Unusual emotions were displayed last week in Federal Parliament. Moral emotions. We are used to anger, sneering, joviality, and copious amounts of straight-faced dull neutrality but not since ex-prime minister Julia Gillard’s speech in October 2012 when she accused Tony Abbott of misogyny have we seen such a display of righteous indignation.
The immediate cause was an Opposition censure motion directed at the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop. Leader of Opposition Business, Tony Burke, accused Bishop of being incompetent, showing partiality, and acting as an “instrument of the Liberal Party”. The demeanour of both sides of the House and of Madam Speaker can be viewed during many interactions on youtube.com.
It was the alleged partiality towards the Government that aroused indignation. Why? Two hypotheses come to mind. Both were suggested in Parliament.
The first hypothesis is that the Speakerdid show partiality. The Opposition cited evidence for this, often as running commentary on the Speaker’s behaviour. For example, at one point Opposition frontbencher Tony Burke protested to the Speaker that she had expelled an Opposition member unfairly. Paraphrasing: “You asked her whether she wanted to leave the House, and when she replied you expelled her!” Other evidence cited is that Bishop had expelled 99 Opposition MPs but no Government MP, a greater than usual ratio. Also, she continues to attend Government party room meetings, breaking a tradition of speakers standing down from such party duties.
The second hypothesis is gamesmanship by the Opposition. The Leader of the Government Business, Christopher Pyne, implied that the Opposition was not genuine in its criticism of the Speaker. He stated that this was a “stunt”, a form of gamesmanship. Evidence for this interpretation is that Tony Burke likened Bronwyn Bishop to a villainous English headmistress on her first day as Speaker.
The Opposition might have felt emboldened to attack the Speaker because of their intuition that she lacked authority with their constituents. They might have felt that the mud would stick – not because she was being grossly unfair but because her peremptory manner was readily interpretable as such, especially for some Labor loyalists.
Characteristics of Bronwyn Bishop fit this interpretation. Bronwyn Bishop is an upper class Anglo lady. Given that the Labor Party is experienced at playing identity politics it is not unreasonable to suppose that they judge her class, ethnicity and sex to be red rags to some Labor voters. From this perspective, baiting the Speaker might be seen as a tactic that will pay dividends, much like Julia Gillard’s attack on Tony Abbott’s “misogyny” was meant to elicit sympathy from women.
Without a formal comparative study this observer cannot test these hypotheses.
But both hypotheses reflect on the wisdom of the Westminster tradition. Whether the Speaker was guilty as charged or the Opposition unfairly accused her of partiality in order to undermine her authority, impartiality is prescribed in that tradition and for very good reasons.
Parliaments dispense great wealth and power that affect the lives of millions. It is therefore not surprising that contests for advantage within them can become heated. Members of those parliaments are usually people of talent and energy, capable of holding their own in debate and intellectual contest. Regulating their debates requires not only skill but power. But a parliament is not a dictatorship or a politbureau or a corporate board. In a democracy parliament must be self-governing within the constitutional frame, able to censure a government that has lost support, able to eject an MP who is disruptive, able to call an election that replaces the government.
Parliaments in the Westminster tradition appoint their own speakers whose authority relies on receiving continuing support from the parliament. Speakers are appointed by governments and can continue in power despite unpopularity if the government so wishes. But speakers who rely on coercion often rule over unruly houses. The most productive parliaments are managed by speakers who are respected for their fairness. That depends on them enforcing rules in an impartial manner. That is why in making their criticisms the Opposition displayed moral emotions, instead of the usual mix. They were asserting not that the Speaker lacked power but fairness and the legitimacy and trust that brings.