Still reeling from the crash and burn of his last high-handed choice for Speaker, Tony Abbott is now promising to leave it to the Liberal Party room to do better finding a replacement for Bronwyn Bishop.
In a convenient piece of amnesia, he says “it’s always a matter for the party room. It goes to the party room and the party room will decide”.
In fact, last time the party room was given no choice. The newly victorious Prime Minister wanted to give his old ally a consolation prize for denying her a ministry. In the flush of the poll win, no one was prepared to dissent, including a disappointed father of the house, Philip Ruddock.
His name is now being mentioned in despatches and he would love the job. Being a realist he knows he won’t get it if the Prime Minister fails to endorse him. That pretty much is the reality for all the putative candidates.
But this is where it gets tricky. Mr Abbott’s position is weak – he is still on probation. Nothing he does is seen outside the prism of his hold on the leadership. That indeed was the flashpoint his handling of the Bishop imbroglio had come to. The question is, will he dare have a candidate he endorses publicly?
He may not. Though he is talking about the possibility of a consensus choice emerging. That could happen if the party room feels the vibe from the Prime Minister’s office. A wink is as good as a nod for a blind horse, as they say.
The Liberals will meet first thing next Monday. The best look would be for two or more candidates to nominate with Mr Abbott’s blessing. It would give credibility to his promise of a genuine democratic contest. A view the Prime Minister now apparently shares.
What is clear is that the Liberals are of no mind to give the nod to anyone outside the party room. That rules out the Nationals’ Bruce Scott.
There are indications that veteran Victorian Liberal Russell Broadbent, despite his history of crossing the floor on the asylum seeker issue, is broadly acceptable to the Prime Minister, as are his state colleague Tony Smith and South Australia’s Andrew Southcott.
Whoever gets it will need to embark on a repair job not only for the tattered reputation of the Speakership but also of the government’s broader democratic credentials. Another performance like Bishop’s would be a political disaster.
Labor’s Bill Shorten puts it this way: “I hope that he (Abbott) doesn’t pick someone from the extreme right of the Liberal Party more interested in scoring political points than fostering good sensible debate about the future of this country.”
Mr Shorten’s other markers are for the incoming Speaker not to continue attending Liberal party room meetings. He would also like to see the relevance standing order applied strictly to ministers’ answers and for the reintroduction of supplementary questions to enhance scrutiny.
All well and good. A mature sense of fairness and an ethical approach to the rules and standing orders are the essential prerequisites to restoring the dignity of the office.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He is Contributing Editor for Network Ten, appears on Radio National Breakfast and writes a weekly column on national affairs for The New Daily. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno