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The chopper has landed, but where does that leave us?

By Peter West - posted Tuesday, 4 August 2015


The events of the last two and a half weeks in Australian politics are well known. It has become clear, through a series of stories emerging one after the other, that the Speaker of the House of Representatives has been a very big spender. In an earlier article I asked why this story has emerged to take up so much space on the political landscape. So powerful was it that all the major newspapers in Australia over the weekend of 1 and 2 August were demanding action from the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister announced on Sunday evening at 4.30 pm that the Speaker would resign. A bit surprising, given the steadfast refusal of anyone to do anything for 18 days. But there it was: action at last. So there will be no more stories of "Choppergate", as it is known. Social media exploded in another flurry of memes, with helicopters featuring largely. Some people are sad that the fun has gone out of politics.

But where does Choppergate leave us ?

THE ROLE OF THE SPEAKER

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My knowledge of British history is imperfect. But I have a clear idea of the Speaker as being the spokesman of the House of Commons. He (in our day, we would say he or she) is bound to defend the representatives of the ordinary people. A number of Speakers have stood up to the power of the Crown and government of the day. In the most well-known of these, Charles I came into the House of Commons to arrest five MPs who had been attacking his policies. The Speaker said he could only do what the House directed him to do. He refused to identify the five Members, and the king had to retire in shame.

Hence the tradition that today the monarch must knock on the door, asking Parliament for permission to enter. It's a colourful tradition, but there are the privileges of Parliament to protect. It's curious that Mr Abbott, with his well-known love of things British and admiration of the monarchy to the point of creating Prince Philip a knight last Australia Day, could neglect to know about the proper role of the Speaker in the UK. Can I say this bluntly: the Speaker must be independent of government.

With Ms Bishop gone at last with her reputation gravely questioned, never mind being the butt of jokes in pubs and coffee shops, large questions remain. How does Mr Abbott conceive the role of the Speaker? Is she or he a creature to do the bidding of the government of the day? Or is there some higher duty to preserve the good name of the Parliament and its most important Chamber? This is hardly a small matter given the disrepute that the Speaker's role has been put into by its most recent incumbents.

It's no use saying wonderful things about the role of the Speaker, as several have done, if your actions show you only have contempt for the poor ordinary folk who have to pay for the Speaker's jaunts all around the world. Many of us who have backpacked around Europe can tell stories about sleeping on people's couches, never mind spending thousands of dollars a week.

Abbott was outspoken about Peter Slipper in asserting that we must uphold the dignity of the Speaker and of Parliament itself:

"The Speaker is the guardian of parliamentary standards," he said. "The speakership is one of the most important offices in the Parliament. The Speaker is there to uphold the integrity of the Parliament and now we have very, very serious allegations against the incumbent Speaker ... The prime minister, to uphold the integrity of the Parliament, needs now to require the Speaker to step down until these matters are resolved."

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I would be surprised if these words were not thrown back in his face, given the last two weeks or so.

MS BISHOP HERSELF

Mr Abbott would say nothing bad about Ms Bishop's behaviour. He spoke about his friendship for her. But surely any friendship must not tell him how to behave as the leader of the country. If Ms Bishop did no wrong, then why must she resign? If she misbehaved, what will be the consequences?

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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