For weeks now the Australian public has been assailed with lurid stories about the travails of Peter Slipper MP, the current Speaker of the House of Representatives, who has been forced by circumstances to be temporarily suspended from discharging his duties.
Much has been made about the integrity of the position of the Speakership in the Westminster system during the hullaballoo that has accompanied Slipper from his appointment to James Ashby’s accusations. A lot of this rhetoric has focused on the venerability of the Speaker’s role, going back to the time before the British Civil War and execution of Charles I by the British parliament in 1649 when being the Speaker was a dangerous past-time.
As the official conduit between the King and the Parliament, the Speaker could become the focal point for the power struggle going on between the two institutions. Beating up or even executing the Speaker was one way of displaying disapproval of the Crown’s unwillingness to heed the Parliament, and an army with heavy weaponry evolved to defend the Speaker from unruly members.
Today, the Sergeant at Arms and the Mace are relics of the Speaker’s private army, and to this day those successfully elected to the position feign reluctance as they are dragged to the chair in a ritualistic homage to the Speakers of ancient times who were at the forefront of the battle between the Crown and the Parliament for the right to exercise the authority to govern.
The position of Speaker in the "lower" (as in lower class) or popular or representative chamber in a Westminster parliament is steeped in this tradition as well as being one of the officially recognised positions of prestige and importance in the parliamentary system by virtue of the role the Speaker plays as the chairperson responsible for the function and conduct of the house.
In an interesting Australian quirk, the Speaker of the House of Representatives is actually recognised in the Australian Constitution. Electing a Speaker is the first thing the House of Representatives must do before it can proceed with its business (Section 30).
This contrasts with the position of Prime Minister, which does not appear in the Constitution at all but is thought to apply by way of convention because the Australian system of government replicates the British system.
Section 40 notes that motions before the House of Representatives shall pass on the attaining of a simple majority of those present without the Speaker exercising a deliberative vote. This section allows the Speaker only a casting vote in the event of a tied outcome.
In a House of Representatives in which the numbers are nearly equal and a minority government depends on the vote on cross-benchers to get its legislation through the parliamentary lower house, the governing party’s position is made more precarious when it provides the Speaker.
To improve its ability to get its program through the House and to reduce its dependence on the cross-bench, the Labor party decided to put a member of the main opposition party in to the Speakership, and Slipper appeared willing to turn his back on his party to oblige them.
Turning one’s back on one’s political party (also known by the colloquial term as "ratting") is rare, although not unknown in Australian politics. The consequences can be quite dramatic, however, and the perpetrator is almost always vilified.
Slipper’s disloyalty to the LNP has been complicated by the perception, inherited from Britain, that the Speaker of the House of Commons is considered to be detached, fair and non-partisan. The government and Slipper have tried to portray the ascendancy of the former LNP man to the chair as a manifestation of some antipodean manifestation of this British tradition.
This is patently not the case in Australia, however. In Britain, the impartiality of the Speaker involves the consent of all the parties and is given practical application by the opposition party guaranteeing to not run a candidate against the Speaker in their electorate in exchange for the Speaker resigning from their party.
This doesn’t happen in Australia, although it may be the case that the Speaker will observe the protocol of not attending party meetings. Like everything about Australian politics, partisan party considerations are uppermost in the election of the Speaker.
The Australian Speaker will seek to at least give the impression of lofty independence and will be mindful that interpretations of the standing orders (or rules) by which the House operates that grossly offend the opposition today may bite the governing party in years to come should it find itself on the opposition benches tomorrow.
The quickest way to end one’s career as Speaker, however, is to apply the rules or run the House in ways as to disadvantage, constrain or otherwise earn the ire of the Prime Minister.
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