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Props — stunts, for the use of — are in the news. In Parliament the Speaker Harry Jenkins is in a bit of a quandary. It’s alright for the Prime Minister, in the House of Reps, to hold up an enlarged photo of building projects under “the Australian Government’s Nation-Building for Recovery Plan.” However, it’s not acceptable when the burly Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey unfurls a three metre series of five panels saying rude things about our PM.

The large photos waved around by Rudd are designed to embarrass. They show projects in the electorates of Opposition MPs who are delighted they are being built, but who voted against the money to build them. Malcolm Turnbull himself turned up at a ceremony in his Wentworth electorate marking the beginning of one of these projects. On Thursday, Rudd was at it again with large photos (designated in parliamentspeak as “props”.)

This time Hockey was ready for him and unfurled, with the help of several of his colleagues, his five-panel monster prop. The Speaker would have none of this and ruled that a prop could only consist of one page, placard or sign. Using the edge of the dispatch box, Hockey struggled to tear his prop into single bits until his colleague, Tony Smith, provided a pair of scissors.

Julie Bishop, Turnbull’s deputy, was on the ABC bright and early this morning claiming it was naughty of Rudd to use props and it was something the saintly John Howard never did as Prime Minister (watch here). Your correspondent disputes this and remembers Howard on occasions holding up newspaper pages.

And in Opposition Howard held up a large placard — a map of Australia, coloured brown — purporting to show that under Keating’s native title legislation, Aborigines would take over 78% of Australian land:

“The Aboriginal people … have, the potential right of veto over the development of 78 per cent of the land mass of Australia. Now, that is a very simple message. I think the Australian people will understand that message.”

The Speaker, like all Speakers before him, cannot take on the Prime Minister. Thus, he let Rudd hold up the photos this week and then had to agree to allow Hockey to also hold up single pages of his fold out. (Incidentally, Hockey achieved his aim, since photos of the fold out was featured on TV and in Friday morning newspapers).

All this again brings home the point: until the House can appoint an independent Speaker, as happens in the mother of parliaments, the House of Commons, the Speaker can never be neutral and fair. The first Speaker in the Howard era, Bob Halverson, took Howard at his word when he declared before the 1996 election that the Libs would appoint an independent Speaker. Halverson proceeded to be very fair and even allowed supplementary questions, the practice in the Senate.

Howard then forced his resignation and to shut him up, appointed Halverson as Ambassador to Ireland and the Holy See.

Props are not allowed in the Senate and the President always rules them out of order. The difference in the Senate is the numbers. The President always comes from the Government side of the Senate, but fortunately, most governments don’t have a majority. This ensures fair rulings from the President, since if he/she give unfair rulings, the Senate itself can overturn them.

Your correspondent sees nothing wrong with props. Although not from the Westminster system, the US Congress allows props.

Members of both Houses can even use a stand designed to display graphs, which speakers use to elucidate a point. Anything, which improves the quality of debate, is worthwhile.

Rob Chalmers is the editor of Inside Canberra.

Peter Fray

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