventions, which avoid any judgments on the merits of the question.
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