Q&A: What role does the Speaker play?

Most people know the Speaker of the House as the person who yells “order!” during Question Time, but the role is a coveted one in parliament and can influence the running of House business.

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1. What is the role of the Speaker in the House of Reps?

In essence, the Speaker is the presiding officer of the lower house and is responsible for the running of the house. The Speaker must be a Member of Parliament and selected by their peers to fill the position. The Speaker also acts as an umpire and ensures that the rulebook for the operation of the lower house (known as the Standing Orders) are applied and adhered to by MPs. The Speaker also has the power to expell MPs from the house for a period of time.

2. Why is this such a coveted role?

The Speaker has a prestigious position in parliament. Most people know the Speaker as the person who sits in a grand chair at the head of the lower house constantly muttering ‘Order! Order!’, but the role has some very important powers. The Speaker works with the leader of the government and opposition to work out the running order of debates, procedural matters and the order that questions are asked. Indeed, the Speaker has the power to significantly influence the nature of parliamentary debate.

The Speaker’s role in Australia is based on the British model. Interestingly, the Speaker’s job in the late 1600s was very dangerous because the Speaker was the communication link between the parliament and the Crown in Britain. On occasions when a Speaker would return from a meeting with the sovereign to inform Commons that its legislation had been rejected by the Crown, the Commons would show its displeasure by executing the Speaker. Today, parliament pays tribute to the dangers faced by past Speakers. When an MP is elected to be Speaker they’re expected to remain in their seat until ‘dragged’ to the chair by fellow MPs in a show of reluctance.

3. There’s a bit of confusion about whether or not the Speaker can vote on legislation. Can they or can’t they?

As the Speaker must be seen to be impartial, they do not vote in the lower house. But if the votes in the lower house are equal then the Speaker may use a casting vote to break the deadlock.

4. How have the reforms proposed by the Independents impacted on the role of Speaker?

The assumption has been that even though the Speaker should be impartial, the fact that they are a member of a political party has undermined their role as a truly unbiased umpire. Clearly, the reforms of the Independents have sought to break the power of party influence in the lower house. The reforms have also sought to increase the rate of questions asked of ministers while placing time limits on their answers. These are interesting ideas that should bolster notions of democracy in parliament. The Speaker’s role, therefore, is very important in ensuring these reforms are implemented and adhered to during the life of the next parliament.

As a point of comparison, the Speaker in Britain is expected to be independent of party politics. For example, the MP who is elected to be the Speaker in Britain is guaranteed of contesting their seat without opposition. This does not occur in Australia.

5. What are the implications of having an independent like Rob Oakeshott as Speaker?

This will signal an interesting change to the role of Speaker in Australia as the Speaker will not be drawn from either major party. This may be a good way to strengthen ideas about the impartiality of the Speaker’s role in parliament as well as reinforce the idea that the position is a truly independent umpire. However, many would argue that former Speakers drawn from the major parties have also upheld these ideals of impartiality and fulfilled their tasks admirably. As long as the Speaker’s role is clearly defined, and all MPs work in the spirit of the reformed parliament, it ultimately should not matter who the Speaker is.

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