Speaker Slipper slips in as Gillard claims a tactical victory

Peter Slipper in his first day as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Lukas Koch/AAP Images

The dramatic surprise resignation of Harry Jenkins as Speaker, on what was meant to be the final sitting day of the year for the House of Representatives (coincidentally also the fourth anniversary of the election of the Rudd Labor Government), gives Labor a stronger position in parliament.

With Peter Slipper, the former Deputy Speaker (and now former Liberal-National Party MP) replacing Jenkins, the government now only requires three of the crossbenchers’ votes to pass legislation, instead of four, which has been the case for the past year of the hung parliament. This is due to the Speaker only exercising a casting vote if the Lower House is deadlocked.

Government fightback

In particular, the Government is now in a better position to ignore Tasmanian Independent Andrew Wilkie’s threat to withdraw his support for the Government, if stronger anti-pokies legislation is not passed by next May. It will also make it easier to get legislation passed, with one less set of concessions to the crossbenchers now required.

This was seen in this week’s passing of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, where Wilkie’s amendments saw around $100 million of reduced revenue, and late-night amendments from the Greens having to be adopted, before their MP Adam Bandt would agree to passing the bill.

While Jenkins has stated he resigned in order to be able to participate in policy and political debates, it is more likely he was reluctantly persuaded to step down, as he was performing well in the role. Highly-regarded, Jenkins was praised by all sides of politics (including Bob Katter) as one of the best speakers of recent history. Despite the inevitable frustrations in dealing with an often rowdy parliament, he appeared to enjoy the role, especially in presiding over the recent visits of the Queen, and US President Barack Obama. It would not be surprising if he was rewarded in future with a prestigious diplomatic posting, a consolation.

Slipper’s history

As for Slipper, he will now enjoy higher salary, perks and prestige for his remaining time in parliament, so it definitely was in his self-interest to accept the ALP’s offer to be nominated as Speaker. He already faced losing LNP pre-selection for his Queensland seat of Fisher, possibly by next month, in favour of former Howard Minister Mal Brough. Slipper was first elected as a National in 1984, only serving one term, until he backed the ill-fated “Joh for Canberra” push in 1987.

He switched to the Liberals, being returned to Parliament in 1993. As part of his “colourful” history, he has been a player in the factionalism that has destabilised the LNP. In large measure, Slipper’s move is a self-inflicted blow by the LNP, due to its own indiscipline and divisiveness. In accepting the role of Deputy Speaker last year, Slipper already had defied Tony Abbott’s authority, so Coalition MPs will be increasingly frustrated that Abbott was unable to forestall Slipper’s defection.

In retrospect, an indication of the defection could be observed when Kevin Rudd visited Slipper’s electorate earlier, where he publicly criticised some of his LNP colleagues. There is speculation the Government may have been in secret negotiations with Slipper for some weeks, with Rudd possibly playing a role, although Leader of the House Anthony Albanese was likely the key player.

The ‘turncoat’

Slipper’s defection is being compared to Labor Senator Mal Colston in 1996, who left the ALP to become Deputy President of the Senate. The ALP had refused to nominate Colston for the position, but the incoming Howard Coalition Government was willing to appoint him, once he left the ALP to sit as in Independent, until his retirement in 1999.

However, Slipper’s defection is more significant, since the Speaker of the House of Representatives is far more influential than Deputy President of the Senate, particularly in a minority government. Slipper has already been labelled a “Liberal rat” by his former colleagues, guilty of “gross disloyalty”.

The Coalition’s deep sense of anger and betrayal was displayed in their immediate parliamentary tactics, in reaction to Jenkins’ resignation. Christopher Pyne attempted a filibuster, nominating nine Labor MPs for Speaker, including, Anna Bourke, who was returned to the position of Deputy Speaker.

Fair speaking

During Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s reply to a defeated Opposition censure motion, Slipper expelled four Coalition MPs for an hour, the new Speaker at least initially showing no favouritism towards his former colleagues.

While this is first time a federal government has not chosen a Speaker from its own ranks, overturning a parliamentary convention, it has occurred occasionally in State parliaments.

Most recently, Independent Richard Torbay was the NSW Speaker in the previous Labor Government, and former South Australian Premier Mike Rann was able to get Liberal MP Peter Stewart to become Speaker.

Gillard victory

This has undoubtedly been a tactical victory for Gillard, and will further boost the ALP’s confidence, following the passing of the mining tax and carbon tax legislation.

The Coalition is already portraying it as a “Machiavellian” political fix, accusing the Government, of being weak, secretive and desperate.

While it may make parliamentary life a bit easier, it will probably do little to help Labor claw back its still dire primary vote. At least now though, the Gillard Government is more likely to survive a full term, until the next election due in 2013.