It is almost 505 years ago to the month since King Henry VIII ordered the execution of Edmund Dudley on Tower Hill. His supposed offence? Among other things, that as Speaker of the House of Commons and as a government official, he had “profited greatly from his position”.
We have come a long way since the days of Henry VIII. And Capital Hill in Canberra is quite some distance from Tower Hill in London. But the latest revelations about Bronwyn Bishop’s use of parliamentary entitlements have led to renewed scrutiny of the Speaker’s role in Australia’s system of government.
By making the speakership a political gift of the party in power, Australia is missing a major opportunity for democratic renewal of its parliament.
Australia is different to the UK insofar as it lacks an independent speaker. Commentators usually focus on the Speaker’s perceived political bias in refereeing Question Time and ejecting opposition MPs from the chamber, and the need for a more impartial adjudicator. But that’s only part of the story.
The contemporary British experience shows that the importance of having an independent Speaker goes beyond merely giving red cards more evenhandedly. The reality is that the speakership has become so politicised in Australia – by both sides of politics – that we’ve been blinded to the possibilities that having a truly independent Speaker might open up.
What would it mean to have an independent Speaker?
Upon being elected to the role, the Speaker of the House of Commons – the UK equivalent of Australia’s House of Representatives – must “resign from their political party” and even continue to be apolitical in their retirement.
British election law thus provides for the Speaker to run at elections as “Speaker” rather than as a candidate with a party affiliation. Traditionally, the major parties do not run a candidate against the Speaker.
Crucially, the Speaker’s political fortunes thus become divorced from the political fortunes of the party of which the Speaker was once a member. The Speaker speaks for parliament, not for the government.
John Bercow has been the Speaker of the House of Commons since 2009. A former Tory, Bercow’s speakership has certainly not been uncontroversial. But his approach to the role nonetheless gives an indication of what a truly independent Speaker could do in Canberra.
Like Australian Speakers, part of Bercow’s role is to act as a referee. But in that capacity, his independent speakership frequently produces scenes almost unimaginable in Australia’s House of Representatives. Not only does he give frank warnings to Tory MPs, including government ministers, but he has also cut off Prime Minister David Cameron mid-answer during Prime Minister’s Questions.
But Bercow’s independence also gives rise to a much more important function: allowing the parliament to hold the government to account on substantive topics. Walter Bagehot, the great political writer of the 19th century, wrote that one of parliament’s most important jobs is:
… watching and checking the ministers of the Crown.
Having a truly independent Speaker allows for the parliament, as an institution separate from the government, to keep ministers accountable.
How does the British Speaker work?
The British Speaker works to keep ministers accountable, in part, through the Urgent Question. Bercow has described this as:
… a device which allows any Member of Parliament on any sitting day to petition me to demand that a department supplies a minister to answer some issue or matter that has arisen very suddenly.
Bercow has enthusiastically used this procedure as a way to allow the House, and particularly backbenchers, to ask the government about how it is responding to the most pressing issues of the day. Ministers are usually required to keep answering questions for as long as questions are being asked.
These Urgent Questions are over and above the usual ordinary opportunities to ask questions during the British equivalent of Question Time. These questions demonstrate how independent control of parliamentary procedures can enhance the accountability of the government.
In late June, for example, Home Secretary Theresa May was summoned to answer questions for almost an hour on the “management of the border in Calais”. The next day, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith was summoned to answer questions for a similar time on the topic of recently released child poverty statistics. In early July, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale was summoned to answer questions solely on concessionary television licences for pensioners.
It is impossible to imagine anything like this in Australia. An Australian Speaker, affiliated with the prime minister’s political party, and with possible future political ambitions of their own, would have no incentive to drag their fellow party members into the House for open-ended scrutiny and potential embarrassment on the week’s major news story.
Nor would an Australian Speaker have the security of running unopposed at the next election. This allows the British Speaker to stand up on behalf of the backbenchers of all sides of politics.
But, like the British, Australia’s is a system of parliamentary democracy. And parliamentary democracy relies on the parliament, as an institution, functioning to hold the government to account. Without a truly independent Speaker presiding over how that accountability takes place, Australia’s parliamentary democracy is deficient.
On many occasions, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has spoken proudly of Australia’s constitutional roots in UK history. Whatever the lessons of history, it is time to consider whether Australia might learn something from current-day Britain.