There are three words that sum up the Australian Parliament’s new Speaker, Tony Smith. He’s almost universally considered to be a “good bloke” and a “gentleman”.
So it was always going to be interesting to see how he went about managing debate in the House of Representatives once things got rowdy.
We didn’t have long to wait, with both sides of the chamber wasting no time in testing the limits of the new Speaker’s patience, as well as his working knowledge of the parliamentary rules.
Mr Smith noted when he was unanimously elected on Monday that he believed parliament should be robust, because “it is the arena for the battle of ideas and ideals”.
He warned that it need not also be loud and rude, and that he wanted to see the quality of parliamentary debate improve.
Tony Smith’s week one report card
Attitude: A- Aptitude: B+ Effort: B+
Principal’s comment: Tony has shown good early potential in stepping up to a leadership role. His challenge will be to balance being popular with having to discipline his friends.
“I will give a fair go to all on the floor of this chamber,” the new Speaker said, “but in return I do expect a level of discourse that reflects that.”
But an appeal to the better nature of MPs to convince them to behave during question time did not work. The temptation of playing up for political journalists, tv cameras and social media is just too great.
And so the catcalling, jibes and other interjections continued, particularly from the opposition benches.
But Mr Smith’s ability to explain contentious decisions – logically, consistently and with due reference to the parliamentary rules – has set him apart from his predecessor.
Perhaps most significantly, Mr Smith refrained from using Bronwyn Bishop’s favourite disciplinary measure until the last sitting day of this week – finally throwing out serial interjector, Labor’s Pat Conroy, after warning him several times during the particularly rowdy question time.
In short, Tony Smith has lived up to early expectations as an amiable and patient Speaker. His challenge will be to prove that nice guys can still command the room.
The PM’s very bad week
Tony Smith’s election as Speaker was the first of several things that went very wrong for the Prime Minister this week.
Liberal Party MPs made it very clear to Mr Abbott that they’d choose the new Speaker, rather than it being a captain’s call as Mrs Bishop was.
Mr Abbott’s preferred candidate for the position was subsequently defeated, and the comparatively youthful Mr Smith was elevated to the role with the support of the party’s young Turks.
Then Liberal supporters of marriage equality caused further prime ministerial heartburn, forcing a discussion on whether they could have a free vote on the new cross-party bill to legalise gay marriage.
The PM resorted to dragooning National Party MPs into the party room debate to strengthen the numbers against the free vote.
This was one of the “tricky processes” Mr Abbott reportedly said he was prepared to use to get his way on the matter.
After a six hour debate, and clear evidence that there was a strong majority of Coalition MPs opposed to the free vote, the PM prevailed.
Notable supporters of marriage equality are now faced with the choice of voting against their party if the bill makes it to parliament.
In Turnbull’s case he would be breaking Cabinet solidarity and would have to resign from the ministry.
Oh, that Liberal Party fundraiser
However any smugness Mr Abbott may have felt from this victory over Mr Turnbull was short-lived when it emerged that the head of the royal commission into union corruption had agreed to be the headline act at a Liberal Party fundraiser.
This was a major blow for the PM; the royal commission his principal tool for undermining the credibility of Labor leader and former senior union official Bill Shorten, as well as the labour movement more broadly.
Now the Royal Commissioner himself, Dyson Heydon, has allowed himself to be perceived as partisan even though he’s withdrawn from the event.
Paired with the excesses of former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop and other Government MPs, this development makes it almost impossible for Mr Abbott to campaign at the next election against Mr Shorten’s involvement in – or knowledge of – union rorts and excesses.
We saw what you did there Nick Xenophon
However, independent MP Nick Xenophon will be in a much better position to do so. Senator Xenophon introduced proposed legislation this week that would limit how politicians can use taxpayer funds, saying “if pollies were on the nose a couple of months ago, we positively stink now”.
Meantime, the Greens introduced a bill to establish a national version of NSW’s ICAC. While the views of the major parties on Senator Xenophon’s bill are not yet known, their opposition to the Greens’ bill suggests they’re not particularly interested in such opportunities to re-establish the community’s trust in their elected representatives.