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Tuesday, 3 March 1998
Page: 196

Mr CREAN (5:05 PM) —I think it appropriate to place on record our appreciation for what the Speaker tried to do but was not allowed to do because of the thuggery of this government and because of the failure of the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) to uphold standards that he said he would uphold when he was elected to the parliament.

Let me just go to two important points that I want to develop on this. One is the pressure that was imposed upon Speaker Halverson which we believe was part of the reason for his extraordinary decision today to vacate the field. The second is another demonstration of how low the Prime Minister's standards have been. This is what the Prime Minister said before the election on Channel 9 on 25 February 1996:

I will adopt a system of having a completely independent Speaker who can be just as tough on me and my ministers.

The trouble for Speaker Halverson was that he believed the Prime Minister when he made that commitment. The problem for Speaker Halverson was that the Prime Minister had no intention of honouring it.

I guess the worst example of this, Mr Deputy Speaker—because you would have been aware of it at the time—was the incident on 3 December 1996 when an outrageous allegation was made by the Leader of the House (Mr Reith), which required one of our members to seek a withdrawal. The Speaker ruled on two occasions—two occasions, mind you, and this debate takes place over six full pages of Hansard—that the Leader of the House—you know, the guy who played snooker with him, the best mate—withdraw the allegation in accordance with what he believed current standing orders were.

The Leader of the House refused to do it. The Prime Minister quizzically said, `I can't even understand what the ruling is.' This was a ruling to withdraw a statement where a member felt personally aggrieved. Not only did you have the Leader of the House refusing to withdraw it, but also you had a Prime Minister who said he could not understand what the ruling was about. It was only because the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Beazley) stood back from the brink that Speaker Halverson was not forced to resign on 3 December 1996. Let there be no mistake about that.

If anyone needs to be reminded of it, let us have a look at what the newspapers were saying the day after. `How speaker forced to back down' was the comment in the Australian. It stated, `The independence of the Speaker of the House of Representatives was diminished yesterday when Bob Halverson was forced into a humiliating backdown on one of his rulings.' Who forced it? The government did. Who was prepared to back the Speaker? The Labor opposition was prepared to back him. Again, if you look at the Age of the next day, you see the words, `Riot tactics split Libs from their speaker' and, `Speaker threatens to quit parliament'. This is on Tuesday, 18 February. According to the Canberra Times of that day, `The Speaker of the House of Representatives has hit out at his critics and threatened to resign from parliament, exposing Prime Minister John Howard to a potentially damaging by-election if he is forced out of the job.'

We all know the concern that the Speaker had for the way in which he was not being treated properly by the government. We all know that he came in with the firm conviction of really wanting to be an independent speaker. He said he was going to take no more part in the party room meetings of his own party. He was going to be available to both sides of the House and he was going to try to restore an order and dignity to this place. He kept requesting, pleading even, for both sides of the House to give him the support that he needed.

The next step in this sorry saga was on 26 March, again after what had been a particularly damaging period for him, because again the government at every step of the way, from the Prime Minister down, was critical of rulings that he was making in any attempt he made to become more even-handed—everyone from the Prime Minister down. We could run through them: the Prime Minister, the Leader of the House, the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (Dr Kemp), the Treasurer (Mr Costello); these were people who turned their backs on him when they were answering questions. These are people who were repeatedly asked to come back to the point of the question. They all ignored him. They humiliated him.

So on 26 March he said that he wanted to set out at length the way in which we should proceed in future to address the length and relevance issues associated with questions and answers in the parliament. That resulted some two months later in a statement by the Speaker which set out what he expected. Again, who were the people who cooperated? We shortened the questions. We asked the supplementary questions only in the context in which he had outlined them. But we said that we would do it if the government would do it. Yet we have had this tawdry episode every time we have come into question time where they refuse to make any answer to a question, where they go on forever and where they ignore the Speaker when he asks them to come back to the relevancy of their point. That is what the Speaker was confronted with, and we know it.

We did give the Speaker a hard time, but it was out of frustration that he was not able to get the cooperation of the party that put him in the seat. What we are saying today is this: we regret the fact that the Speaker has left, but we know the circumstances that drove him to it. Any objective person that has watched the way in which this parliament has operated would know that.

Let me come to the second point, and that is the way in which the government handles itself in this place. What we have found again is another example of the government, when confronted by a crisis, looking like the rabbit caught in the spotlight. We now have the Leader of the House admitting today that he knew last night Speaker Halverson was going to resign. We know that the Prime Minister did. What did he do? He flew out for good reasons to a funeral today.

But we all know this: if the Speaker of the House of Representatives tenders his resignation, the parliament cannot proceed. Yet we had the spectacle today where we were given 20 minutes notice of the intention of the Speaker to go to Government House to tender his resignation. When we sought to get an explanation here, we saw again I think a pretty revealing circumstance: the Speaker came only to this side of the House to shake the Leader of the Opposition's hand. He did not go to his billiard partner's side. He did not shake the hand of his snooker mate, because he knows that that same mate snookered him. He was part of the exercise that drove him and hounded him from office.

But what sort of government is it that, knowing this was the mind of the Speaker and knowing he was going to announce his resignation today, does not take steps to ensure that the parliament can still run smoothly? If the resignation was going to be submitted, where was the process by which it had put in train the procedures to elect a new speaker? Again, our contention is this: this is another example of a government incapable of governing, a government which is incapable of managing affairs in the place and a government that is not prepared to honour the commitments that it has made to make the speaker a more independent person.

Mr Reith —You can't even keep a commitment to speak for 10 minutes.

Mr CREAN —The Leader of the House interjects that we cannot keep a commitment to speak for 10 minutes. He was given the opportunity to get up and speak about his mate that he used to play snooker with, and sat down after five minutes.

Mr Reith —No, 10.

Mr CREAN —No it was not; you sat down. What you did today was to demonstrate that you knew not one bit about the implications of the Speaker's resignation, yet you are charged with the responsibility of managing the orderly conduct of this House. This is a tawdry episode.

We wish the Speaker well. But what we do express is our severest concerns at the way in which he has been driven from office—driven from office by the people who promised to uphold the standards of this place. They have failed and they ought to be condemned for it.