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Speaker of the House defends his role of upholding the Standing Orders following a week of disorderly behaviour in Question Time

MONICA ATTARD: Question Time in Federal Parliament, today, saw several hostile and unruly exchanges between the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, and the Opposition. Indeed, the Speaker of the House, Steve Martin, spent much of his time calling in vain for some order, warning both sides of the House about their behaviour. Answering questions on aviation safety and, in particular, an arts grant to his friend, the pianist, Geoffrey Tozer, the Prime Minister referred to the Opposition as lice, and to National Party Leader, Tim Fischer, as a donkey. David Pembroke in our Canberra bureau prepared this report.

EXTRACT

PAUL KEATING: I'm after you to have withdrawn the implication in the question being taken, the point being made by the question ....

MR SPEAKER: The Prime Minister on a point of order.

JOHN HOWARD: A point of order? What's your point?

PAUL KEATING: I'm first. You take your seat.

MR SPEAKER: The Member for Bennelong will resume his seat.

PAUL KEATING: Mr Speaker, Mr Speaker ....

MR SPEAKER: Resume your seat. The Prime Minister is on a point of order.

PAUL KEATING: Mr Speaker, on the point of order ....

MR SPEAKER: Resume your seat. Resume your seat.

PAUL KEATING: You came second. Take your seat. Mr Speaker ....

MR SPEAKER: The Prime Minister is on a point of order.

PAUL KEATING: Mr Speaker, the implication of the question very clearly is ....

MR SPEAKER: Order!

PAUL KEATING: Because he says Mr Brereton 'is my mate', I have compromised Australian air safety. I want that withdrawn.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Just one of the many exchanges that coloured today's Question Time and brought to end a two weeks' sitting of the House of Representatives that's brought no credit to either side. In that time, the Speaker, Stephen Martin, has struggled to maintain order. The Opposition has persisted with noisy interjections. The Prime Minister, when he was in the House, has largely ignored the Speaker's instructions.

The big issues this week have been the Government's, and more particularly, Transport Minister, Laurie Brereton's handling of aviation safety, and the launch of the Government's cultural policy. But things went off course, today, when the Member for Bradfield, David Connolly, needled the PM with questions about a couple of large arts grants to the internationally renowned pianist, Geoffrey Tozer.

EXTRACT

DAVID CONNOLLY: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I direct my question to the Prime Minister. Did the Prime Minister advise the eminent Australian pianist, Geoffrey Tozer, to purchase a former convent at Queanbeyan for development as a centre for the arts as reported in the Good Weekend magazine on 16 April this year? That article - no doubt you read it. I hope you can read, too.

Did Mr Tozer's 1989 application ....

MR SPEAKER: Order.

DAVID CONNOLLY: ... for his initial four-year Australian Creative Artists Fellowship state that the money would be used to develop such a centre for the arts? Was the Prime Minister extensively involved in renovations at the convent, supervising and paying contractors on Mr Tozer's behalf during 1991 as also reported in the Good Weekend magazine? Did Mr Tozer, shortly before selling out of his disastrous project in November, last year, receive the then unprecedented second five-year fellowship taking the value of his back-to-back fellowships to $525,000.

UNIDENTIFIED: That's a lot of money.

UNIDENTIFIED: He'll be buying in Woollahra next.

MR SPEAKER: Order!

DAVID CONNOLLY: Is it the case that the first fellowship was squandered on your poor advice? And if so, did this necessitate a second grant to bail out Mr Tozer? And is this an example of what is supposed to be - and I quote from your Minister in the other place - 'arm's length peer review funding under the creative fellowships scheme'?

MR SPEAKER: The Honourable the Prime Minister.

PAUL KEATING: This is the kind of question you get from the lice - you get from - is it any wonder ....

MR SPEAKER: Order! Order!

PAUL KEATING: Is it any wonder the arts community hate you lot? Is it any wonder they hold you lice in contempt?

DAVID PEMBROKE: The Prime Minister went on to defend his friend's honour and sent this blast across the Chamber.

EXTRACT

PAUL KEATING: Let the arts community know what a mean-spirited, bitchy little Opposition this is, led by a mean-spirited bitchy little Opposition Leader. And let them understand, Mr Speaker - let them understand, Mr Speaker - that having ....

MR SPEAKER: Order! Order!

PAUL KEATING: Mr Speaker, let them understand, Mr Speaker, that having declared themselves lost, they walked off the field and decided to spoil, by calling divisions in the middle of the Government's policy and then offering questions at Question Time about individual artists.

MR SPEAKER: Order!

PAUL KEATING: Shame on you. Shame on all of you.

MR SPEAKER: Order! The House will come to order. The House will come to order.

MONICA ATTARD: That was Steve Martin, the Speaker of the House, in the middle of today's parliamentary mayhem. All week, Mr Martin has been trying to restore order in the Chamber with very little success. On several occasions in the past two weeks, the Prime Minister has clearly ignored his instructions. Steve Martin discussed his predicament with Fran Kelly.

FRAN KELLY: Mr Speaker, have you lost count of the number of times you've had to call for order in the past two sitting weeks?

STEPHEN MARTIN: I think I have to say I've got a very sore throat and a very irritated voice from having to do much of that, trying to enforce the Standing Orders, and the way in which some people in the House have chosen in the last couple of weeks to behave, I think, is rather - certainly unsatisfying for me.

FRAN KELLY: Do you count the Prime Minister in that? Are you worried that he seems to have taken no notice of you and many of your calls in the past two weeks?

STEPHEN MARTIN: Well, I'm not sure that that's necessarily the case. I think there's been a view that, on occasions, he's disregarded what I've had to say. I think, at least on two of those occasions, though, if one looks at the transcripts or watches again a replay of what was happening, he in fact, on one occasion, was takin g a point of order and on another occasion, in fact, did withdraw a comment that was made. There's no doubt that the behaviour in the House - and I'm talking it in a generic sense at the present moment - I think, in the last couple of weeks has been somewhat outrageous.

The Standing Orders basically say that Members shall be heard in silence. Now, when people are yelling out after a Minister utters one word is certainly an offence against those Standing Orders. On the other hand, if Ministers tend to perhaps go a little long and irritate those on the other side, well, clearly, I think, people do get agitated, but that in no way, in my view, excuses the fact that inappropriate language is being used in the place. When I have drawn attention to that, I have sought withdrawals; I have got those withdrawals. I think what, in the next couple of weeks should happen, is that all members of this place have a good long hard look at themselves.

FRAN KELLY: If you are so worried about the language, though, why didn't you pull the Prime Minister up today when he called the Opposition a bitchy little Opposition? Is that appropriate language?

STEPHEN MARTIN: Well, again, I guess in the spirit of the debate and the way in which the place was operating today, I'll cop the bagging for being caught off-guard on that occasion, but in my defence, I'll say that no one stood to raise a point of order from the other side.

Look, the referee is the one that you blame when people perceive things don't go right. Fine. As I've said in the past, I'll cop some of that because I'm the referee, but at the end of the day, if Members want to behave in the way that they do today, if they want to set that - or even earlier this week - if they want to set those as the standards by which they'll be judged, then quite clearly, the reputation that we do not enjoy out their in the broad community will only be enhanced in that regard.

FRAN KELLY: What about your reputation? Today, you chastised the Opposition benches for, in your words, barracking every time a Minister got up to answer - a better word might be heckling. Are you singling them out, though, for bad behaviour? And then here we see the Prime Minister calling Tim Fischer a donkey, a nong, calling the Opposition bitchy. I mean, are you fair and unbiased in this?

STEPHEN MARTIN: Well, you talk about words reflecting on the Leader of the National Party. The Prime Minister was required to withdraw those and did - and did. Now, that's my role, and I was effective in achieving that. Quite obviously, though, when Ministers are at the dispatch box, they should be given the opportunity to answer. Similarly, of course, when Members rise with a question to ask, they should be given an opportunity to ask that question in silence. Now, we've been endeavouring to do that. There is no doubt, as I've said, some of the language that is being used in this Parliament at the present moment is something which we would not want to see and I would hope that people reflect upon that in the next two weeks' break.

FRAN KELLY: How sensitive are you, though, to calls of bias in the rulings you make?

STEPHEN MARTIN: Oh, look, that's something which happens all the time. Irrespective of who the referee is, if it was from the other side or from the Government's side, you will always find there are charges of bias when people believe, for one reason or another, that somebody gets away with something that should not ordinarily happen. Now, look, I wear that. It's just one of the hazards of being the Speaker, but I tell you what, I'm not the one that's using the language in that Parliament. I'm not the one that is screaming out interjections every time a Minister is on his or her feet. I'm not the one making outrageous charges on both sides of the Parliament. I'm the one in the middle caught - as all speakers are - in trying to adjudicate on what is fair and what is parliamentary and trying to keep that debate going.

FRAN KELLY: If standards have dropped though, in the Parliament, do you feel responsible for that, given you are the referee?

STEPHEN MARTIN: Look, I can only enforce the Standing Orders. It doesn't matter - if the players run out and decide they're going to give somebody an elbow to the face, the referee is not to know that that is the case.

FRAN KELLY: Does it say something about your authority, though, if people are daring to do this with you standing by shouting order, order?

STEPHEN MARTIN: Well again, if people aren't prepared to accept the authority of the Chair, then they have no place being in the Parliament. Frankly, I get quite amused, from time to time, and then very annoyed when people stand up in there taking points of order and espousing that the Standing Orders should be upheld, and when I do that, they then turn around and say 'Oh, that's bias' or 'You're not running the place properly'. I mean, you can't have it both ways.

MONICA ATTARD: Stephen Martin, the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the end of a rather trying day at work.