Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Gillard's Speaker fiasco


Julia Gillard's proposal to have Speaker Peter Slipper stand aside has no precedent: it is not authorised under the constitution, does not stop Slipper from collecting his $300,000 pa plus salary, and could end up in farce and another blow to the credibility of the federal Parliament.

As to when and how the speaker will stand aside is unknown. His statement in yesterday's press was that he would:

... make a short statement to the House and then invite the Deputy Speaker to take the chair as Deputy Speaker ... (and thereby) avoid what could be a controversial debate on the floor of the Parliament.

What exactly happens after that no-one knows, and clearly whatever the Speaker now says, there is no way of knowing what he will do and say in a month's time or longer.

Slipper might go away for a few weeks and then just walk straight back into the House and take over.

Before the Parliament resumes, the Attorney-General should commission and release a joint opinion on the legality of the Gillard fix. It may be illegal and certainly it is politically flawed. I suggest the persons best qualified for this job would be the Clerk of the House and a respected non-political QC.

Regardless of the legal position, Slipper continues to damage the Parliament and Government, and for that reason alone should be removed. It might be that the court of public opinion is at best rough justice (and I speak from personal authority) but the constitution provides no halfway house.

There is no provision for a speaker to just stand aside. Slipper certainly can't sit on the crossbenches. He will have to stay away from the Parliament altogether.

If there is an election before the allegations against him are finalised, then he might never be seen again. In the meantime, the Coalition should make clear that it will vote against any motion giving Slipper leave under clause 38 of the constitution.

In particular, the Coalition should vote to amend (in order to exclude Slipper) the global motion at the end of the current session that gives all members leave of absence.

Clause 36 of the constitution states:

Before or during any absence of the Speaker, the House of the Representatives may choose a member to perform his duties in his absence.

The word 'absence' is not defined in the constitution or House Of Representatives Standing Orders.

What is quite clear is that Slipper will continue as the Speaker. So if, for example, he later decides to sit on the crossbenches, he would not have a deliberative vote because he is still the Speaker.

If a division were called, members are required under the Standing Orders to move to the left or the right of the Speaker. It seems that Slipper's only option in that situation would be to resume the Speaker's chair and announce, if required, his casting vote.

Another complication and potential farce is if Slipper sits on the crossbenches, in which case he is not absent; it is difficult to see how a deputy speaker can become the acting speaker because the House is only able to appoint if there is an absence.

The appointment of the deputy can be done before the absence of the speaker so there is no reason for Slipper to take the chair when the House resumes on May 8. I presume that Gillard agreed to give Slipper his day in the sun before kicking him out. Who knows why she decided to give him the chair again.

Given that she stabbed Rudd in the back, I reckon that Gillard has a gift for sniffing political blood, especially if it might be her own. The reason she moved against Slipper and Thomson was because she must know that Shorten is after her job. Now.

It's hard to find a good national leader. The best we have had in Australia since World War II have been Menzies, Hawke and Howard. The good ones had years in Government or Opposition before they finally reached high office.

Hawke was different, although as the head of the ACTU he was actively involved in government for a long time.

Hawke also shared another characteristic with successful leaders; he was well-known to the public before he became PM. In other words, he had been around long enough for the public to get know him. There were no surprises with Menzies, Hawke or Howard.

One of the problems with Rudd and Gillard has been that that they were both unknown novices. The media gave the public the impression that they were competent but time has demonstrated that neither have had what it takes to lead and no-one really knew what they stood for.

This was so obvious in the 2010 campaign that Gillard actually said it was time to reveal the real Julia. Imagine John Howard or Bob Hawke making that statement!

The latest non-entity novice to push himself forward as PM is Bill Shorten.

He has just arrived in the Parliament. He has hardly ever had a real job. He is hopeless as a speaker in the chamber. The only government he has experienced up close is the dysfunctional Rudd-Gillard government, and his only qualifications on policy are the National Disability Insurance Scheme which is supported by both sides of politics.

He has been promoted by the media as the rising star and has had a very easy ride. He has not been subject to the policy and personal scrutiny that comes with long service, controversy and policy commitment.

At this stage, he is just another union boss on the make. The one thing he really knows is political manoeuvring and that was on display last week.

Months ago Shorten was letting it be known that he was the man for the top job but he would be a passive player for the moment.

Now what has changed is that, more recently, Shorten has decided to become pro-active. His move on the HSU was the first tangible move he has made against Gillard.

He moved to differentiate himself from Gillard's support for Thomson. It could have been done a long time ago; it was initiated last week for political reasons that suit Shorten.

His second move was his statement that he supported Gillard regardless of the fact he did not know what she had said. It made him a laughing stock around the world but it was his way of pretending he still supports her even though he was differentiating against her.

It was the same as Shorten telling Jon Faine on Melbourne radio that he did not want to be PM. It was just a crude political device for short-term benefit.

By her own description, Gillard talked last weekend about dark clouds overhead Australia. Craig Emerson admitted yesterday that Labor MPs are thinking about changing the leadership but Labor's problem is that the public now want to dispel the dark clouds, and that means an election.

An election would be in the public interest, but not for Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, so the farce looks set to continue although it is hard to believe the current fiasco can go on much longer.

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