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Public Sector Informant : PSI - September
POSTGRAD COURSES ON SHOW • Compare postgrad study options in one day • Meet with local and interstate institutions • Investigate graduate diplomas, masters and doctorates in diverse disciplines. • Adelaide • Brisbane • Canberra • Melbourne • Perth • Sydney Thursday 16 September National Convention Centre, Canberra, 12pm -- 7pm FREE ENTRY Register Online or at the Expo www.postgradexpo.com.au [SEPTEMBER 2010] THE PUBLIC SECTOR INFORMANT 9 first Tuesday of the month STAY INFORMED . . . supervising the nation's finances. It is, lamentably, not always understood that simply because an idea derives from Washington it is not necessarily incompatible with a Westminster approach. The speakership of the House of Representatives, by contrast, raises reverse problems of excessive devotion to the origins of our approach to responsible cabinet gov- ernment. Just because something works at Westminster does not mean it will work here. Quests for parliamentary reform often have an element of romance about them. Advocates seem to hanker after glory days when Pitt and Fox, or Disraeli and Gladstone, did battle on the floor of the House, a robust independent speaker adjudi- cating a contest whose fate will be settled in the lobbies of the Com- mons, the galleries on tenterhooks awaiting announcement of the vote. The activist group GetUp!, in a hastily put-together Blueprint for Australian Democracy: This Moment and the Renewal of Parliament, Government and Elections, invokes Westminster in its proposals to ''achieve a more effective question time''. It proposes that ''we must . . . amend the procedural rules of Parlia- ment to allow for the election of an independent speaker. Some parlia- ments, for example the UK, elect a speaker who by convention acts independently. This could not be achieved in Australia, where the speakership has invariably been a partisan position. An independent speaker must be above party politics to achieve this goal.'' Former Liberal leader Sir Billy Snedden, a speaker of the House from 1976 until 1983, was a great advocate of independent speakership. He described the system thus: ''[When] a person becomes speaker, he with- draws totally from political party activities. The parties agree that he will not be opposed at elections by the other major parties, and a feature of the system is that the speaker remains in office as speaker notwith- standing a change of government.'' Snedden optimistically forecast that the ''main immediate effect of the adoption of the Westminster convention . . . would be increased confidence in the chair from all sides of the House.'' Armed with this greater confidence, the chair would be able to exercise a range of discretions concerning procedure in the House, including refusing to accept motions for the gag and control of frivolous points of order, questions of privilege, dilatory mo- tions and the calling of unnecessary divisions. A redefinition of the speaker's role will be important if there are to be some changes. This is especially the case with question time: the speaker will need to be active in ensuring that questions are reasonably concise and explicit, and even more so in curtail- ing the practice of ranting instead of replying to questions. But an enhancement of the spea- ker's role must be in the context of the customs and practices of the House, and Australian politics gener- ally. The speaker should not so much be divorced from politics as support- ed by both sides. It is this bipartisan support which is at the heart of the speaker's authority at Westminster; it is tradition long-established and sup- ported by centuries of practice. One key step would be to take election of the speaker away from the party room; in Australia, candidates for the post are nominees of the party whereas in the House of Commons candidates are nominated by a prescribed number of members. In Canada, likewise, all members except ministers, party leaders and any who have excluded themselves are con- sidered candidates. Election proces- ses of this type have the effect of reducing the party character of the choice and virtually requiring a successful candidate to have support from all sides of the chamber. In no other house of a national Parliament in the Westminster style is the speakership so wrapped in contro- versy as that of the House of Representatives. The controversies started early and were given a good kick along by none other than the saintly Alfred Deakin. Labor soon joined in, ensuring the office rapidly became thoroughly partisan. In 1913, to make life difficult for the Cook government, it insisted that the Labor speaker from the previous Parliament vacate the chair so that Sir Joseph Cook, with barely a majority, had to find a speaker from his own fol- lowers. The speaker, Sir Littleton Groom, refused to vote in a division in committee and thus prevent defeat of the Bruce-Page government, and lost his seat at the ensuing election. Others in the lineage of contro- versy include speakers Sol Rosevear, Archie Cameron, Sir William Aston, Jim Cope and Snedden himself. Hankering after Westminster is no way to reform this office. What is needed, whether for the speakership, the House or the Parliament as a whole, is a limited but specific agenda with clear goals: greater accountability of ministers, enlarged debate on matters of national interest, and enhanced scrutiny of government and administration. Reforms towards these ends -- the proposals are on the table for the cross-bench to run with -- now need immediate and sustained implemen- tation. Early, emphatic action is needed. J. R. Nethercote is an adjunct professor at the Australian Catholic University's Public Policy Institute. He is a former editor of the Australasian Parliamentary Review and has edited the books Parliament and Bureaucracy (1982), The House on Capital Hill (with Julian Disney, 1996) and Liberalism and the Australian Federation (2001). firstname.lastname@example.org
PSI - October