Billy Snedden may have been a joke
– his “we didn’t win but we didn’t lose” response to the 1974 election
was bad enough and “dying on the job” sealed his fate. But Snedden was
the last independent-minded Speaker seen in the House of
Representatives.

No doubt the incumbent, David Hawker, will
raise guffaws in years to come. That’s when it’s safe to laugh – when
he’s gone. At the moment, his woefully inadequate performance makes one
want to weep.

“The Speakership is the most important office in the House of Representatives,” proclaims a fact sheet
produced by the Parliament. “The importance of the Presiding Officers
is acknowledged by the position of the Speaker and the President in the
Australian Order of Precedence (a formal list used to determine issues
of protocol at official functions), where they rank directly after the
Governor-General and State Governors, the Prime Minister, and a State
Premier within that Premier’s State… The Speaker’s authority is derived
from the House, to which his or her duty lies and to which he or she is
answerable… In representing the House the Speaker represents and is
responsible to the House and all of its Members, whether in government
or opposition. He or she is not responsible to the Executive Government
and seeks to preserve the House’s independence from it… An important
part of the Speaker’s task is to protect the rights of individuals and
minorities in the House and make sure that everyone is treated fairly
within the framework set by the rules…”

Former NSW auditor general and senior Commonwealth public servant Tony Harris uses this as a text for a piece in the Fin today. And his verdict? “Hawker should resign the rewards of office, for the benefit of parliament.” Says Harris:

We
need not examine again how Hawker condemned and ostracised the
opposition health spokeswoman, Julia Gillard, for saying what Health
Minister Tony Abbott previously uttered without penalty … We have enough other examples from the following days to see that
proceedings were not orderly and minorities were not fairly treated…
Certainly a testy opposition frustrated Hawker’s efforts. But the
opposition is entitled to remonstrate against speakers if they
outrageously favour government members who grant them their high and
lucrative post. Hawker either does not wish to, or cannot, protect
minorities. And he is ignored by ministers. Contrary to the rules,
ministers turn their backs on the Speaker, better to entertain their
backbenchers. They also ignore his instructions.

Kim Beazley has said that Labor Party is close to losing confidence in the Speaker. No wonder, after the way he failed to deal with ministerial recidivist Tony Abbott when he got bolshie again last week.

The
Speaker should be able to wield power. He should have a sense of
authority – of gravitas. It also helps if the Speaker knows where the
bodies are buried. Snedden did. More recently, so did Ian Sinclair. The
same with two rejected candidates for the job, Bronwyn Bishop and
Wilson Tuckey. They would have been controversial – but capable.

Hawker
isn’t. He was an unexpected choice. However, there may still be hope
for him. The fact sheet also notes the responsibility of the Speaker
for “housekeeping and catering”.

Peter Fray

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