Thursday, March 6, 2014

The 44th: Madam Speaker

Originally Published 11 December 2013

Speaker Bronwyn Bishop's boundless Coalition partisanship has allowed the 44th Parliament to resemble a preschoolers' game of cowboys and Indians, where one of the bandanna-wearing cowboys owns the playground, is wearing the Sheriff's badge and wants the Indians run out of town.

It seemed both obvious and appropriate that when the Coalition Cowboys won government three months ago, they would appoint veteran MP Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker of the House. 

What else could they do with her? It would hardly be acceptable to give her a ministry. In fact, it's tragic that after more than a quarter of a century in federal politics, including seven years as a Senator, if you play word-association games and say 'Bronwyn Bishop', the most common response will probably be 'kerosene baths'. If you can't remember why, google it.

And yet her years of loyal service to the Liberal Party, and her failure to retire at the last election held just a month before her seventy-first birthday, meant that something special needed to be found for her; an Emeritus position of some kind, if you like. She is well spoken, with a commanding presence, decades of parliamentary experience and seniority, and she wanted the Speakership. 

In fact, Mrs Bishop was probably the most logical choice for Speaker in yonks. Her authority should be the iron-clad guarantee for the conduct of the new 'adult' government that the new Prime Minister is so fond of talking about.

On November 20, the usually right-leaning Courier Mail described the role of Speaker:

Australian Speakers, while not required to check all their tribal colours at the door, are expected to at least look like they can give the opposition a fair hearing and pull up government mates who break the rules.
It's not just Westminster convention, it's central to the Australian fair go.
We - those of us in the cheap seats, at least - didn't count on Mrs Bishop's stubborn bias breaking through thevparliamentary convention of Speaker impartiality, particularly during the chaos of Question Time. She appears to be making no attempt at all to censor herself, and has allowed her Liberal Party alliance to dictate her conduct as Speaker. 

We shouldn't be surprised, though. As far back as the late 1980s, during the Coalition leadership churn, Mrs Bishop's ambition was known. In his biography of John Howard, Peter Van Onselen quotes from notes made as a guide to approaching various members regarding a leadership challenge. The note about Mrs Bishop, a relatively inexperienced Senator, described her as "so full of herself that she might agree to anyone who supported her own ambitions as the quid pro quo".

A Fairfax reader poll conducted last week generated 14,534 votes from online readers, with an overwhelming 86% of respondents critical of Mrs Bishop's performance as Speaker. Reader polls have about as much credibility as Christopher Pyne's position on Gonski, but 86% might well be indicative.

MP Stephen Jones tweeted "Is anyone aware of any precedent in the Federal Parliament were the Speaker engages in sledging from the Chair? New paradigm".

"Sledging" might be over-stating the actions of Madam Speaker, yet there is no denying her biased approach to parliament. During the first hour of parliament's first sitting day, she ruled that it was acceptable conduct for Education Minister Christopher Pyne to refer to the Leader of the Opposition as "Electricity Bill". 

The Australian reported that Prime Minister Abbott is not totally supportive of Mrs Bishop's decision.
Manager of opposition business Tony Burke moved a motion of dissent against Mrs Bishop on only her second day in the chair, saying she had allowed “a new low of name-calling” in the chamber.
But, after about an hour of argument and repeated divisions, the Coalition-dominated chamber upheld the Speaker's authority.
Tony Abbott yesterday conceded the term “Electricity Bill Shorten” would probably be unparliamentary.
But according to the notoriously unbalanced Andrew Bolt, the nickname "Electricity Bill" was first used by Tony Abbott himself, albeit not in parliament. What's that about 'adult' government, Mr Prime Minister?

Last week, Mrs Bishop clashed repeatedly with the Manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke, who again moved dissent against the Speaker, emphasising the need for the Speaker to hold herself to a higher standard than that required of Ministers. 

With this unfortunate group of sugared-up political toddlers running around, picking fights with the neighbours and taking out random targets, it is the Speaker's responsibility to bring impartial discipline to the parliament. Bronwyn Bishop is showing such immature favouritism that she has made the 44th Parliament, the shibboleth of Australia's democracy, a farce.


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