Fifteen years on, Labor finally has revenge for the defection of Mal Colston, lured by the Howard government onto the crossbenches in the Senate and into the deputy president’s chair in 1996. As “revenge is a dish best served cold” clichés go, this one’s been in the deep freeze for more than a decade.
It was only minutes into his new role as speaker yesterday that Peter Slipper decided to offer “a few remarks” about his intentions for the position, including that he would “be an independent speaker in the Westminster tradition”. In doing so, he noted that Tony Abbott had expressed a preference for an independent speaker in the aftermath of the 2010 election. Therefore, Slipper had decided: “I will be relinquishing my party membership. I must say that I have been encouraged in this opportunity to serve the parliament in a new way by the actions of some people in the Liberal National Party in recent times.”
Well played, LNP. The Queensland Party announced last night it had “accepted” his resignation. Presumably they didn’t discuss refusing it for very long.
Defection wasn’t comfortable for Colston. Robert Ray and John Faulkner decided to make an example of him, and began a forensic process of digging up Colston’s history of travel rorts. Curiously, Faulkner and Ray, and the rest of Labor, had been entirely uninterested in Colston’s travel expenses before his defection, but they more than made up for it afterwards. Colston was eventually charged with defrauding the Commonwealth, but managed to avoid being prosecuted due, according to medical opinion, to the fact that cancer would be likely to claim him before a trial was completed. Demonstrating the remarkable resilience of many a defendant who pleads ill-health, Colston didn’t die until 2003, just over seven years to the day after he defected from Labor.
The Coalition, at least, has already shown considerable interest in Peter Slipper’s travel expenses, and was looking to get rid of him before his defection. Whether they have the forensic skills of Faulkner and Ray to go after him remains to be seen. They’ve only got two years before the next election brings Slipper’s parliamentary career to an end.
And while the LNP gets most of the blame for driving Slipper into the arms of Labor, Tony Abbott’s relentless and hugely effective wrecking tactics over the past year would have also played a role in deterring Rob Oakeshott from throwing his hat into the ring yesterday and, potentially, delivering a humiliating defeat for the government. You can’t help but think the opposition signing up to parliamentary reform (and concomitant “group hug”) in September last year and then promptly welshing on the deal had its consequence in Oakeshott knocking them back yesterday.
The deal the Coalition signed up to last year — which, indeed, still sits on the Liberal website — explicitly provides for a non-government speaker, despite Christopher Pyne’s claim yesterday that a non-government speaker was some sort of new Labor outrage. It also provided for pairing the speaker, which the opposition decided, on the basis of advice from its in-house legal hotshot George Brandis, was unconstitutional.
Oops. Pairing would have negated the impact of Slipper’s defection. Too late.
Slipper wasted no time demonstrating his independent bona fides, casually firing four of his erstwhile colleagues out of the chamber, having told MPs beforehand that he would not be issuing warnings before ejecting MPs for an hour. He’s unlikely to make Harry Jenkins’s mistake from May of bringing on a naming before having punted sufficient Coalition MPs to ensure it leads to suspension.
Despite the extensive praise showered on him yesterday, Jenkins wasn’t a particularly authoritative speaker. He was too indulgent of both Christopher Pyne, whom he punted all too rarely, and Wayne Swan, who has barely bothered answering an opposition question all year. Whether Slipper’s independence extends to pulling ministers into line remains to be seen.
As, of course, does how much of Slipper’s use of taxpayers’ money comes to light.
Proceedings were topped off by the opposition asking one question and then launching into a censure motion in question time. It was the perfect end to a parliamentary year noteworthy for the opposition’s indiscriminate use of censure motions. The government doesn’t answer questions, and the opposition has stopped asking them.