It was reassuring to see that, in a previously unrecognised consequence of the Morrison Government’s slip into minority status, the Commonwealth Parliament recently asserted its authority over the feckless Executive and, at the same time, enhanced the authority of the Speaker. That would have been significant at any stage but, at a time when both polls and commentators have been saying, ominously, that the Australian people have been losing their faith in democracy and yearning for a strong leader, that declaration of the importance of Parliament has been reassuring.
While it might take some time for the benefits to be apparent, the electorate is likely to understand, eventually. They should also see that compromise is essential in politics, especially with our system of majority government and their estimation of the Leader of the Opposition may well improve as they realise that, whatever skills and qualities he might lack, he certainly has a real ability to persuade his colleagues to accept and adhere to those compromises. Unity – whether of a party or a society – is impossible otherwise. Crucially, as recent debates in Parliament have demonstrated, those colleagues are not simply people in his party (whatever their spectrum of opinions and values) but are also the influential occupants of the cross-benches.
Never has it been clearer that – like life itself — politics is the art of the possible; not of the perfect.
Perhaps even more important to the health of our society and its polity, has been the enhancement of the authority of the Speaker of the lower house. Rational debate, the improvement of legislation and the examination of executive policy cannot occur with chaos or when there is a gross imbalance of power, especially if it is abused. Almost invariably, the current Speaker, Mr Tony Smith, has retained members’ respect – especially for his undertaking to absent himself from the Liberal Party Room while Speaker, in order to protect the neutrality of the Chair – but now, in a position where the Coalition does not have the numbers to displace him, he seems impregnable and has acted accordingly. His principled refusal of the brazen request from the Attorney-General that he not inform the House of the details of the Solicitor-General’s highly contentions opinion that the medical evacuation bill was potentially unconstitutional indicated that he is not afraid of the government. Then, two days later when he bluntly told the Prime Minister and his cronies that he understood perfectly well what they were doing (to avoid having to consider a resolution of the Senate about a royal commission into disability services) when in the equivalent of a “filibuster” they prolonged Question Time, he also instructed the Coalition members to be quiet.
For the government to move against Smith would be blatant revenge and political suicide; in any case, the opposition and the cross-benchers would immediately affirm their confidence in him. Indeed, it might be a good idea, in the event that – as the polls repeatedly indicate is highly likely — the ALP win the forthcoming election, for Tony Smith to be re-elected Speaker. It would preserve the new government’s majority and it would rub the opposition’s nose in the consequences of their defeat. Most important of all, it would be a further affirmation of the importance of an impartial and independent Speaker.
Plainly, minority government has its benefits.
John Carmody has made a long and intense study of politics. A former medical scientist, he is now a writer on scientific history, opera and concert music.