Ah 1975. Gough, Kerr, Fraser. The upheaval, the turmoil, the dismissal. It would be easy to get the sense the Canberra press pack sometimes wishes for those heady days to return, when you read about events like those that transpired in the House of Representatives yesterday afternoon.
It all stemmed from a move by Speaker Harry Jenkins to “name” Coalition frontbencher Bob Baldwin for breaking a general warning to all MPs after a particularly feisty question time.
Greens MP Adam Bandt and anti-pokie rabble-rouser Andrew Wilkie joined the government benches for the vote, while independent MP Rob Oakeshott sided with the opposition — leaving the final numbers at 72-71 against Harry. In a first since Jim Cope quit in 1975, Jenkins was forced to offer his resignation after the vote failed — a crisis which was averted when opposition leader Tony Abbott moved a successful motion of confidence in the speaker.
Fellow cross-bencher Tony Windsor could have saved Jenkins, had he been there for the vote (rumours that he was seen sprinting back from Aussie’s Cafe, latte in hand, only for the doors to slam shut Indiana Jones-style were not confirmed this morning) and apologised to the speaker afterwards for not preventing the drama.
So just what the hell happened in the House yesterday, and were we really a bee’s you-know-what from returning to the political crisis of 1975? Crikey spoke with press gallery legend and editor of Inside Canberra Rob Chalmers, who was there in 1975 …
What does it mean to “name” an MP?
It means that on the motion put by the Leader of the House the member is expelled from the chamber for 24 hours. In other words they can take no further part in the House of Representatives proceedings.
The speaker says “I name the honourable member for so-and-so” and then the leader of the government in the House, which in this case is Anthony Albanese, gets up and moves that the member be expelled from the House. In more recent years the speaker has also got a less onerous power, where they can have somebody directed to leave the chamber for an hour. That was brought in because it was thought to be a bit tough to kick someone out for a day for a minor infringement.
What can they do when they’re named?
They can’t vote, they can’t enter the chamber, they’re not supposed to even use the lobbies of the House of Representatives side. They can go over to the Senate side and talk to their mates there, but they can’t go near the House.
On one famous occasion Robert Menzies as prime minister was named by his own speaker Archie Cameron, which was somewhat of a sensation. But when the question was put to a vote it failed and they carried on.
Oakeshott said later he did not hear the reasons for naming Baldwin. Should he have asked what he was voting for?
You can’t do that — you’ve got to vote when the vote is called. I don’t think it really matters because the motion of confidence in the speaker was passed later on.
In the current climate, with numbers on a knife edge, should confidence in the speaker be similar to that of guaranteeing supply?
Supply involves an election; if you refuse supply by convention you go to an election. If there is some motion which the speaker loses, the only member who is really affected is the speaker. Also we haven’t had a hung parliament like this since the war and all this uncertainty will be swept aside at the next election, when they won’t have to worry about pleasing the cross-benches.
Is the speaker’s position under a cloud now?
He’s solid as a rock. The cross-benchers are not going to put up somebody on the opposition side.
What happened in 1975 in relation to speaker Jim Cope?
In 1975 Clyde Cameron, who was a minister in the Whitlam government and a notorious interjector and general headache in the house, was named by Cope. The Whitlam government then refused to put the question that Cameron be expelled from the house.
I was in the chamber at the time, Cope rose to his feet and said “I inform the the house that I hearby resign” and walked out of the chair, whereupon Gordon Scholes, the deputy speaker, leapt into the chair. Meanwhile the Coalition side was baying like slavering hounds over this big victory they had, a Labor speaker having their motion refused. They thought it was a great thing, that it was a huge embarrassment. Which in a way it was.
Did that contribute to the upheaval of ’75?
It had nothing to do with the dismissal. That was just an issue between Cope and Cameron. Cope got tired of Cameron ignoring what he was trying to do.
Whitlam refused because he didn’t think it was worth naming one of his own Labor ministers.
In a way what Cope did was outside the constitution, he can only officially resign to the governor-general. Although he didn’t resign as a member of parliament, he stayed on the backbenches and Gordon Scholes took over.