The worst since Bronwyn Bishop? Speaker’s performance under scrutiny


Few can remember a passage of Parliament in which a government has been able to get away with so much over so little.

Much has been said about the government’s rhetoric on the Opposition’s supposed shortcomings on national security, character and loyalty since the House of Representatives resumed this month.

The government has been prosecuting the case that Labor is weak on national security and on its allegedly uncritical support for China.

It has even gone so far as to suggest that the Opposition’s leadership includes an MP who is a ‘Manchurian candidate’, or one who has been manipulated into carrying out treasonous acts on behalf of a foreign, communist power.

So, who is the umpire who is seemingly allowing such remarks to be uttered, mostly during question time?

Andrew Wallace only assumed the Speakership in late November.

The failed Pallottine monk entered Parliament in 2016.

He became Speaker, Coalition insiders say, as a compromise choice, taken in opposition as an alternative to candidates such as the conservative Liberal stalwart Kevin Andrews.

He has taken on the custom of no longer sitting in party room meetings but before then was part of the same Liberal faction as Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Worst since Bishop?

His critics in Parliament have labelled him as the most biased MP to occupy the Speaker’s office since Bronwyn Bishop.

But in his defence, Mr Wallace was always likely to be the subject of unfavourable comparisons.

His predecessor in the job, Tony Smith, won praise from both sides of the aisle for the objective and dignified manner in which he ruled over parliamentary proceedings.

(Mr Smith also had an additional 15 years’ experience in the House of Representatives over his successor.)

In the past fortnight of Parliament, Mr Wallace has given his critics plenty of ammunition.

“One of the benefits of the Christmas break is an opportunity to read Hansard,” the current Speaker said last week, following the opening of Parliament.

“I don’t think there’s been a significant change in the way I’m approaching it compared with previous Speakers.”

Interjections punctuated the above two remarks.

This, alongside the image of the Speaker making reference to a rulebook on procedure annotated extensively by neon-coloured post-it notes, has been presented as a reflection on Mr Wallace’s competence.

Outgoing Labor veteran Joel Fitzgibbon captured the mood of the Parliament on Thursday when he used his valedictory address to call for reform to question time.

“What’s the point if no one’s listening?” he asked the House of Representatives.

“If they change [the rules], who knows? We might get lucky.”

Complaints about the utility of questions without notice are as old as the institution itself, particularly provisions that allow members of the government to tee up questions for their colleagues to answer.

But in recent years, the deployment of ‘Dorothy Dixers’ – named for an American agony aunt suspected of writing the questions for her advice column – has become increasingly egregious.

It has turned what was once an exercise in self-affirmation for ministers into opportunities to attack the opposition.

These incitements at character assassination are tolerated so long as they conclude with an invitation for a minister to discuss whether they are familiar with “alternate approaches” to the government’s policy on the matter.

Apart from the ‘Manchurian candidate’ crack, they have been the pretext of all manner of provocative remarks about opposition members and their patriotism during this most recent fortnight of Parliament.

A Speaker under scrutiny

“This is embarrassing,” Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said last week as Treasurer Josh Frydenberg continued about the former’s alleged loyalty to left-wing causes over the national interest.

Mr Wallace responded by suggesting such remarks did not call Mr Albanese’s integrity into question.

The frequency with which Labor figures have had to rise, seemingly spring-loaded from their chairs, to alert the Speaker and prod him into policing such remarks has not gone unremarked upon.

So too has the Speaker’s tendency to protest that he is hard of hearing.

Mr Wallace said that he had not heard the offending remark about the Manchurian candidate, but also that he had heard an – off microphone – withdrawal from the very same minister.

His opponents argue that under previous Speakers, ministers would never have been allowed to do more than clear their throats on subjects such as MPs’ alleged shortcomings of character.

They point to examples such as on Thursday morning, when Mr Wallace stood accused of failing to understand that the opposition had suspended Parliament’s standing orders to bring on a vote on a law increasing prison sentences for those charged with offences involving firearms.

The tactic was designed to steal a march on the government.

But it also appeared to blindside Mr Wallace, who used his powers to quash suggestions from the floor that he had been caught unawares.

“You’re reflecting on the chair,” he said, seeking to shut down public examinations of his competency.

“Members are reflecting on the chair when they are calling into doubt or question any considerations that I’m making.”

Emotions heightened

Labor has been seeking to compare Mr Wallace’s brief tenure in the Speaker’s job to the high watermark set by Mr Smith.

They have been upping the pressure and inviting comparisons accordingly.

For his part, the Speaker suggests that perceptions about his command of parliamentary standards are likely coloured by this environment.

“As we move toward the election the emotions of members can become heightened and it is incumbent on all MPs to conduct themselves in the chamber in accordance with the standing orders,” he told The New Daily.

“It is part of the Speaker’s responsibility to enforce the standing orders and that is what he did this morning.”

His critics suggest that whether or not the government prevails at the next election, Mr Wallace is unlikely to preside over more than the handful of House of Representatives proceedings left in the parliamentary calendar this year.

That question, but also whether or not such a loose and willing parliamentary environment even benefits an increasingly unrestrained government front bench, remains to be seen.

We’ve Already Come Too Far To End This Now.

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