Monday, 3 August 2015

The Speaker of the Downunder

Federal Parliament's House of Representatives has just resigned. As there are people who have asked, "Why didn't the Prime Minister just sack her?" I will try and explain.
The Speaker's position is the most important in the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives cannot operate without a Speaker. It is a constitutional requirement for the Speaker (or his or her deputy) to be present. Effectively the Speaker "runs the meeting". The Speaker is answerable to the house rather than the Prime Minister. 
There are only two ways to be rid of the Speaker. One is by a vote in the House for his or her removal. The other is for the Speaker to tender their resignation to the Governor-General. (The question of whether the Governor-General can sack the Speaker would lead to a constitutional crisis similar to that of the sacking of the Whitlam  government because the Governor-General would effectively be sacking the parliament of the day. Nevertheless the Governor-General would have the "right to warn" - and that may even have happened but we will never know about it.)
The Prime Minister of the day cannot sack the Speaker. They can of course pull the Speaker to one side and say, "Go!" but the Speaker does not have to obey that command if he or she believes they still have the confidence of the House.
The Speaker who has just resigned had lost the confidence of the  House and it was a matter of resign or be sacked by the House.  Her resignation however had to go to the Governor-General - not the Prime Minister. 
If we think about it this is the way it should be. It means that the Prime Minister of the day cannot simply decide that the Speaker is not doing the job the way he or she would like and sack the person who is supposed to be running the meetings in an impartial fashion.
The Speaker just gone was considered to be biased - and there is perhaps some evidence of this. She was prone to ejecting members of the opposition far too often. (That said, members of the opposition were also baiting her deliberately as they never liked the choice of her as Speaker.)
One of the Speaker's most difficult tasks is to ensure that everyone is heard, not just those on the front bench and the opposition's front bench. 
And, if the numbers are evenly divided, the Speaker has a casting vote.
The Speaker is also the only person able to continue functioning in some roles once an election is called. Again, that is a necessity.
Normally the Speaker will come from the party in power. The Speaker can continue to be a member of that party and attend party meetings if they so choose. They won't hold any other party office.
The previous government of Downunder had such a slender majority that they asked someone outside the party to act as Speaker. That gave the government one of the extra votes they needed to remain in office.  (They also relied on "independents".)
But in all this the Prime Minister has no power apart from powers of persuasion. He or she cannot simply sack a Speaker. He or she can call in a Minister and sack them but not the Speaker. He can of course express an opinion to the Speaker but nothing more than that. 
The present controversy is said to have damaged the Prime Minister's leadership - and yes it has. The Speaker was the choice of the party in power. She is (or was) a friend of the Prime Minister in the way that any member of the party is. She has let the party down by abusing travel expenses in the most ridiculous way. 
But I have yet to see the media explain the role of the Speaker and the way in which, once someone is elected to that role, the Prime Minister has no control over it except as a member of parliament.  It is of course convenient for the media to fail to explain this. It makes for a much better "story". It is of course convenient fiction that the Prime Minister can be rid of the Speaker. Fiction is more interesting than fact in this instance.

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