Friday, May 12, 2006

An independent Speaker?

As SB has pointed out in another thread, one of John Howard's many broken promises was his undertaking, prior to winning office, to institute:

"a Westminster‑ type Speaker, somebody who's genuinely independent. For that to be fully realised you'd need the cooperation 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".
According to Crikey columnist and former Coalition staffer Justin Meyer, the first Howard Government Speaker Bob Halverson was "well-liked, authoritative and firm," and did endeavour to make the Speakership more impartial. But the Government refused to play ball, and "Halverson, (taking) the hint, resigned from the Speakership in 1998, and was made Ambassador to Ireland and the Holy See." After a brief stint by former Fraser Minister and National Party leader Ian Sinclair, the Chair became occupied in 1998 by Neil Andrew--a man whom Meyer claims "endeavoured to be fair," but who in my opinion (and this is many hours of listening to Newsradio Parliamentary Question Time broadcasts speaking here) made such an absolute mockery of the role of Speaker that he may as well have been given his own Ministerial portfolio. This is what Question Time looked like during Andrew's tenure:
“Dorothy Dixers” are staged to extol the wonders of the Government or the deplorable policies of the Opposition. Ejections and suspensions of members for rowdiness or unparliamentary language are usually not meted out against Ministers, despite the fact that they are often amongst the worst offenders. . . . (And) Some House of Representatives Ministers ramble on for far too long.
Under Andrew's successor David Hawker, things haven't improved.

The issue of whether the Speaker should be independent is a no-brainer, really. The real question is: how do we guarantee a truly independent Speaker? Meyer's formula looks like this:
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. The public should see the candidates. Voters might even be given some real input by nominating a MP to be the Speaker. Candidates should be free to canvass and state their beliefs - which would inject some real democracy.
It isn't clear to me, however, exactly how this will guarantee the Speaker's independence. Another idea, floated by the Labor Party in 2002, is to have a rotating Speaker. Or perhaps the Speakership should go to a public servant rather than an elected politician (a Harry Evans-type of figure, I mean)--though this would be the least democratic of the three options, even if it does offer the greatest possibility of non-partisanship.