Of the many changes in the Australian Parliament since the onset of the pandemic, two sets of doors left open to reduce contact with surfaces is unremarkable. But for the past 18 months, on sitting days, this arrangement has provided the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate in the Australian Federal Parliament each with a direct line of sight, from his Chair, along the east-west ‘legislative’ axis of the building straight into the Chamber of his counterpart. The Presiding Officers face each other, though at a distance of 163 metres and with the Members’ Hall in between, the business of ‘the other place’ blending into the backdrop: the red ochre hues of the Senate, and the eucalyptus grey-green of the House.
Within these walls, the 46th Parliament of Australia is drawing to a close, and it will be the final one for the Speaker, Hon. Tony Smith MP, and the President, Senator Hon. Scott Ryan. Earlier this year, both Presiding Officers announced their intention to retire from the Parliament at the next election, and in late September 2021, the President said he would bring this forward, deciding not to return when Parliament resumed on 18 October for the final sitting weeks of 2021.
Members of the governing Liberal Party, the two are highly regarded, on all sides, as true Parliamentarians with an unwavering respect for the institution of Parliament. In recent times, the pandemic has added complexity to the roles of the Presiding Officers who, under the Parliamentary Precincts Act 1988, have management and control of the parliamentary precincts.
“As a team,” the Speaker says, “the amount of time and consideration we’ve given to Chamber activities has been transformed by Coronavirus and that has been very, very important in terms of enabling the House to keep sitting, which is vital.”
Paying tribute to the efforts of the two Presiding Officers, the Prime Minister of Australia, Rt Hon. Scott Morrison MP, said that “Together, they have worked through complex legal and jurisdictional issues and ensured that the Parliament has been able to function freely.”
The Speaker and the President, who have known each other for over 30 years, have a close relationship. They share an extensive knowledge of, and interest in, history and politics. Both are alumni of the University of Melbourne, where each held the position of President of the Melbourne University Liberal Club, six years apart. Prior to entering Parliament, both had worked as researchers at the Institute of Public Affairs, a Melbourne-based independent public policy think-tank, and both were on the staff of the former Treasurer, Hon. Peter Costello – the Speaker as his senior political adviser from 1998 to 2001 and as his media adviser for the eight years prior to that. The President had also worked as a senior adviser (to the Victorian Leader of the Opposition in the early 2000s) and was a speechwriter for former Senator Nick Minchin. Entering Parliament was an obvious next step: the Speaker in 2001 as the Member for Casey (in Melbourne, Victoria) and the President as a Senator for Victoria, in 2007. Both had served in the Ministry and Shadow Ministry, as well as on numerous Parliamentary Committees, before becoming Presiding Officers, roles which each assumed somewhat unexpectedly.
For the President, the circumstances arose during the 2017 Parliamentary eligibility crisis, which triggered the departure of several sitting Members and Senators found to have been in breach of section 44(i) of the Constitution, which deals with the question of citizenship and allegiance to a foreign power, and includes a disqualification from the Parliament for those who are dual citizens. Four days after High Court rulings in relation to seven Parliamentarians, the then President of the Senate, Senator Hon. Stephen Parry, resigned, having become aware that he held British citizenship by descent. In an unusual but not unprecedented step, Senator Ryan resigned from the Ministry to stand for the Presidency, partly driven, he says, by his strong interest in Senate procedure. Upon election, the President told the Senate: “I am now your servant. I now represent all Senators. I'm no longer part of the Executive government. And I will treat every Senator on their merits as an individual representative of their state, regardless of party or office held.”
Two years earlier, the Speaker, too, found himself in the Chair at short notice – after the sudden resignation of the previous Speaker, Hon. Bronwyn Bishop. His nomination was unopposed, as it was at the commencement of the two following Parliaments, in 2016, and 2019 (the nomination seconded, on that occasion, by a Member of the Opposition). Addressing the House in 2015, the new Speaker said that he would not be attending party room meetings, a decision he described as “symbolic and practical”. As the Speaker has since explained: “perceptions really do matter.” Being the Member for Casey as well as being the Speaker, he says, “You do wear two hats. And you can’t perform both roles without modifying your approach. It would be improper of me to walk past the cameras on a sitting day and give a character assessment of the Opposition and then get in the Chair and expect them to have forgotten all that and me put another hat on. I do limit what I say. I make no apologies for that. I don’t spend my time on social media attacking the Opposition. I really have absolutely avoided those situations where I’m trying on the one hand to say: ‘Look I’m an impartial Speaker but a partisan player’ all on the same day in the same news cycle.”
With a similarly self-imposed restraint, born of “a respect for the role of President and the institution of the Senate”, the President refrains from expressing views on public policy that he might privately hold. In the Chamber, he rarely contributes to debate, except on matters of conscience, when he has, on occasion, explained his personal position from the Chair. However, unlike the Speaker, who only has a casting vote, the President has a deliberative vote in the Senate Chamber and regularly exercises it.
Being impartial, or in the Australian parlance, giving every Member and Senator a ‘fair go’, is regarded by both Presiding Officers as having been critical to their success in chairing proceedings that, by their nature, can be very robust. As the Speaker remarked, when giving the Alfred Deakin lecture in 2018:
“It needs to be remembered that the floor of the House of Representatives is neither a classroom nor a church – it is our nation’s premier debating Chamber. It is a place where the contest for, and clash of, ideas and ideals take place; where governments are held to account under great pressure. It is combative because it was designed to be. It will never have the convivial atmosphere of a consensual weekend summit with facilitators, butcher’s paper and textas.”
Managing the ebb and flow of debate is the most challenging aspect of the job, and both wryly observe that “nothing prepares you for Question Time.” What is not so visible, the Speaker says, is the amount of cooperation behind the scenes that gives a predictability and order to the House, even when an agreement that is reached is in relation to how a disagreement will occur. While the Presiding Officers are duty-bound to enforce the Standing Orders, “balancing parliamentary behaviour when the Standing Orders are being used fairly brutally by the government, particularly when debate is shut down, can be a challenge too,” says the Speaker.
While the use of such tactics is the prerogative of the government, for the Speaker, the practical reality is that consequences will follow, not just during that debate, “but often in terms of the tone and conduct for the rest of the day.”
In the House, there is always more than one consideration at play: every Member is equal, but the House has business to transact. Striking a balance is not always an easy task. But it is the predictability that flows from impartiality, in the view of the Speaker, that helps the House to run as smoothly as possible, when Members perceive that the Speaker is being fair to both sides, and consistent. To act otherwise, the Speaker says, is to degrade the entire House.
The President agrees, citing the need to be consistent with Senate precedent, but also being aware that new situations evolve. For the President, that means ensuring his decisions are “rules-based, rather than purely person-based” and that if new precedents are established, they are capable of being applied in similar situations that may arise in the future. And with no equivalent in the Senate to the House Standing Order that enables the Speaker to direct a disorderly Member to leave the Chamber for an hour, the President describes the need to exercise the power of persuasion rather than authority: “I’ve always been exceptionally conscious of maintaining the consent of the overwhelming majority of the Chamber.”
There are indeed significant differences, by design and culture, between the two Houses. The Australian Senate is a powerful upper house: constitutionally, its consent is required for the passing of all legislative proposals. There is also its review function through Committees, including the rigorous Senate Estimates process. The Senate is therefore often acknowledged as being a powerful check on the government of the day. The President describes himself as “very Madisonian” in his view that power separated and divided is power that is harder to abuse. The Australian combination, he says, of stability in the formation of government in the lower house with some legislative constraints on it through a strong upper house is “actually very good.”
Culturally, the President describes the Senate as “very protective” of its independence from the Executive, reflecting the fact that it is not the Chamber in which the government is formed. Another factor is that the Government usually does not enjoy a majority in the Senate: “That underpins a great deal. It means that most issues are contested, which means that everyone goes in seeking to persuade, whether it be establishing a Committee, ordering the production of documents or successfully legislating a government program.”
Priorities and perspectives also play a role. House Members are very much focused on their local electorates; for a Senator their entire State or Territory is their electorate. But according to the President, the real constituency for a Senator can in fact be non- geographical: it may be in a particular issue in which a Senator has developed an expertise and profile.
As the President explains: “We don’t have a patch of earth that is ours exclusively – that means we start from a slightly different point. Not better, or worse, just different.” For the Presiding Officers, who co-administer a Department of Parliamentary Services that serves both the Senate and the House, the mutual understanding and respect for those cultural differences is very important – notwithstanding that on occasion, as the Speaker acknowledges, “each House frustrates the other.” Both consider it fortunate that their decades-long personal history means that they haven’t needed to establish a relationship, which they say has made their job, in this respect, much easier than it perhaps otherwise would have been.
No doubt this has proven particularly advantageous while they have jointly navigated the unchartered parliamentary terrain presented by the pandemic. This period has seen the facilitation of a degree of remote participation for Parliamentarians unable to travel to Parliament House, who may make certain contributions via video link – for example, making a speech on legislation or asking a question in Question Time. Both Presiding Officers are pleased it has worked so well, and see long-term benefits for Committee hearings in particular, because remote participation has become normalised, providing greater capacity to hear from witnesses across the country and reducing the need to travel. “A classic case of a crisis leading to a very productive change,” says the President.
However, both are adamant that remote participation for Chamber proceedings should not become the norm. There is no substitute, in their view, for the assembly of Parliamentarians, together, in the parliamentary environment. “If you spend time with someone,” says the President, “you are simply better at understanding their perspective. And that facilitates discussion, progress, compromise, maybe even civil disagreement.” The Speaker agrees: “I’ve seen people, within the course of a week, change their mind on an issue. It might be from discussions in the party room, but also discussions individually, or listening to a contribution in an adjournment debate, that gives them a different perspective on things. Replicating all of that alone in an electorate office is near-impossible.”
The pandemic has also put the brakes on international travel for delegations. In the President’s view, the engagement of Members and Senators internationally is critical: “Australia, by necessity, needs to be outward-looking; we need to be engaged in our region, we need to understand the perspectives of others who may have very different backgrounds, and be sensitive to that.”
Both see the role the Presiding Officers play in maintaining relations with the Parliaments of other countries and international parliamentary associations as a great privilege. The Speaker regards it as an honour for the Australian Parliament that he was elected President of the Asia-Pacific Parliamentary Forum, on the nomination of the Japanese delegation, at the last international event that took place at Parliament House, in January 2020, just before restrictions took hold. The President was a Member of the International Executive Committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, one of three Regional Representatives for the CPA Australia Region, and he also attended the 64th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Uganda in September 2019.
For future Speakers and Presidents, the advice of the Presiding Officers is unequivocal: you have to develop your own style, and establish your own way of doing things, but the Clerk is an unparalleled source of wisdom and guidance, and the most important counsellor. As for what comes next, time will tell. The President has already made way for a new custodian of the Senate. The Speaker says his love for the Australian Parliament will endure, but after seven elections and twenty years, now is the time for a change. “I do feel like I could do it forever,” he says, “but it’s just that if I’m going to do anything else, it’s either now or I stay for my working life. So really that was the decision I thought I’d make, and make it on my own terms.”
With thanks to Hon. Tony Smith, MP, 32nd Speaker of the House of Representatives, and to Senator Hon. Scott Ryan, 25th President of the Senate.