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Slipper saga begs the question – do we need a speaker at all?

Accusations against Peter Slipper have prompted him to step aside as speaker. AAP Image/Penny Bradfield

Speaker of the House of Representatives Peter Slipper has stepped aside following allegations of sexual harassment and the misuse of cab-charge vouchers.

Slipper’s former adviser James Ashby accused the speaker of using his position to make unwelcome sexual advances while Ashby was working his office.

Slipper has denied the accusations, and deputy speaker Anna Burke has stepped into the role while the criminal matter of the misused cab vouchers is being investigated.

Federal Labor may regret drafting Slipper for the position of speaker in November last year, particularly given what his stepping aside will do to their numbers in parliament.

With Labor MP Burke in the speaker’s chair and without the support of Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie, the government has the same number of seats as the opposition – 74. Wilkie withdrew formal support from the federal government in January after negotiations with Julia Gillard on gambling reform stalled.

The Slipper saga is simply another scandal to rock a political party already in trouble. But the episode can prompt us to look at the role of the speaker in Federal Parliament, and beg the question of whether we need one at all.

The origins of the speaker

The Australian system of parliamentary democracy inherited the position of parliamentary speaker from the United Kingdom. In both countries, the speaker does not vote in parliament and acts as an impartial presiding officer.

Unlike in Britain, the Australian speaker is usually a member of the governing party. Australian politicians have often looked with envy at the status of the British speaker; however, the speakers of both countries operate in very different contexts.

Australian parliaments, both federal and state, are much smaller than the British House of Commons. Very close political finishes are more likely in Australia than in Britain. The small size of Australian parliaments means that one vote can be crucial in passing legislation or forming government.

An Australian party may be reluctant to lose a guaranteed vote in parliament as a result of one of their members becoming speaker. Thus parties have sometimes sought to find a speaker from outside their ranks, either from the ranks of the opposition or from independents.

This is a potentially risky process. Independents may have their own enthusiasms, while an MP willing to defy their own party and assist their opponents by accepting the position of speaker may be something of a “loose cannon”.

In South Australia, Labor recruited former Liberal turned Independent Peter Lewis to serve as speaker but found his enthusiasms for constitutional reform an embarrassment.

International models

The convention of an “independent speaker” reflects the idea of the separation of powers between legislature, executive and judiciary.

In the British case this model of governance emerged in the eighteenth century when the monarch played an active role in the executive, and governing personnel were recruited from the landed aristocracy. The central government had a tiny small role in economy and society. “Politics” in the modern sense did not exist.

The American Constitution sought to codify this model via the position of President chosen independently of the legislature. The American speaker is the voice of the majority in Congress which may be from a different party to the president.

However, the American system would never have survived from the 19th century if not for the rise of political parties which enabled the American state to face the challenges of a continent-wide capitalist economy and society rather than a scatter of coastal settlements.

Now in the United States, parties are so strong that political gridlock is a serious problem. The house speaker when drawn from a party other than that of the President is effectively the leader of the opposition.

Do we need a speaker?

The rise of political parties in Australia has undercut the significance of the speaker’s position. Australian parliaments largely function as an electoral college to choose a prime minister or premier.

Since the 1980s, governments at the state and federal level have usually had to negotiate their legislative program through a senate or legislative council where the balance of power has been held by minor parties. Since 2010, independents have held the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

The rise of minor parties has made party negotiations more complex but it has not restored the role of “the speaker” as an imagined representative of a “legislature” opposed to the executive. The declining significance of the speaker points to a great unanswered question of Australian politics: what is parliament for? If it is a way to select a prime minister it is an expensive way of doing so.

There is no guarantee that those who become MPs will be competent managers of essential public services, and if MPs are supposed to be local ombudsmen to represent citizen grievances to government they too are a very expensive option.

The Slipper saga will probably be a drop in the ocean of political history but the broader question of the role of parliament, of which the Speaker is the symbol, in a modern democracy remains largely unanswered.

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