Tuesday’s failed suspension vote has wrecked Harry Jenkins’ authority as speaker and he is fast losing the ability to effectively control question time, the key test of a speaker’s credibility. Opposition MPs now know they can defy Jenkins and the worst they face is being sin-binned for an hour.
Yesterday’s question time degenerated into a shambles when Labor tried to exploit Senator David Bushby’s cretinous s-xist jibe at Penny Wong. It was late in the piece, and by that stage opposition MPs were simply ignoring Jenkins. It was, even by the low standards of the Australian parliament, a disgrace that left some MPs ashamed.
For the wrecking of Jenkins’ authority, you can blame Rob Oakeshott who voted to defeat the suspension of Bob Baldwin on Tuesday in concert with the opposition.
Like Tony Abbott, who feared Jenkins’ resignation might lead to a Coalition speaker and the loss of a vote, Oakeshott immediately bobbed up afterward to pledge wholehearted support for the speaker. Tough job, difficult period, challenging circumstances, etc, etc. From Abbott, it was just standard hypocrisy of the type you get from all oppositions, and unremarkable.
But Oakeshott’s rationale was that he’ll decide when MPs should be suspended, not the speaker, in effect declaring there are now two referees in parliament. Having perhaps worked out that was the implication of his argument, he tried to row back yesterday in an interview with Lyndal Curtis on the ABC, telling her he’d be consulting with the speaker about who should be suspended when the next case arose.
So then, co-referees.
But the impact of Oakeshott’s decision, and Tony Windsor’s inability to find his way back to the chamber in time from Aussie’s Cafe (Bob Katter had earlier been present but had then vanished, as he so frequently does, to who knows where), has been to wreck the credibility of Jenkins, a decent and good-humoured man but not exactly the most authoritative of speakers. Oakeshott’s decision has removed the naming of MPs from the speaker’s arsenal. And at the moment, naming and suspension is a real blow when parliamentary numbers are so tight.
Jenkins yesterday alluded to his diminished status when he chipped Christopher Pyne and said “whilst I am not a high roller I might take a risk”, but courtesy of Oakeshott opposition MPs now know they have him right where they want him.
Jenkins, who survived a motion of dissent in his ruling this morning, should have resigned on Tuesday after the suspension motion was defeated. If he wants to remain speaker, he needs to regain some authority fast. To that end, he should have acted on his thought yesterday and named an errant MP. Toward the end, Jenkins was handing out warnings like confetti, and had ample opportunity to nail someone. Doing so would have in effect dared Oakeshott to undermine him again.
Still, after yesterday’s session, it’s hard to see whether anyone would do a better job. Maybe Oakeshott should try his hand if he thinks he should be deciding who goes and who stays.
Labor was keen to exploit Bushby’s crass “remark” in a manner wholly unnecessary given the story already had sufficient legs to damage the Coalition. But Labor are convinced — correctly — that Abbott and a number of Coalition front-benchers and MPs slyly exploit the prime minister’s gender and unmarried status, constantly making vague references to families and marriage. The media, they feel, rarely call the Coalition on this garbage, so they’re determined to make an issue of any example of Coalition s-xism. Still, it looked a cheap attempt to compound the damage done by Bushby, quite apart from the bad look of one politician lecturing another about decency in parliament.
The only person to come out of the whole business with grace is Wong, who handled the insult entirely appropriately. She was right to be furious, called Bushby on his sexism, accepted his apology, and has moved on. It was a rare display of class in a parliament mostly devoid of it.