Democracy Is No Laughing Matter


Do we ever really know what Bronwyn Bishop is thinking? Like the Sphinx, she keeps her secrets well, and is well over 3000 years old. When you look into her calm, steely eyes, it’s almost impossible to read what lies behind them, and also you start to need to go to the toilet.

She is one of the great mysteries of Australian politics: a powerful, independent woman who had the ability to be the first female prime minister, but instead chose the less glamorous but no less important path of spending many years not doing anything much.

Now she is the Speaker, possibly the most crucial figure in our democracy. It is only through the skills and vigilance of the Speaker that the business of parliament can proceed smoothly, and without a strong and decisive person in the chair the sacred ritual of Question Time could easily deteriorate into a pointless mess of squawking idiots making a mockery of everything they are supposed to stand for while being ignored by almost the entire population of the country due to their clear status as developmentally stunted juveniles with all the class and grace of a vomiting seagull. And that would never do.

So thank goodness that Bronwyn Bishop has assumed the chair, after the fiascos of her predecessors: Peter Slipper, considered by most legal experts to be the greatest criminal mastermind in history; Harry “the sleepwalking wombat” Jenkins; and Anna Burke, who has since been revealed to be non-existent.

Bishop is quite a different kind of Speaker to these shady characters. Strong. Powerful. Uncompromising. Lightly fragrant. She is all these things and more. In this parliament, nobody can feel confident of getting away with anything.

Some have said that she is biased against the Opposition, but let’s look at that in context: why are these people in Opposition in the first place? Answer: because everyone hates them.

It’s no surprise that a good Speaker would keep an extra-wary eye on people whom the people have already judged to be suspicious. As the old saying goes, give them an inch, and they’ll take $123 billion in deficits. The only thing keeping us from chaos is Bishop’s determination to take no guff.

See how decisively she acted on Mark Dreyfus, who behaved with revolting petulance when he called Bishop “Madam Speaker”. Oh sure, that’s technically her title, but you just know that he was being sarcastic. Like when people call Tony Abbott “Prime Minister”, or when they call Clive Palmer “Professor”. Snide. Nasty. About time we had a Speaker who’ll crack down on this nonsense.

But probably Bishop’s greatest contribution to the art of Speakership was her anti-laughter ruling. The Labor Party, through what Bishop correctly identified as their “tactic of infectious laughter”, was deliberately and mischievously attempting to spread the idea that the government is funny. Naturally the Speaker deemed this intolerable.

This government may be many things – or, it is entirely possible, it may not – but one thing it is NOT is funny. Spend an hour in the company of Christopher Pyne and tell me he’s funny. Listen to Eric Abetz’s voice for five minutes, and tell me he’s funny. Gently touch George Brandis' face and tell me honestly if there’s anything funny about the experience.

What’s more: government is not funny. Government is serious business. It affects us all. Take, for example, this statement from Pyne yesterday: “I am no sook”.

Now is that funny? Yes, of course it is. It’s hilarious. It’s a sort of Mighty Boosh-like absurdism. But that’s exactly the point – when people start trying to be funny in the House, it needs to be nipped in the bud, lest it detract from the gravitas of parliament. By banning the Opposition from laughing, Bishop is simply moving to prevent people like Pyne from trying on their surrealist stand-up routines during serious debates. Sooner or later Pyne will realise he’s not getting any laughs and stop trying silly little gags like “I never complained” or “I am the Minister for Education”.

Also, take note that it was infectious laughter that Labor was trying on. Laughter is dreadful enough, but infectious laughter is worse. Think about other infectious things: the flu, tetanus, AIDS. The Opposition was essentially trying to introduce humour-AIDS to parliament, destroying the Westminster system’s immune system and eventually killing democracy forever. Once the laughter begins, you’re on a long slow road to Hell, and Bronwyn Bishop seems to be the only woman who’s man enough to recognise that and act on it.

The bottom line is this: everything has its place in our world. The place of parliament is to serve the people. The place of the government is to run the country. The place of the Opposition is to be reviled and spat upon by us all. And the place of the Speaker is to make sure that all of these things happen with a minimum of fuss and a certain quiet smugness. And though Bronwyn Bishop has been the target of much criticism, one thing cannot be denied: she probably can’t hear any of it.

Bishop has cemented the status of parliament as a serious, sombre and in no way ridiculous institution. She has moved to ensure the Opposition serves its main function of shutting up; and that the government serves its main function of screaming about the carbon tax. If you want more from a Speaker, then I just don’t know how you’ll ever be happy.

Ben can also be found making jokes at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Tickets to his show, Trigger Warning, can be bought here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.