And on it goes. The Gillard government clearly believes it was about to lose its one-seat parliamentary majority, either with this bloke making good on his threat to withdraw support, or this one being carted off to jail. It’s the only explanation for the stunt they pulled this week.
You might remember back here I referred to the position of Speaker of the House, an office dating back to at least the fourteenth century. Under the Westminster system, the Speaker of the House does not generally vote on bills, being called upon only to cast a tie-breaker. Traditionally in the Australian federal House of Representatives, the Speaker is chosen from among the members of the parliamentary party that forms government. This has been the case since the Second World War, when the UAP’s Walter Nairn served for three years as Speaker over John Curtin’s Labor government.
Not having a vote, a Speaker is expected to set aside party loyalty and uphold his post with fairness and impartiality, according to centuries-old tradition. He wields considerable power. All words spoken by Members within the chamber, irrespective of at whom they are aimed, must be addressed to the Speaker. He rules on points of order, can silence a speaking Member, name or even eject a Member from the House for a specified period. As the “judge of the court”, he is expected to have a near-encyclopædic knowledge of parliamentary procedure, history and tradition; generally, he (and it’s always been a he in Australia to date) has served a considerable time in parliament as a back-bencher before his elevation to the Chair.
The Speaker under the Rudd and Gillard governments has been Labor’s Harry Jenkins (pictured above), Member since 1986 for Scullin, an electorate centred on working-class Epping, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. He’s an old-school Labor man, who followed in the footsteps of his father, Dr Harry Jenkins Sr, who preceded his son as Member for Scullin, and who served as Speaker of the House during the Hawke government from 1983-1986. His tenure in the chair since 2008 has earned him the respect of the entire parliament for his firm impartiality, integrity, good humour and wit; he is widely regarded as one of the best Speakers to have graced the chair in recent decades. In May this year, he named Liberal MHR Bob Baldwin, yet the ensuing suspension motion (which normally always follows the Speaker’s ruling) failed by one vote. According to Westminster convention, the Speaker in such a circumstance would normally offer his resignation; but a motion of confidence in the Speaker was immediately put to the House, and passed overwhelmingly; a measure of the regard in which he is held, even by his political opponents. Jenkins was expected to continue in the position at least until the next federal election.
And then, on Friday, the last parliamentary sitting day of the year, Labor went and did what it has always done best.
First, let me introduce you to the “Honourable” Peter Slipper, the MHR for Fisher, centred on Landsborough on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. I’m fairly certain that regular readers of LibertyGibbert have in recent months grown weary of me dragging out one tawdry, obscure Australian politician after another. Lord knows, you’ve got enough of them in your own countries. But in the annals of antipodean parliamentary venality, this bloke is something of primus inter pares. Slipper was originally a member of the National Party, and represented the division as such from 1984 to 1987, when he was defeated by Labor’s Michael Lavarch. Switching to the Queensland Liberal Party, he regained the seat in 1993, and has held it ever since (in 2010 the Liberal and National parties in Queensland formally amalgamated into the LNP). A continuing problem child for the Coalition, (I’ll explain why shortly), and following a series of indiscretions, he appeared almost certain to lose LNP preselection at the next federal election. Facing party disciplinary hearings, and what appeared to be the certain end of his political career, he was ripe for the plucking by the Labor machine.
As sitting began in the House of Representatives on Friday morning, the back benches were half-empty. There was no forewarning of the bombshell that was about to be dropped as Jenkins, on the verge of tears and fooling no-one that this was his decision, announced that due to his “desire to participate in policy and parliamentary debate”, he would immediately tender his resignation as Speaker to the Governor-General. Julia Gillard, feigning surprise, then nominated Slipper as new Speaker who, following ancient Westminster tradition, was then physically dragged from the Opposition bench to the chair by two Labor MHRs, past the horrified faces of his erstwhile colleagues on the Coalition front bench.
The ensuing scene in the chamber was as close to pandemonium as our national parliament has seen since the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975. The Coalition filibustered, with Manager of Opposition Business in the House Christopher Pyne nominating one Labor member after another for the Speaker’s post (including my own local member, “Big Dick” Adams—he at least would have looked the part). Tony Abbott, caught off-guard, was blunt in his response: “An honourable man—the Member for Scullin—has been sacrificed, to protect the political life of a failing Prime Minister”.
You can watch it all in the clip above. In particular, and to me the most shocking aspect of this so-called “shock” resignation, was that neither the newsreader nor reporter Mark Simpkins appear to even bother pretending that the ABC was unaware that this was a long-planned conspiracy between Labor and Slipper. Later that day, Harry Jenkins, now seated on the government back benches and having regained his composure, grinned across the chamber to the Opposition and indicated what everyone had guessed had happened to him, but no-one on the government side would ever admit:
And so the deed was done. With Slipper’s Coalition vote now taken out of play (it transpired that he actually got in first and resigned his membership of the LNP, hours before the party were set to expel him anyway) and Jenkins returned to the government benches, Labor’s numbers in the House have gone from 75-74 to 76-73. This means it can survive the likely downfall of Craig Thompson, and can ignore its agreement with Tasmanian gambling law reform advocate Andrew Wilkie, and it is almost certain now that Labor will serve a full term in government. But at what cost to its reputation? To get an idea, let me give you a more detailed picture of the House of Representatives’ 27th Speaker.
As has long been known down here, Slipper is no stranger to contoversy. Firstly, there is the matter of parliamentary entitlements, now the subject of a formal police investigation. From this recent article on the Honorable gentleman,
Australian Federal Police have widened an investigation into alleged rorting in the parliamentary office of new Speaker Peter Slipper, as scrutiny of his taxpayer-funded entitlements shows he claimed nearly $1100 a day on travel and other expenses during the first half of the year.
Mr Slipper is under pressure over travel and office expenses that have totalled $1.8 million since 2007, including regular $280 taxi trips between Brisbane airport and his home on the Sunshine Coast, north of the city. Between January 1 and June 30 this year, he spent an average of $1073 a day on airfares, taxis, commonwealth cars and office supplies. This compared with $579.40 a day for South Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon, one of parliament’s most frugal members, according to Department of Finance figures.
Here is a fellow who has long displayed a liking for a night on the town. His impressive taxi chits tell the story, though he has refused to explain to journalists a $315 taxi bill for a single night out in Canberra last year….
Slippery Pete has long been under fire and several times been under investigation for his startling use of what are known as ‘’entitlements’’, particularly his use of taxpayer-funded telephones, taxis, hire cars and planes.
Last year he was forced to repay $14,000 for wrongful use of entitlements, including travel for his family. In 2003, the Finance Department demanded that he repay $7785.67 for breaching the family travel entitlement.
Small beer for a spender like Slipper. His phone bill alone for half of 2009 was $14,764, which was more than that of Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister at the time. Cabs cost $16,000 over just six months, plus $8600 on private-plate cars (it was later revealed his son was spending time driving the taxpayer-funded car).
All up, in the last six months of 2009 Slipper’s upkeep as a humble backbencher, including the running of his electoral office, cost the public $640,562. That was $150,000 more than it cost to maintain the Treasurer, fellow Queenslander Wayne Swan.
Slipper’s expenditure rolled along last year, when he attracted notice for spending $30,000 on family travel, and also when he took a 43-day overseas tour, which he explained was on parliamentary business…
Then there is his well-known predilection for, um, a “good time”:
Peter Slipper is no stranger to alcohol and trouble. Most famously, in 2003 Qantas staff refused to allow him to reboard a Darwin-bound plane at Gove, where it had stopped for refuelling, because of his behaviour towards staff.
The MP blamed a combination of dental drugs, a “couple of drinks” and a flight attendant’s bad day.
“I wasn’t in any way, shape or form, drunk,’’ he said at the time..
In 2004, on the weekend he survived a pre-selection challenge from Alexandra Headland barrister Glen Garrick, he copped a black eye after an unexplained scuffle at a Mooloolaba nightspot.
Then in Canberra on May 9, 2007, police were called to the Holy Grail restaurant and wine bar at 3.30am after a man threw Mr Slipper out onto the street for having a cigarette in breach of new no-smoking rules in restaurants and bars.
In December 2002, Slipper felt the need to visit a lavatory during a parliamentary sitting. Somehow he found himself in the disabled toilet, and when he had completed his business, possibly tired and increasingly emotional, he couldn’t get out. He pushed and pulled at the door before hitting the panic button. Four parliamentary attendants hurried to his aid. Disabled toilets, it was explained to him, have sliding doors. When reporters sought comment, his office responded, apparently straight-faced: “He can’t talk to you because he is in the House on chamber duty.’’
Last year, faced with the ordeal of a lengthy address to the House by visiting Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Slipper apparently felt in need of prior fortification, presumably in the parliamentary Members’ Bar. His subsequent response to Yudhoyono’s speech may have been somewhat less enthusiastic than the visiting head of state had hoped:
OK, so he likes a drink. That, on its own, didn’t stop the likes of Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt or John Curtin from becoming great leaders of their nations during World War Two (as opposed to the teetotal Hitler). But when you add it to the general attitude held towards him by his own parliamentary colleagues, a picture begins to emerge of a man who represents a genuine problem. Another Queensland Liberal MP, Alex Somlyay (Member for Slipper’s neighbouring electorate of Fairfax), recently wrote to a colleague,
Slipper has a disgraceful reputation, both in his electorate and in the parliament… many of the people I see in my electorate office are his constituents who refuse to deal with Slipper. I have a constant stream of complaints about his behaviour.
While I prefer to spend my spare time in my electorate, he has the highest frequent-flyer points on the backbench. He also has the highest mobile phone usage and oveseas travel of any Queensland MP. Comcar drivers dread the thought of driving him.
I cannot understand how you would support this discredited person. I can only assume that you support his actions and continued bad behaviour…
And now for something completely different: a bit of religious arcania. I’m sure many of you have at least heard of the breakaway Traditional Anglican Communion, an association of Anglican churches in fifteen nations; formed in 1991, it is independent of the mainstream Anglican Communion and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The TAC regard themselves as Anglican, in that they utilize the Book of Common Prayer and uphold the Reformist Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563. Yet unlike the wider Anglican and Episcopal churches, they oppose the ordination of women, hold traditional views on such issues as homosexuality and seek ever-closer union with Rome.
Having made overtures to the Holy See on several occasions, Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 acceded to the TAC’s requests, signing the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, granting petitioning member TAC churches the status of a personal ordinariate; that is, while being integrated into the Roman Church and accepting the primacy of the pontiff, they would maintain their own ecclesiastical structures independent of the geographically-based Catholic diocesan episcopate. Ordained TAC priests, even if married, would be eligible for re-ordination as Catholic priests, however married priests would be ineligible for consecration as bishops. This is in line with the Vatican’s historical practice in relation to a number of Eastern-rite churches now in full communion with Rome. As a consequence of this latter restriction, the TAC’s American member, the Anglican Church of America, voted to reject communion with Rome, even if offered by the Holy See. So—
Anglican churches, personal ordinariates—Ozboy, what in hell are you going on about??
Oh, sorry, didn’t I mention? The Australian affiliate of the TAC is the Anglican Catholic Church in Australia, whose Ordinary, the controversial former Catholic priest John Hepworth, is also Primate of the worldwide TAC. Based mainly in Queensland, the ACCA maintains churches in all states of Australia. In February last year, the ACCA filed its own formal petition to the Holy See under Anglicanorum Coetibus.
And the current Chancellor of the ACCA, a man who in 2008, at the age of fifty-eight, was ordained by Hepworth in the Traditional Anglican communion, and is thus by extension also a Catholic priest, is one Father Peter Neil Slipper. Not that any of the recent news reports on him have seen fit to mention this fact. Nor does he exactly go out of his way to draw attention to his priestly status—by, say, the wearing of a clerical collar or cassock.
I’m not suggesting anything sinister. But as Speaker in the Australian parliament, under whose constitution Church and State are formally separated, he is likely to prove an embarrassment, not only to the mainstream Catholic and Anglican churches in Australia, but potentially even the monarch, in whose person—the Queen—resides not only the Sovereign of Australia, but also the titular head of the Church of England, from which Slipper’s church has broken away.
What part was played in all this by the scheming Kevin Rudd—who, while raised Catholic, worships with his wife at an Anglican church, and is the only regular Labor Party member of the Parliamentary Prayer Group—is anyone’s guess. Rudd denies any involvement; but if so, then the appearance of this story, just forty-eight hours before Jenkins’ resignation, is an almighty “coincidence”. Exactly what Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, a former seminarian, Rhodes scholar and arch-conservative Catholic, thinks of Slipper, I leave to your imagination.
In any case, Slipper’s career as a politician is finished. Former army captain and Howard government minister Mal Brough is now certain to win the Liberal-National Party’s preselection for Fisher at the next federal election. You’d like Brough (rhymes with tough, and well-merited): check out this story about the time in 2003 when, as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, he commandeered an aircraft, flew to a remote settlement in the Top End and single-handedly quelled a gang war between two rival armed factions. Brough, who is part-aboriginal himself, lives in the Fisher electorate, is respected throughout parliament, and few would argue he is a far more worthy representative of the Sunshine Coast’s electors than their snout-in-the-trough incumbent.
As a clearly relieved Tony Abbott wryly put it, “He’s Julia Gillard’s problem now”.