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Searching for a Nicer Parliament

Peter Slipper’s time in the Speaker’s chair is now officially over. An emotional Peter Slipper last night entered the House of Representatives yesterday after a long absence to officially inform the lower house of his intention to step aside. As we and half the world now know, this came just hours after a fiery motion brought on by the Coalition, seeking to have the Speaker sacked under s35 of the Australian Constitution. That debate brought to the world the now viral video of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s response to the motion.

The debate, brought on by the Abbott-led Opposition, called on the former Speaker to fall on his sword after court documents revealed a series of text messages quickly deemed inappropriate, by the Opposition. The tit-for-tat misogyny labelling spiral reached fever pitch at that moment, just days after the intervention in the growing dispute, by Tony Abbott’s wife Margie.

The usually abnormal, though under this 43rd parliament, slightly less bizarre and unpredictable day, saw some of the angriest scenes that we’ve encountered since the August 2010 election. Taking into account the much vaunted carbon price and the Craig Thomson and Health Services Union controversy, this makes the dubious achievement overnight all the more remarkable.

Peter Slipper is now gone and the former Deputy Speaker, Anna Burke who acted in the role in the imposed absence of Mr Slipper now occupies the position. Finally, the person that has been doing the job in the parliament for some time now, will actually get the monetary recognition deserved.

Attention will now turn to the performance of Speaker Anna Burke who has just chaired her first session of Question Time in the senior role. People will now begin to make judgements on the effectiveness of Ms Burke in pulling 150 children into line in the hammy theatre that is the House of Representatives freak show.

That is a tough ask and the precedent set by Peter Slipper and Harry Jenkins before him is a very high bar.

Harry Jenkins, as a Speaker from the ALP under both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard was held in very high regard by both sides of the political divide. Even the Coalition was and continue to be very effusive in their praise of the now Member for Scullin who will be retiring from parliament at the next election.

The Opposition are right, Harry Jenkins as Speaker was very calm and reasonable, very nice, almost to a fault. In the role of Speaker there is a need to be very firm and it sometimes felt that too much went by the wayside. There were a number of moments when the nastiness in the chamber became all too much and it was at those times when Mr Jenkins was at his best.

It was only late last year, Christmas break a short time away for our parliamentarians, that the Member for Scullin stood aside as Speaker. Then, in what many wrongly thought at the time was a calculated political masterstroke, the Labor Government put Peter Slipper up as their candidate for the role. After a large number of failed Opposition attempts to nominate ALP MP’s and an Independent for the role, Peter Slipper ultimately prevailed and became the new parliamentary moderator.

It was his rule over the parliament that should be widely regarded as the strongest and most fair, particularly in light of the new standing order of “direct relevance”. It was Peter Slipper as Speaker who was willing to chastise and punish members of the government that had too often gotten away with nonsense that would have never been tolerated were it coming from the Opposition.

The now Independent MP for Fisher ruled with such fairness that government MP’s were often warned and occasionally booted. More importantly, government ministers continuously flouting the standing orders were brought to order, sat down or sent out for an hour under the Standing Orders for their childish indiscretions. Most memorable of these occasions was when the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, after days of Three Stooges references, was sent from the parliamentary floor.

From the experience of having Anna Burke in the chair for some time now during Question Time we can get a sense of what a full-time Speaker Anna Burke will bring to the role. So far that appears to be a low tolerance for Coalition nonsense mixed with some rulings on process which are very fair and balanced.

What this parliament needs, at the very least, in light of the increasing levels of disdain which the public feels toward the parliament and our politicians, is a Speaker more in the mould of Peter Slipper than not. Australia needs a Speaker that will not tolerate stupidity from both sides. We need a Speaker that is willing to take action against any MP, Liberal, National, Labor or otherwise who consistently contributes to the cacophony of noise and bile that makes our parliament sound more like an aviary than a place where adults make decisions which could have a positive or negative impact on the population.

Of course it would be folly to assume that any Speaker would be capable of cutting out all the ridiculous behaviour that goes on, particularly between 2 and 3:10pm. In the instance of this minority government, the extra noise and bad behaviour probably owes more to the unbridled jockeying and thirst for power than anything else. Emotions have been higher than usual because the government barely hangs on with a slim majority and the Opposition is probably salivating over just how close they are to seizing those benches on the other side of parliament.

Certainly, our representatives, all of them, have to also take it upon themselves to lift their standards of behaviour while in the parliament. Individual responsibility for sensible and adult behaviour. If our local members took it upon themselves to look at their antics and at the very least tone them down then the health of our Speaker’s would not deteriorate as rapidly as it must every time they take the chair.

We have about a year, most likely, until we will see majority government in this country again. Until then are we going to begin to encounter again that ‘kinder, gentler polity’ that was once spoken of? It might get slightly nicer, but don’t hold your breath.

Question Time Ahead of Time

We’ve had two weeks reprieve from shouty parliamentary soundbites and nasty exchanges but tomorrow the show rolls back into town in the nation’s capital with a two week sitting period before the long winter break commences and we get some sizable respite from the major arena of political hostilities. The two week period ahead will be the last parliamentary sitting before the carbon price appears on July the 1st and that very subject is almost certainly going to dominate that daily hour of screaming back and forth that we refer to as Question Time.

For the Opposition in Question Time for the next two weeks we can expect well beyond all reasonable doubt that the majority of questions to the Gillard Government from their side will be around the impending carbon tax. This has been the case off and on for some time in the parliament with it dominating the parliamentary debate most of the time when either the Minerals Resource Rent Tax or the Craig Thomson case weren’t the flavour of the day.

It is possible that some of the National Party members or Shadow Environment Minister will get to ask a question or two of the Environment Minister following the announcement on Friday of a swathe of new marine reserves around the Australian coastline. This also could be relegated to a question or questions in the Senate.

The government itself will also focus most of its questions in both chambers of parliament on the carbon tax too after it shared the spotlight with budget commitments since the May 8 fiscal statement. For the government it will be about continuing to sell the compensation package that has begun to roll out and the other associated sweeteners mean to blunt any impact that the price will have and even overcompensate many.

In what may well mirror the Coalition it is almost certain that the Dorothy Dixer will also be used to sell the proposed changes to marine reserves that Tony Burke announced last week, especially since environmental issues, like the Murray-Darling Basin plan have had a minor airing during Question Time in recent sitting periods.

Emotions will be running high again with so much political energy thrown into and burned by talking about and introducing the carbon tax so it can be expected that the 94a will get a workout or multiple MPs will get a stern talking to from the Acting Speaker, Anna Burke as the parliamentary battle rages and perhaps descends into the sad depths it has in recent weeks.

 

 

Question Time Ahead of Time

Another parliamentary week is upon us after a one week break post budget week and it promises to provide fireworks from the very start with a statement from Craig Thomson, the embattled MP for the electorate of Dobell who stands accused in a report by Fair Work Australia of a list of alleged civil law breaches. Question Time as always will be a regular and theatrical feature which this week promises to be more of a saga than a short film, but still with plenty of comedy interspersed with the drama and political warring.

The Coalition will undoubtedly focus its week in Question Time on Craig Thomson, starting just a short time after his speech to the House of Representatives today which is set to provide his explanation for events that have landed him in hot water.

The Opposition will almost certainly seek a motion to suspend standing orders in relation to this matter today as they have done so previously and on such a day would be unlikely not to engage in the same political tactic.

For today at least, it seems that most, if not all questions from the Coalition to the Gillard Government will be about Craig Thomson and it seems very unlikely that the Opposition will seek to ask many, if any questions on the budget which was two weeks ago tomorrow.

If there are to be any questions on matters other than Craig Thomson and the HSU then it is likely it will be the carbon price through the prism of advertisements which have just started showing which promote the Household Assistance Package, read compensation for the carbon tax, which mention nothing about what the payment is for.

The ALP Government on the other hand are likely to focus on just that, the budget. 

In particular, the government will focus on the education and other payments announced or amended in the fiscal statement by Treasurer Wayne Swan and quite possibly the NDIS which has been the focus of some uncertainty in the last two weeks.

Returning to surplus will also be a broader focus in Question Time from Dorothy Dixer’s particularly with the Treasurer stepping up to the despatch box as Acting Prime Minister while Julia Gillard is overseas talking all things Afghanistan.

It too is entirely likely that the carbon price will get a look-in from the government as payments of compensation start to flow ahead of the starting date of the scheme.

Deputy Speaker Anna Burke is back in the chair as acting Speaker for the second week and the Coalition will want to be on their best behaviour or they will find themselves in the tense environment today with depleted numbers when they will be wanting to make moves which require all the votes they can muster and then some.

The statement from Craig Thomson commences at about midday and shortly after that at 2pm we will have Question Time which promises to be even more amped up than we have experienced in recent times and that says a lot.

Question Time Ahead of Time: Post-Budget Day

The budget we all knew was coming and was practically announced before it was formally read out in parliament last night has now passed and today is the day when the Gillard Government will sell the package as a a whole and the Opposition forensically analyse the detail. Question Time will play a big part in that sell for the government and for the Coalition it must be a time to test the government on both spending priorities, cuts and those sneaky deferrals that have been made overnight.

The Coalition will almost certainly not focus all its questions on items from the budget papers, but put up a mix of previously broached subjects as well as mixing those with questions on the budget.

To that end, the Coalition will almost certainly place a focus on the Craig Thomson issue which, despite the budget, continues to be a feature of the day, thanks in large part to the Fair Work Australia report findings that Mr Thomson must answer to a  list of allegations.

The Liberal and National Party Coalition would quite possibly also ask questions on the allegations surrounding the Speaker, Peter Slipper, especially after attempts yesterday on the floor of the House of Representatives to replace him in the chair with the previous Speaker, Harry Jenkins.

However, the budget will probably be the major focus of the Opposition during the session of Question Time today. Expect to see questions on the purported surplus, the spending and deferrals which cast doubt upon the forecast surplus actually achieving its real end.

The lack of business assistance will likely also be put to the government.

For the ALP Government, the focus will be on the social spending programs that have been announced as much as it will be trying to convince the public that the budget will actually finish in surplus by the end of fiscal year 2012-13, a slightly easier task than convincing the parliament.

Undoubtedly, as previous statements have done, the government will focus on talking up the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which now has a monetary figure attached to it: $1 billion over 4 years.

A further focus will also likely be other social spending areas in the budget which includes education payments which will now be directly paid into the accounts of eligible families, a new aged care allocation and an increase to some families in Family Tax Benefit A.

Today will also be the second day with Deputy Speaker Anna Burke occupying the Speaker’s chair during Question Time and looks set to be a noisy one for all involved and Standing Order 94a will probably get quite a workout.

It all begins from 2pm AEST.

Question Time Ahead of Time: Budget Day Special

It’s that special day that comes around but once a year. It’s that day when the Treasurer strides to the despatch to spend a good amount of time outlining the budget priorities for the fiscal year ahead, what will be key priorities and what will be the focus of cuts. Undoubtedly too, in times like these deferrals also form a part of the budget.

Question Time and the House of Representative sitting itself today will be the first one out of the chair for Peter Slipper since taking the role while investigations continue into claims of misuse of Cabcharge and sexual harassment are investigated. This puts ALP MP for Chisholm and Deputy Speaker Anna Burke in the chair for Question Time and the all important budget address and could see fiery exchanges if the last time Ms Burke was in the chair for a brief period in Question Time is anything to go by.

The Coalition will quite likely not be focusing entirely on the budget in this sitting of Question Time, commencing just five and a half hours before the budget is delivered from the House of Representatives at 7:30pm. Aside from the budget and the new spending, cuts and budget tricks, the Coalition will still likely ask questions on the carbon tax, maybe the Minerals Resource Rent Tax and perhaps even Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper investigations, the latter of which reached a head yesterday with a Fair Work Australia report yesterday naming him hundreds of times in relation to alleged wrongdoing of a civil nature.

The Gillard Government will likely focus all of their efforts in Question Time through the Dorothy Dixer on key aspects of the budget that they believe will be items which have electoral benefits for them. To this end, questions from their own side will likely focus on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the aged care reforms  and the cash handouts for education.The government will also likely focus on the fact that they are trying to return the budget to surplus for financial year 2012-13.

Question Time as always begins from 2pm and can be caught on your television, radio or computer.

The Weekend Labor Will Wish They Never Had

Normally the weekends are a very quiet affair in terms of politics, whether it be local, state or federal developments. Saturday and Sunday are usually the domain of our newspapers in the realm of politics, debating and discussing the major events of the week, as well as the occasional under-reported event that doesn’t make the headlines on any given day. This weekend, as with a few over the term of the 43rd parliament at the federal level has been the exception to the rule. Couple that with council elections across Queensland and a by-election in the seat of a former Premier and you have all the trimmings for digestion of a full political meal in the 48 hours that are usually relatively free of politics and the political process.

On Saturday night the LNP, fresh from an astonishing win at the March 24 state election, where they won 78 seats of the 89 seat parliament  and Labor just 7, the LNP Lord Mayor Graham Quirk and his team fought a campaign to remain in the mayoralty and to keep a majority of councillors in the City Hall chamber.

Last night Graham Quirk and his LNP Council colleagues did just that, winning both the race for mayor in Brisbane and the contest to maintain a majority of wards won by former Lord Mayor, now Premier Campbell Newman.

The LNP Lord Mayor of Brisbane City in two-party terms has achieved nearly 70% of the votes on offer against just over 30% for ALP mayoral hopeful Ray Smith. This result means approximately a 2.5% swing to the LNP Mayor on top of the previously strong vote for the very popular former Lord Mayor Newman.

In terms of winning wards, the LNP last night won an additional three seats in the council chambers with their victory last night to now control at least 18 of the 26 Brisbane City Council areas, a strong majority.

Elsewhere, the South Brisbane by-election, for the seat occupied by former Premier Anna Bligh was also run last night, but as yet has not been won, or at least not yet conceded. The contest sees Labor’s Jackie Trad ahead at present with just over 52% of the two-party-preferred vote compared with Clem Grehan of the LNP on just under 48% of the vote. The Labor leader in the parliament last night claimed victory for the ALP, but as yet Mr Grehan of the LNP has not conceded defeat.

It appears that the ALP will reclaim the seat, a normally very safe Labor seat, with a margin prior to the March state election of 15%. But it should not provide for much celebration in Labor circles. The LNP have come very close, albeit in a by-election which are notorious for going the other way, to claiming a sensational victory.

But if that was an ordinary night for Labor electorally in Queensland, Sunday for the federal ALP has been extraordinary in the saga that is the Craig Thomson and in the realm of the recently emerged allegations against the Speaker, Peter Slipper.

Today, weary Australians awoke to the news that there would be a press conference where Craig Thomson, the member for Dobell subject to a Fair Work Australia investigation which has now concluded would announce that he would ask the ALP to temporarily suspend his membership of the party and he would move to the crossbench as an Independent MP.

This move came after over 3 years of investigation in the matter and just as much time spent by the Prime Minister and the ALP putting their support behind the MP from NSW.

But just how much will the temporary move, meant to clear some air for the Prime Minister and her party actually mean? The answer frankly is none. The  MP, for as long as he can remain in the parliament will undoubtedly continue to fully support the Gillard Government in every policy and political move it makes and importantly also for the Labor Party, in matters of supply and no confidence motions.

As if that wasn’t enough drama to base an epic political drama on, or comedy as you could just as easily argue, the Prime Minister also indicated that now, after days of saying the opposite, the Speaker, facing criminal and civil allegations should remain out of the chair until all the allegations have been resolved.

This move will see Anna Burke, the Deputy Speaker of the parliament and ALP member sitting in the Speakers seat when parliament resumes on May 8th for the handing down of the budget by Treasurer Wayne Swan

These two moves were just mere political opportunism, a smokescreen, a reactionary decision in the face of what seemed more and more likely to be a permanent loss of the Speaker if the matter went unresolved until parliament resumes on budget day.

Labor federally and in Queensland will certainly be hoping it can all be up from here, but as they have proved, that is far from certain to the extent that it is extremely unlikely.

Slipper Could be Removed to Help Keep the Tenuous Government Foothold

Peter Slipper, the Speaker of the House of Representatives stands accused of both civil and criminal wrongdoing, with claims of sexual harassment of a staffer being aired, coupled with accusations of rorting Cabcharge vouchers. The Gillard Government has moved from trouble to trouble during its short tenure from mid 2010 to the present day but the ALP minority government has rarely looked like it would be allowed to crumble, either by their own actions or by those MPs who have agreed to support it for a full three year term in parliament.

The Prime Minister and her government in the time shortly after the accusations were levelled at the scandal-prone refused to withdraw support for Peter Slipper to continue in the Speaker’s chair in the Lower House. The tenuous situation of the 43rd parliament made it necessary for political survival, whether right or wrong to stand by the man that both sides of politics knew could drag them into trouble.

Shortly after returning from a trip, Mr Slipper did the right thing offered to stand aside while the criminal allegations are investigated by police although he did not extend the self-suspension to also cover the prosecution of the civil proceedings against him by a staffer who alleges sexual misconduct on the part of Peter Slipper. 

After the Speaker stood aside, the Prime Minister on behalf of her party admitted after the fact that Slipper standing aside was the right and honest thing to do, a strange change of heart.

Thanks in large part to the strong support of the two rural Independent MPs, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, Prime Minister Gillard and the ALP have been able to maintain a fairly stable government regardless of the very tight numbers on the floor of the House of Representatives.

However, in recent days, it would appear to the naked eye that cracks in that support are appearing, with Mr Oakeshott, the MP for the electorate of Lyne leaving the door ajar at least for the possibility of a no confidence motion on the floor of the Lower House chamber.

Also trailing closely behind Mr Oakeshott in his thoughts on the matter, Mr Windsor, the Independent MP for the seat of New England has today indicated that he would like Speaker Slipper to stand aside until both the criminal and civil proceedings have been investigated and prosecuted to an exhaustive end.

The distinct possibility of a no confidence motion appears to be growing, hour by hour, day by day in this dramatic period in the history of parliament in Australia with the New England MP appearing to suggest that the besieged Mr Slipper stand aside until both matters are concluded or he would potentially face a vote on the floor of the parliament.

The Labor Government, under a new Speaker, likely Anna Burke, would stare in the face an even more unstable majority of just 1 vote in the House of Representatives chamber.

Theoretically, a vote against Mr Slipper could be used by the government and its supporters, particularly Mr Windsor and Mr Oakeshott to take some of the focus off the government which is slowly drowning as stagnant polls, hovering around the same numbers for some time seem to show.

A vote of no confidence in the Speaker could be brought by the government or any of those MPs it relies on for support to remove some of the stench that lingers around the Labor caucus, a middle ground of sorts to show to the naked eye, the untrained political eye, that Gillard and her party are willing to take on some of the rot eating away at the parliamentary party.

But alas, the rural Independents are not the great illusionists that they think themselves to be. Any “compromise” move would be as obvious as having a brick strike you in the head.

But it would ameliorate some of the dead-weight that is slowly but surely pulling the government, strapped to its numbers so firmly.

The Opposition obviously, as an other would be in this situation want the government down and out and removed and will put as much pressure on the government as they can, on any issue of contention, to try and make this happen. That’s the reality of politics and the ALP would certainly be reacting to crises in the same way were they in the position the Coalition is.

All the while, the government, by removing Slipper will have deflected some of the attention away from the other major distraction they face, the allegations against Craig Thomson, the former HSU official and now Member for the seat of Dobell. Gillard and her government have continued to support their own MP to the fullest while the allegations have been investigated.

By no means will acting on the Slipper allegations fix the electoral mortality of the Labor Government, but to perform some feat of illusion will serve to nullify one point of contention and in the process keep the Gillard Government on track to go full term, unless and it is entirely plausible, another allegation of wrongdoing or some other unforeseen mishap or misadventure decides to rear its head.

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