The next Speaker of the Queensland Parliament will be former Transport Minister John Mickel, who will replace outgoing Speaker Mike Reynolds.

That also means, according to Queensland Labor sources, that a supporter of Mickel’s will be appointed as Executive Officer to the Speaker.

The appointment of supporters and party officials in ministerial offices is well-established and built into the way governments and parliaments employ staff.

Speakers’ offices are different. A key function of a Speaker’s duties is to administer Parliament, on an independent and non-partisan basis, dealing with all Members equally, often on sensitive matters. The Speaker’s staff are privy to considerable confidential information, much of which may be politically damaging. Political appointments in Speakers’ offices are therefore rare.

In some jurisdictions, the Speaker is allowed one non-departmental appointment, but these are frequently non-partisan. In NSW, appointees are at the Speaker’s discretion, but are considered as comparable to electorate office staff, not ministerial advisers. At the Commonwealth level, both Senate Presidents and Speakers have been known to appoint their own advisers, but generally avoid partisanship. The current House of Representatives Speaker, Harry Jenkins, has only departmental staff working for him.

The Queensland ALP takes a different approach. In recent years, a tradition has developed that the Speaker’s Executive Officer is a Labor staffer, and often a future candidate for office. The outgoing Executive Officer, Stephen Gay, was a Labor candidate in last year’s Brisbane Council election. He had also been an adviser to Reynolds as Minister for Child Safety. One of Gay’s predecessors, Lynda Plint, was later an adviser to then-Resources, now Roads Minister Craig Wallace. Another, Staice Johns, became Wallace’s senior adviser.

And before them, the Executive Officer for Speaker Ray Hollis was new Queensland Minister for Infrastructure and Planning, Stirling Hinchcliffe, who is regarded as a rising star in the party. It was under Hollis that the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission was briefly brought into Parliament House itself, where it was co-located with the Speaker’s and Clerk’s offices.

There’s no evidence that all did not carry out their duties entirely professionally. Stephen Gay told Crikey that he had an “excellent” relationship with Opposition members and had always carried out his role — where he has been since October 2006 — on a bipartisan and professional basis. “It’s the kind of job to which political-minded people are naturally drawn,” he said.

However, victims of ministerial bullying and harassment during the Beattie years wonder whether the overtly political nature of the Speaker’s office prevented them from getting a fair hearing. The Speaker’s office controls staffing and human resources matters for MPs, an area where its independence is crucial.

Time and again, the many stories Crikey has heard of abuse, bullying and worse by Queensland Labor MPs have led back to the offices of the Queensland Speaker and the Clerk, Neil Laurie, who had to clean up the human wreckage left by out-of-control Ministers. However well handled such complaints may have been, there is the potential for complainants to be left with the perception that their treatment at the hands of ministers may have been downplayed because of the potential for political embarrassment.

As a veteran Clerk in another jurisdiction noted, the perception of conflict of interest is the biggest problem with partisan officials in a Speaker’s Office. And the Queensland Parliament has it in spades.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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