Tony Smith was re-elected unopposed as Speaker of the House of Representatives yesterday, the third time he’s managed it without an opponent. No-one’s done that since the first Speaker, Frederick Holder, between 1901 and 1909.
Smith’s nomination was moved by Lucy Wicks, the Liberal member for Robertson, and seconded by Maria Vamvakinou, the ALP member for Calwell.
Comity. Bipartisan support for a man doing a difficult job well.
It was a hopeful sign for the opening of the 46th Parliament, which was otherwise greeted by a Daily Telegraph front page bellowing, ‘Give us what we voted for’.
Civility and respect contrasted with a brutal and grasping interpretation of mandate theory.
Across the way in the Senate, the Greens nominated Nick McKim for Senate president, against the incumbent Liberal Scott Ryan. McKim gave a tub-thumping speech asserting a limited mandate for the government and the right of the Senate to make life difficult, before he was trounced 62 votes to 10, Labor again voting with the Coalition.
The Greens only have nine senators, so someone defected from elsewhere to give McKim a biblical ten, whilst one vote went to ex-Senator Gavin Marshall, a seventeen-year member dumped by the ALP to an unwinnable position.
Welcome back to politics. The critics decry its practice, but they know neither history nor human nature. We need political professionals to make it all work. We need the arms of the system to do their job.
Consider the Chief Justice of the High Court, Susan Kiefel. Yesterday was her second consecutive day in the house on the hill. She was there on Monday to help swear in the new Governor-General, David Hurley.
Yesterday, Kiefel was there as Hurley’s deputy. She oversaw the swearing in of senators and summoned House members to the red chamber. Centuries of tradition and practice underpin these rituals. Remember the English civil war. The monarch and her representatives no longer go near the lower house.
It is unlikely many people would recognise Kiefel. She is a reminder of those we rarely see—think public servants—who play an important role in balancing the relationships between the parliamentary, executive and judicial arms of government.
In the House, Justice Stephen Gageler presided briefly. Two of the seven High Court justices in Parliament together. They might well have lectured the members not to keep sending them Section 44 issues that have already been decided.
The rule of law. An independent judiciary. It still works here. No-one attacks Kiefel or her court as partisan and political.
Not so the United States Supreme Court. Last week, Chief Justice John Roberts carefully balanced his vote on two key matters. He voted with the liberal justices to defeat the Trump administration’s plan to ask a citizenship question on the next census. It’s all about voter suppression. Then Roberts sided with the conservatives to remove the court from any consideration of electoral gerrymandering.
There may be careful decisions at play here. Just as likely, Roberts is walking a tightrope, trying to preserve his court’s reputation for judicial integrity. And perhaps his place in history.
It’s also a sign of a democratic system straining at the seams. Such a cavalier attitude to democratic principles is one problem Australia doesn’t have. And Kiefel encourages the justices to concur. Her imperative is unanimity.
Curious contradictions are evident in western politics. The voters abhor politics as usual. Many feel neglected and ignored. Populism, nationalism, nativism and isolationism are on the march. Culture and identity matter as much as ideology. Globalisation and free trade are enemies to the new movements.
Yet some voters are attracted to the brash, the loud, the obnoxious. Entertainment politics is subsuming seriousness. Partisanship, once condemned, is now a comforting home for tribal cheerleaders.
Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden, a five-decade veteran of the old politics, is an exemplar. Once praised for working across the aisle to get things done, he now finds himself condemned for working with racists on his own side. In the new vernacular, Biden isn’t woke. Exhibit one: the willing encounter with Senator Kamala Harris in the second of last week’s Democratic debates. The old must give way to the new.
The mess of contradictions lead to Donald Trump but will outlast him. Recklessness, ignorance, rawness and convention breaking are no impediment to success. It’s upending politics. Come in, Boris. It may yet transform the economic and security pillars we have known for three quarters of a century.
Australia hasn’t yet marched down this rabbit hole, but the warning signs are there. A puerile debate about tax cuts in the never-never seems absurd in a weakening economy with a one per cent cash rate. As Germany moves to shut down all 84 of its coal-fired-power stations over the next nineteen years, the climate change and emissions debate in Australia looks puny.
But these debates will and must take place within the practical realities of electoral and parliamentary politics. The electoral losers must learn to win again. They must learn to talk to us all. The winners cannot be endlessly dismissed as venal incompetents. The diversity of political opinion is rich but necessarily frustrating. The parliament is not all, but it matters.
The ALP’s Tony Burke, speaking to the Bob Hawke condolence motion earlier today, said Hawke was always bemused by the number of fights he had to have to achieve things now described as bipartisan. That’s politics.
Hawke’s era was a time when serious people dealt with serious issues. The new parliament has them too, though we’re prone to dispute it. But politics is also parochial, small, localised, and these things matter too. The challenge is finding a way through the maze.
Speaker Smith presides over the chamber charged with framing our political debate but the parallel with Speaker Holder is fraught.
At 5am on July 23, 1909, the House of Representatives was in its fifteenth hour of sitting. An appropriation of money for old-age pensions was under consideration. It was a rowdy and heated debate. Sitting on the frontbench, Holder was appalled. He slumped in his seat and died later that day from a cerebral haemorrhage.
Holder’s last words: ‘Dreadful, dreadful’.