View from The Hill

View from The Hill

The speakership: a prize out of nowhere for … whom?

After his disastrous ‘captain’s call’ Bronwyn Bishop, Tony Abbott has indicated that those aspiring to succeed her as speaker can fight it out to get the numbers among their peers. Ben Macmahon/AAP

The glittering prize of the speakership is dangling in front of the eyes of several backbenchers whose careers are becalmed.

They have a rare chance. Almost all advancement in the government is in the gift of the leader.

After the 2013 election Tony Abbott treated the speakership, supposed to belong to the party, as a “captain’s pick” and presented his choice of Bronwyn Bishop to the partyroom.

Now that has ended in tears, Abbott has indicated that those aspiring to succeed her can fight it out to get the numbers among their peers.

As of Monday night, there were four candidates, all backbenchers, angling for the post: Andrew Southcott, Russell Broadbent, Philip Ruddock and Tony Smith – with Smith not publicly declared.

Interestingly, three of them have been demoted by Abbott and the fourth has been on the outer because of his policy views.

Smith, who comes from Victoria and formerly worked for then-treasurer Peter Costello, was in shadow cabinet but Abbott pushed him down to a shadow parliamentary secretary following problems in the 2010 election with his communication policy. After the 2013 victory Smith wasn’t included in the Abbott frontbench.

In government, Smith has been active as chair of the parliamentary committee on electoral matters, which has recommended big changes to voting arrangements for the Senate.

Southcott, from South Australia, was also demoted in opposition by Abbott and overlooked in government.

Ruddock was sacked by Abbott as chief government whip early this year. Recently Abbott appointed him as special envoy for citizenship and community engagement as part of the government’s consideration of a further toughening of the citizenship laws.

Broadbent, one of the much-diminished number of moderate voices, is not on the ideological wavelength of the Abbott Liberal party.

As things stand, the contest appears open, especially if three or four candidates ended up in the ballot.

It has quickly become apparent the Liberals are not keen on the about A$340,000 post, with its prestige and (not to be abused, please) generous perks, going to deputy Speaker Bruce Scott, who is from the Nationals.

National Ian Sinclair briefly served as speaker in 1998, after Bob Halverson was pushed out because the Howard government thought he was too impartial. But Sinclair was special and this time the Liberals want to keep hold of the job.

The last time the Liberals elected their speaker was in 2004, when David Hawker beat Bronwyn Bishop and Bruce Baird. That contest is a lesson for those making predictions.

Hawker was not the favourite and Baird, a prominent moderate, had the backing of John Howard who, though he had not made him a minister, thought he would be good in the chair. Peter Costello worked hard and successfully to get up Hawker, a fellow Victorian.

One thing going against Ruddock, the “Father of the House” and former senior minister in the Howard government, is that some Liberals see him as too much part of the Howard era, and think the party should move on.

Broadbent, who says he believes he has “broad support” in the party, might attract some moderate votes on the grounds of factional loyalty but lose votes among the conservative majority who could fear he would be too independent.

Both Southcott and Smith are sitting on margins in their seats (Boothby, Casey) of just over 7%, which can be precarious in these volatile times, and with the government facing uphill battles in South Australia and Victoria.

Being speaker can make campaigning harder. Sharman Stone, who has been very critical of the way the parliament has been operating, says it is “very tempting to try set the parliament back on the right course”. But, though her name was mentioned and some would like a woman to replace a woman, she is not throwing her hat in the ring. Her electorate is in a terrible way, she says, due to water policy issues, and that’s her priority.

There are apparently no formal rules for how the Liberal partyroom chooses the speaker – or more precisely, the candidate the government puts up to the House of Representatives (there may be a Labor candidate).

But the vote would be taken among the lower house Liberals, not the whole party room.

It may be that a consensus emerges before the Liberal meeting on Monday morning, or that one or two candidates drop out. It’s always possible one or more other candidates might emerge.

But if the numbers remain uncertain, there is an incentive for hopefuls to push on. The stakes are high for the individuals and strange things can happen in ballots.