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Gillard's Speaker dirty trick could backfire


Peter SlipperParliamentary speakers go back a long way, to the appointment of Sir Thomas Hungerford as Speaker of the English House of Commons  in 1377. The speaker had to ensure that the House did its job, and the king had several early speakers beheaded when the parliament became disfunctional and the taxes failed to flow.

In the 19th century, parliaments of the Australian colonies also relied upon effective speakers. A Sydney Morning Herald opinion article from 1867 paints a picture of mayhem in the NSW Parliament, which it effectively puts down to the speaker's lack of control over the house.

If the house is to remain supine and the speaker powerless, while a small knot of shameless railers degrade and pervert our parliamentary system, an appeal to the constituencies is still open. I invoke their respect for order — their reverence for justice — their instinctive love of fair play. It is for the electors of New South Wales to ... rid the House of men who disgrace it.

There are obvious parallels with Federal Parliament today, and the writer would probably argue that Tony Abbott should be granted his wish of an early election. It does suggest that whatever role Prime Minister Julia Gillard played in last week's switch of speaker — labelled a masterstroke by some commentators — it could backfire. 

If the new speaker Peter Slipper fails to command authority, it's more likely the public will want to see an early poll.

Slipper will have no authority if parliamentarians do not grant it to him. Opposition MPs do not respect him because of his history of disloyalty and questionable behaviour. He will never have their hearts and minds. For them, the appointment is nothing but another of Labor's dirty tricks.

Politicians first started to accuse each other of trickery during the Howard era, and it has now become a staple of modern politics. This is surely what Socrates was referring to when he distinguished the smoke and mirrors of sophistry from the depth of knowledge that he saw as the hallmark of the statesman. We would probably refer to this as 'policy substance'.

Like authority, statesmanship is a status that cannot be granted by a higher power or oneself. It is recognised by its subjects, although often not until after he or she has lost an election to a populist politician.

Invariably statesmen rise above party politics and tend to take the long view of what is best for all concerned, not just those who elect them to office. Statesmen can be tough but are always measured and temperate and answerable to an external authority which they respect.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, speaker, Abbott, Gillard, Parliament, Socrates, statesman



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Existing comments

I sat in the public gallery in Parliament House last Thursday and saw tellling body language from two men. Harry Jenkins looked extremely happy on the back bench, a man who had had a heavy burden lifted off his shoulders. Peter Slipper sat in the Speaker's chair and looked authoritative, even as the Opposition tried to set him up over whether the words 'man','woman' and 'horrible' constituted unparliamentary language. It takes little to imagine the context in which the words 'woman' and 'horrible' were joined together. 'Man' was just thrown in for good measure.

Like it or not, Peter Slipper was the Deputy Speaker and, as such, was next in line for the job. If he were such a disgrace to the Parliament, this seems to have been well known to the Howard government and he should have been dealt with long since. Trickiness is not the sole preserve of the Prime Minister as the reported actions of coalition frontbenchers last Thursday morning would suggest.

Observer | 28 November 2011  

Cynicism in politics has reached new heights with the Slipper speaker fiasco. Gillard's government respects no principle, tradition nor person. Ask Rudd.

Skye | 28 November 2011  

Dissolution of parliament cannot be based on whether the opposition party can or can't stomach the Westminster system of respecting the Chair. The salient fact is that if Tony Abbott cannot govern his own opposition, then arguably he cannot govern the country. The extraordinary way in which the LNP is fracturing here in north Queensland is indicative of the state of the whole coalition, fractures which delivered the Prime Minister her victory last Friday. Now is not the time to be granting Tony Abbott any wish, except that he stabilise his side of politics before the next election in two years time.

Michael Taylor | 28 November 2011  

Slipper may be a Liberal rat but that does not mean his appointment is a Labour "dirty trick", merely an astute piece of political manoeuvring. Labour recognized a legitimate opportunity to strengthen their government and bring a bit more stability and certainty to parliament. Not to do so would have been incompetence. Guess you guys just like putting Gillard and dirty trick in the same sentence. Get over it boys, there is a woman in charge and despite being dealt a very bad hand she is managing far better than the media lets on.

Eclair | 28 November 2011  

... and if there is one person to whom the word statesman does not apply, it is Tony Abbott.

Frank | 28 November 2011  

Our green leather sitters deserve what they have gifted to themselves, a dud.

But lets us not forget that it has suited the Abbott crew to keep this particular dud sitting on green leather for about 20 years, so whatever 'qualities' he displays now, he would have been showing for a long time.

Frankly, Abbott has nothing to complain about, being something of a dud himself, and being the head of a very dud team intent,like the Republicans of the USA, on ensuring that what we laughingly pretend is a democracy, works.

As for Gillard, what can be said in her favour?


So, let us all take a neutral seat and watch these plonkers fight it out as if they knew what they were doing, as if they really cared about 'the national interest', as if they gave a toss about the Westminster system.

When Reith has the temerity to complain, after all his actions, one really knows it is all crocodile tears, humbug and bull##it on their part.

Go Slipper, you are a true reflection of your colleagues.

Andy Fitzharry | 28 November 2011  

Let us hope that the whole childish episode backfires on the lot of them. A pox on all their houses!!

john frawley | 28 November 2011  

Clever manoeuvring or sneaky trick? For most the response depends on which party you support.

The harsh reality is that our parties seem to be driven by a code of ethics for which the car bumper stickers would read "the ends justifies the means", or "if you see the head of an opponent, kick it twice", and so on.
What many overlook is that the Coalition facilitated the change by their attitude to Peter Slipper and the next election. They seem to have gone out of their way to aggravate him, and now pay the price. Tony should have seen it coming unless of course he and his party totally reject the concepts of contingency planning and scenario testing.

Michael Howard | 28 November 2011  

There is a golden rule for living. "Treat others as you wish to be treated." In an increasingly secular world, this basic premise should still apply for living. It it totally lacking in politics and none of them deserve the respect of the electorate. There is little doubt that Gillard applauded herself on the elevation of the slipper - but I believe, it is not the way she would want to be treated and therefore, may in fact, 'slipper her up.'

The Coalition were about to deal with him - they just got beaten to it. However, he will be a short term fix to ensure that Labour look better than they really are. How did 17 bills get put through parliament last week without debate??? Time to ask the real questions of this corrupt and deceptive government.

Jacki | 28 November 2011  

How depressing to see an editor of Eureka Steet advocate an early election which will almost certainly see the conservatives returned to power. Abbott has shown nothing but disrespect for the Prime Minister, and even his own high office as Opposition Leader. Yet this counts for nothing in Mullins' desire to see Abbott get into the Lodge as soon as possible. What policies does Abbott espouse which have as their prime objective and motive the welfare of the working and underclass of Australians? None.

Abbott could not stop himself referring to Jesuits in his welcome speech to Obama. I hope this is not Eureka Street's way of returning the favour?

Michael | 28 November 2011  

What can be said in favour of Gillard?
1. Climate change legislation (contra Angry Anderson and George Pell.)
2. Taxing the miners.
3. (Hopefully) a National Disability Insurance Scheme
4. She is not Tony Abbott, who sweats unreconstructed masculinity like a particularly nasty cologne.

She annoys many sexists and bogans, and that's probably A Good Thing. If only she didn't also pander to them through trying to be 'tough on refugees'!

Penelope | 28 November 2011  

3 Fragile things

The cool of sunrise
Peace in the fowlyard
The throat of a statesman

-- Vincent Buckley, from 'Triads'

PHILIP HARVEY | 28 November 2011  

Abbott recently told the Queen that Australians play their politics tough. He is not the only one who can toughen it up. It wasn't a dirty trick but a sound tactic by a minority government to strengthen its base. If Abbott was caught out by it, well, he can't really complain after the way he has used Parliament this year. I don't believe for a minute that Abbott would not do exactly the same thing if positions were reversed.

Brett | 28 November 2011  

The Prime Minister has shown herself quite capable of playing the hard game of politics as well as anyone. She has the advantage of not being burdened with enormous personal ego, something that would have tripped up many a male politician in her position by now. She has made deals, hard deals, tough deals, and the deals have all stuck because she has been very smart and savvy.

Truly - I can't take the complaints about how traditions and principles have been broken etc etc. The tradition of the Australian Parliament is indeed one of playing a fierce, hard game. It's been a long time since anyone could pretend it was a species of gentlemen's debating society bound by Edwardian decorum.

I look forward to seeing Captain Abbott and his team of cutthroats dashing themselves angrily and helplessly against Cape Slipper. Oh the merriment in store!

Mormon Socialist | 28 November 2011  

Why is it that Gillard is always accused of "dirty tricks"? M Turnbull may have an opinion about this. An alternative view,Michael,is that Ms Gillard acted in the best interests of the community in terms of stable government of the country.

John murphy | 28 November 2011  

Michael's appeal to an editorial in 1867 in the SMH (a very conservative mouthpiece in those days) is surely clutching at straws. If Peter Slipper was good enough to be Deputy Speaker last week then who is Abbott to claim and Michael to imply that he is not good enough to be Speaker this week? If a minority of the House (the coalition parties) withhold their respect for the office that he holds, so be it, it says more about them than the holder for the time being of that office. In any case, where is the rule or convention that says that a lack of confidence by the House is or should be a trigger for a new election? Does Michael really dislike Gillard so much and want Abbott as PM so much as to cause him to argue for an election? It's always possible, Michael, and I would say even probable, that an election now would again deny both parties a majority.

Ginger Meggs | 28 November 2011  

It is sheer hyperbole to term last week's change of Speaker as a "dirty trick". Indeed, given the astonishing decision to accompany the Editor's piece with a reproduction of the front page of the Sydney "Daily Telegraph" it looks like tendentious hyperbole. The state and operation of the NSW Parliament in the middle of the C19 is entirely different from what currently pertains in Canberra and the comparison is spurious. Likewise, a quotation from a conservative and "establishment" Sydney newspaper of that time is a faintly ridiculous basis for drawing contemporary lessons. furthermore, the Editor's sense of the history of "trickery" seems deficient. The truth is [in and before Howard's time] that politics and arithmetic are inextricably intertwined. In this case the reap points are: that the coalition have had to deal with Slipper as deputy Speaker but by their treatment of him, they made his position in the party room untenable; that the Nationals-driven Queensland machine lacked the patience to wait until after the state election before acting; that Abbott tried to dissuade them and failed [Howard would have flown to Brisbane to confront them -- Abbott chose not to]: so it's clear that the Nationals still run conservative politics in Queensland and Abbott it impotent to control of moderate them. Finally, is Slipper does not acquire "authority" [but writ: what has he been exercising for the past 15 months?] then it will be because of the behaviour of the opposition and in that case, theirs is the greater risk by far. so long as he realises that his own behaviour will determine his tenure in a position which, in normal circumstances, he'd never dream of and which it's in his interest to retain as long as possible, the Parliament should continue to function. These, though, are all matters of pragmatic politics and it's curious for the Editor to appear partisan in such matters.

Dr JJ Carmody | 28 November 2011  

ABBOTT to OBAMA: "It was an American who persuaded me to become a boxer, an American Jesuit, the ultimate muscular Christian. " (My addition) It was Australian woman, an atheist, who persuaded me to take the blow humbly. Muscular Christianity? Is this tag an attempt to make thuggery and mindless conservative tribalism seem like a rational option? Please stop flattering yourself - muscular Christianity requires sacrifice and courage.

AURELIUS | 28 November 2011  

Sometimes people just resign and there is no trickery involved.

Marilyn Shepherd | 28 November 2011  

Tony Abbott's 'holier than thou'comment that he would not have acted the same way in similar circumstances to replace/appoint a speaker - that is was not his "style" - is a bit rich. Think back to the recent election of the Liberal Party President. Peter Reith believed that he had the support of Tony Abbott, yet at the last moment Abbott gave his casting vote to Alan Stockdale. Abbott can be as Machiavellian as anyone.

Patricia Russell | 28 November 2011  

And we won't mention Abbott's jailing Pauline Hanson.

Marilyn Shepherd | 28 November 2011  

Up to 24 of December Julia Gillard had a majority of two members in the Lower House. Now she has a majority of three members in the Lower House. Please all ES contributors stop rubbishing and demonizing Tony Abbott. Mr. Tony Abbott is the leader of the opposition, he is not going to support Julia Gillard's bad policies. If Ms Julia Gillard cannot pass her own bills in the Lower House then there is something wrong with her. Tony Abbott is doing a Good job informing Australians about the great carbon tax hoax, the failure of asylum seekers offshore policy and others issues. Many, many Australians can't wait for the next Federal Election to cast their votes.

Ron Cini | 28 November 2011  

You need to state what evidence you have for making the statement "it's more than likely the public will want to see an early poll". Were you advised by someone who polls public opinion or are you, as one writer suggested, "Tony Abbot's man since he attended the Jesuits' school"?

Don't think this is your usual standard of opinion.

Laurie Sheehan | 28 November 2011  

There is no such thing anywhere in the world as 'offshore refugee protection", people have to apply in the countries they reach.

Marilyn Shepherd | 28 November 2011  

Michael is right about the backfire to come, but take it from you (as if you would), that it is going to come in the form of Julia being rolled as PM and replaced by little Billy Shorten.

"Why?" you ask. Because now that the government will complete its full term, this very stability offers the chance for Mr Shorten to get rid of an unpopular Julia and still be asssured of the time required to establish himself as the new Labor PM, over the next two years

Claude Rigney | 28 November 2011  

What was it the Romans said? "Give the People Circuses and Bread." In that order.

Circuses we have aplenty in both Parliament and the Media. With all these newly invented Taxes, Bread will shortly become a unaffordable luxury.

Let us enjoy the Circus while we can; after all we are ALL paying for it - one way or another.

Josh | 29 November 2011  

Many on this forum seem to overlook that Abbott and the Liberals were in the process of getting rid of Slipper, like you would eject a rat from parliament, whereas Juliar and Anthony Albasleaze gave him the highest position in parliament, they are a grubby bunch to be sure.

Howard did a lot of grubby stuff too, but he is no match for the sleaze and grubby stuff the ALP has done in just a few years in office.
Someone even had the gall to mention that Abbott has disrespected the Primeminister. Well she disrespected that position when she told a blatant lie to the electorate in order to get elected, then protecting Thomson etc...etc...

In any case you respect the person not the title and Gillard as a person is worthy of no respect at all.

RP_Man | 29 November 2011  

RP_MAN asserts that Tony Abbott was in the process of 'getting rid of Slipper, like you would eject a rat from parliament'. But if Slipper was elected to Parliament by the voters in his electorate, what right does Abbott or anyone else have to 'get rid of him' from Parliament? Abbott could have tried (but didn't) have Peter Slipper expelled from the LNP, or he could have (but didn't) deny him a place in the parliamentary party. But he had no right, and no to have him expelled him from Parliament.

Ginger Meggs | 30 November 2011  

Peter Slipper's past misdeeds went unchecked by Howard and his acolyte Tony Abbott until now.Tony's outpouring of righteousness and morality is confected- The chair deserves the respect that goes with the office- that is until he creates fresh misdeeds. Tony has to come up with substantial policies, costed and subjected to accredited review especially for financial matters. Headlines without a substantial body may have been the flavour of an ex-journalist, but we need more than pugilistic confrontation.

B.braganza | 01 December 2011  

RP-MAN with his reference to 'Juliar' and 'Albasleaze' has addeded nothing of substance to this forum; name calling is not debate or discussion.

Kath Luchetti | 03 December 2011  

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