This article has been updated
Well after all the toing and froing and legal opinions and much chest-puffing from the opposition about how hard it was going to play in parliament, Labor turned up to the first contest of the hung parliament with its game face on. Daryl Melham rose immediately when the House resumed at 5pm yesterday afternoon to nominate a candidate for deputy speaker, one “eminently qualified” for the position, Peter Slipper.
The opposition promptly nominated Bruce Scott in response, but Anthony Albanese had already placed the opposition in the invidious position of having to vote against its own. Alby Schultz and Bronwyn Bishop tried to delay things by insisting that the nominees had to formally accept, but Harry Jenkins had come prepared, noting that acceptance wasn’t required and members could even be nominated in absentia. Worse was to come for the Coalition, because Slipper won comfortably, 78-71, suggesting all of the independents, and Adam Bandt had voted for him.
The result became apparent even before it was announced, as Labor MPs happily chatted while opposition MPs stared quietly ahead, a condition they retained for the remainder of proceedings. Christopher Pyne rose to declare that it was “a red-letter day” for parliament. “You look very happy,” Melham shot back, tellingly.
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As Tony Windsor noted this morning, the opposition can walk away from the agreement on parliamentary reform if it likes, but there will be repercussions, and yesterday’s result was the first.
The sudden elevation of Slipper to object of “eminent qualification” might be surprising to those familiar with his history as an MP. This is not to speak of his defection from the National Party to the Liberal Party a generation ago — a defection more successful, as it turns out, than that of Julian McGauran, who succumbed to the shuffling zombie of the DLP on August 21. When it came to defecting, there was never any doubt that Slipper made a full conversion to his new party. In early 2006, he gave Nats leader Mark Vaile a huge serve over AWB, accusing him of promoting “agrarian socialism” and suggesting he didn’t have a future. Several Nats gave him a good kicking in return.
Rather, Slipper has what would traditionally be called a colourful history as an MP. In 2001, he weighed into the Tampa controversy by saying “there is an undeniable linkage between illegals and terrorists”. In 2003, while parliamentary secretary for Finance, he was chucked off a Qantas flight, but defended himself as having been affected by painkillers after dental surgery. In 2007 he was chucked again, this time out of the Holy Grail bar on Budget night.
In 2008 he was said to have given away classified information while aboard a naval vessel in the Persian Gulf. Slipper this year has been the subject of ongoing criticism over his parliamentary expenses and was the only LNP candidate to record a swing against him in Queensland, where there was a massive state-wide swing against Labor. And let us speak not of the incident of his resting his eyes during a speech by President Yudhoyono earlier this year.
Perhaps in the a spirit of charity engendered by the New Paradigm™, Labor has found it within itself to look past all that, presumably to the man’s true qualities.
Slipper assured parliament that he had given no commitments with respect to his role as deputy speaker, a statement that will bear returning to should any evidence emerge of any deal with the government. The government presumably wanted the next best thing to a pair with the speaker, an opposition MP in the role of deputy speaker, which will partially offset the loss of Jenkins’ vote on those occasions when the deputy speaker is in the chair. Nevertheless, Slipper’s history suggests a potential for embarrassment that will now belong firmly to Labor, rather than the Coalition. It is not the opposition, after all, that proposed elevating the man to such an august position.
A comparison of Slipper with the treacherous Mal Colston is inapt, except for the point that it was not Colston’s treachery that ultimately made life difficult for the Howard government, but the embarrassment he caused it, in that case via his rorting of expenses.
Labor should hope Slipper leads a life of monastic rigour for the rest of this parliamentary term. Regardless of how he votes out of the chair, it now owns him.
Update: This article originally suggested Tony Crook supported Peter Slipper. Mr Crook has said he supported Mr Scott.