Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Tuesday, 28 May 2002
Page: 2474

Mr ABBOTT (Leader of the House) (4:00 PM) —What we have seen today is an ugly, partisan attack on an excellent Speaker. What we have seen today is an unworthy motion of dissent from an opposition which promised to raise parliamentary standards but, in the six months since the election, has done everything it possibly can to undermine them. This is a trivial motion. It does not deserve to have detained the time of the House for as long as it has. It deserves to be dealt with peremptorily, and that is what I propose to do.

Mr Speaker, your ruling today is entirely in accordance with precedents set again and again in this House. To start off with, under standing order 142, questions can be asked of ministers concerning only matters for which they have responsibility before the House. Questions can be asked of ministers only about matters relating to their portfolio. As the House of Representatives Practice clearly states, and as you stated, Mr Speaker, for the benefit of members of this House earlier:

The underlying principle is that Ministers are required to answer questions only on matters for which they are responsible to the House. Consequently Speakers have ruled out of order questions or parts of questions to Ministers which concern, for example:

ยท statements, activities, actions or decisions of the Minister's own party or of its conferences or officials, or of those of other parties, including opposition parties

When we look at the question that was asked by the member for Lyons, we see that it was plainly asking the Leader of the National Party to talk not about matters relevant to his portfolio but about matters of alleged confusion and division inside his own party. If the question was not out of order under that principle, it certainly offended against standing order 144, which states:

The following general rules shall apply to questions:

Questions cannot be debated.

Questions should not contain—

... ... ...

(b) arguments;

(c) inferences;

(d) imputations;

(e) epithets;

(f) ironical expressions; or

(g) hypothetical matter.

So, on two counts, this was a question which deserved to be ruled out of order. Mr Speaker, your ruling was entirely in accordance with the precedents of this House. Your ruling was entirely in accordance with the scrupulous impartiality that you have consistently shown in the chair since you first became Speaker after the 1998 election.

As I said, what we have seen today is an ugly, partisan attack on an outstanding occupant of the chair. There have been some nasty, unnecessary and unworthy references to double standards. The fact is, as members opposite well know, there is a clear distinction, under the standing orders and the practice of this House, between questions and answers. There are very strict rules on the asking of questions; there are no such rules on the provision of answers. The only rule governing the provision of an answer is that it should be relevant to the question asked. As Speakers from both sides of this parliament have consistently ruled, answers can range very widely indeed. Mr Speaker, you have been much stricter on ministers ranging widely than any of your predecessors that I have been familiar with in this House.

As an example of your scrupulous impartiality, what you did today was simply rule out of order a question from the member for Lyons that was plainly out of order; you simply sat him down. By contrast—and I commend you for your scrupulous fairness in this matter—you actually mildly rebuked me, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. I have felt the sting of your displeasure on numerous occasions. You have rightly and properly called me to order. Not only have you consistently demonstrated fairness but also at times you have bent over backwards to be fair, and I commend you for it. You have been a model of fairness in all your conduct of office.

You have been the perfect gentleman, adjudicating between people trying to make their various political points. You have a difficult job, Mr Speaker: sitting in the chair of this parliament would have to be one of the most difficult jobs in the country. You sit and adjudicate, as it might be, `between the pass and fell incensed points of mighty opposites'. You do an extremely good job. You have the gratitude of one side of the House. You deserve the gratitude of both sides of the House. Certainly you deserve the thanks and gratitude of the nation for the fine and impartial job that you do in the chair.

You have to ask what is really motivating the confected indignation of members opposite. There are two factors behind the confected indignation of members opposite today. The first is their continuing sour grapes over losing what they thought was the unlosable election. What we are seeing today, as we see so often in this House—

Mr Leo McLeay —I rise on a point of order. Mr Speaker, you were at great pains to tell the member for Werriwa that he should relate his remarks only to the motion before the chair, not going on about matters relating to other people, which is what the minister was just about to do.

The SPEAKER —The member for Watson will resume his seat. No more tolerance is being extended to the minister than was extended to the member for Werriwa, by any measure.

Mr Leo McLeay —It is a double standard.

The SPEAKER —The member for Watson is warned!

Mr ABBOTT —What we are seeing is yet another manifestation of the sour grapes syndrome which has afflicted members opposite ever since November last year: sour grapes from sore losers, one long, noisy dummy-spit by members opposite who cannot believe that the Australian people sat in judgment of government and opposition and returned this government so resoundingly. I can understand the frustration that members opposite feel. There is a difference between being in government and being in opposition: members of a government get to run the country; members of the opposition simply get to complain—often futilely—in this parliament against what they perceive to be the injustice of it all. But the fact is that is the way the Westminster system has always worked. That is the way the Westminster system would work if we were in opposition. It is the way the Westminster system is properly working now, and I say to members opposite: get used to it, get over it and grow up.

The SPEAKER —The minister will come back to the dissent motion.

Mr ABBOTT —The other thing that we saw today in debate from the member for Werriwa is his continuing deep resentment over your perfectly fair and legitimate decision last week to expunge some unworthy comments that he made in this House from the Hansard record. I think it says something about members opposite that they should have chosen to put up in this House the member for Werriwa, a man who is well known for his attitude towards standards of debate, to claim that standards were being abused. If we look at your decision last week, Mr Speaker, which was constantly being referred to by the member for Werriwa in his contribution to debate today, again it was entirely in accordance with the precedents and practices of this House. I am quoting from House of Representatives Practice:

Rulings of the Chair form the guidelines for what is to be deleted from the debates and what is to be incorporated.

... ... ...

The Chair has a responsibility to ensure that no objectional material is included in the debates. Exceptionally offensive remarks ordered to be withdrawn have been deleted from the record.

Mr Speaker, your action last week was entirely in accordance with the standing orders. It is entirely in accordance with the decision back in 1985 of Speaker Jenkins, who asked that comments from a member of this side of the House—

Mr Beazley —On a point of order, Mr Speaker: I am not aware that we are discussing your particular ruling of last week. It has got nothing to do with it.

The SPEAKER —The member for Brand will resume his seat. He makes a valid point of order. However, if I were to be consistent, I would have had to take action against the member for Werriwa, who did spend some time canvassing this in the debate.

Opposition members—He didn't mention it.

The SPEAKER —I will not be defied by members opposite. The Hansard record will show that the member for Werriwa did make reference to last week's remarks.

Mr ABBOTT —Mr Speaker, I think you have shown tremendous tolerance in the chair. I think your tolerance must have been sorely tested today because smear, imputation and aggressive untruth have been laid before you and about you in a way that is totally undeserved and is totally out of keeping with the standards of this House and the spirit in which debate in this House should be conducted. We all know that the member for Werriwa is often described by his own colleagues as a Liberal in disguise. We know how much this stings the member for Werriwa, and so he is attempting to deepen the disguise by increasing the level of abuse which he constantly uses in this chamber and out of this chamber. Mr Speaker, I would like to say that both last week and this week what you have been trying to do— quite rightly—is protect the member for Werriwa from himself. The member for Werriwa is a strange mixture of policy idealist and political brute. He is a Jekyll-and-Hyde character. Unfortunately, what we saw today was Mr Hyde in the ascendancy.

Mr Speaker, as I said, you have been a model of independence and impartiality in the chair. We have had members opposite talk today about the need for an independent Speaker. Well, Mr Speaker, you have been the very model of what an independent Speaker should be. We have had members opposite talk about how important it is to have a Speaker who is not only independent in fact but independent in theory. This was never the view that members opposite took in the 13 years that they were in government. They are certainly very late converts to the idea of a Speaker who is independent in a way which has never previously been contemplated by the practices and the traditions of this House in Canberra. Mr Speaker, I note that one of your predecessors, the member for Watson, went on to become Chief Government Whip. I do not want to cast any imputation on the member for Watson but, given the restraint that this government shows in this matter, it becomes very ill of members opposite to abuse you—as they have so wrongly and so unfairly today— simply because of a position that you might have had prior to becoming Speaker.

Mr Speaker, I think this parliament is extremely lucky to have a Speaker of your calibre. I think that every minister in this government is conscious of the need to scrupulously adhere to the standing orders, because we know your character, we know your sense of duty, we know your sense of service, we know your commitment to the very best standards of this parliament and we know the way you have consistently treated members opposite as decent Australians who have a point to make, even though their positions have not been supported by the Australian people at the recent election. We have an independent Speaker in this parliament, a Speaker who will not be bullied by anyone; certainly a Speaker who will never be bullied by the Leader of the Opposition, the member for Lilley or the member for Werriwa. This dissent motion certainly deserves to be treated with contempt. It certainly deserves to be crushingly defeated, as it will be in this House.

The SPEAKER —Before I put the question, can I indicate to the member for Brand that it may have been the member for Lilley and not the member for Werriwa who made that reference. If that is the case, I apologise to the member for Werriwa. But I clearly referred to it as having been made during the debate and it was in that context that I had allowed the minister to continue. I will check the Hansard.

Question put:

That the motion (Mr Swan's) be agreed to.