- or did he? There were extraordinary scenes in Federal Parliament yesterday. The popular (with both sides of the House) and competent Speaker resigned so he could "take more part in the debate" as a back bencher. I think not.
Anyone who believes that is a fool. The Speaker was giving up $100,000 a year and a job he clearly enjoyed in order to shore up support for the government. Instead of 75/74 it is now 76/73. The government need only rely on three out of four independents. The job of Speaker has gone to a former member of the Opposition, a disgruntled politician who was almost certainly going to lose pre-selection. He will now be out of a job at the next election, along with at least three "independent" MPs.
I like the idea of "independent" MPs - if they are truly independent. There is a member of state parliament who is almost that. He has even been re-elected as an independent. He has taken the trouble to go back to his electorate a number of times and say, "What do you want me to do?" As he has said, "It is up to you to tell me. I am there to represent you." Of course he cannot please all of the people all of the time but there are times when he has made a genuine effort to do that.
It really is a nice idea. The problem is I am not sure that it works in the overall scheme of things. Politicians have to join together to get things done. They forget their electorates as they jostle for power for themselves. Forget "for the good of the country" and "in the national interest", this is about themselves. An unpopular minority government which has made even more unpopular (and possibly economically disastrous) decisions has been prepared to flout parliamentary conventions in order to retain power without the support of the electorate.
In any other country people would be out protesting in the streets. In Australia we meekly accept that "nothing can be done until the next election". It will be too late then. The damage has already been done.
Perhaps the problem is that politicians do not see themselves as having a contract with their electorate. They have been elected to serve their electorate. They may have aligned themselves with a political party but their job is to serve the people who elected them. The problem is that Labor politicians (pre-selected by some members of the ALP) are seen as being there to serve the party. They are required to vote on party lines. The rare "conscience" vote (where they should ask their electorate what they want and not vote as they feel personally inclined) is scarcely that. They know what party policy is. If they want to keep their pre-selection for the next election they will adhere to party policy.
The Liberal/National Coalition is little better. Officially they are not required to vote as a block and officially they cannot be sanctioned for failing to do so. Occasionally a brave MP will go against the group but, on the whole, they will vote as party policy dictates. With respect to a "conscience vote" they will have a little more choice, but only a little. They will still be conscious of such things as pre-selection and the next election.
If a politician had a genuine contract with the electorate and could be sacked for failure to perform then the way we are governed would be very different. Imagine an issue coming up and an electorate being able to say, "We want you to vote for/against this measure." If more than fifty percent of the electorate demanded the move then the politician would be required to vote as they have indicated or face an immediate by-election. It would be government "by the people" - but it would never work.
The other system works well enough until an elected representative decide to breach the rules or fail to follow conventions. Our elected representatives have done both.