The Politics    Monday, August 10, 2015

Silver linings

By Sean Kelly

Tony Abbott didn’t want Tony Smith to be Speaker, but he might yet be grateful

In politics, as in life, perverse consequences are common.

Bronwyn Bishop was an unashamedly partisan Speaker. She fought for her own team. She continued to attend party fundraisers (which was part of her undoing). She continued to attend party-room meetings.

She was also terrifically biased in her handling of parliament. The point has been well made that all Speakers tend to throw out more MPs from the other side, so let’s not pretend there are any “good old days” we should all pine for – but Bishop took things to extremes. Labor MPs were ejected from parliament almost 400 times on her watch – and government members just seven.

The effect of battling doggedly to ensure the prime minister’s will was done on every minute decision was that the overall war was lost. Not only did Bishop succeed in making herself a target – it is hard to imagine choppergate would have developed the steam it did had Labor not hated her so – but parliament became, too often, a site of chaos, as the Opposition did everything it could to demonstrate its frustration.

Likewise, the decision taken by the new Speaker elected today, Victorian Liberal MP Tony Smith, to refrain as far as possible from overt partisanship, is likely to do his party much more good than Bishop’s ferocity.

One of the lessons Tony Abbott has been slow to learn is that the government is held responsible for a wide array of things, including the fine functioning of the House and the Senate. The blame that perhaps should attach itself to truculent senators finds its way to the government. A raucous chamber reflects badly on the ruling party.

As has been remarked, Smith is not necessarily the most electric of fellows. (I’ve never met him; this is very much third-hand.) This is no bad thing. That normalcy could be very much what the government – and Tony Abbott – need right now.

If Smith does what he seemed today to promise, and takes a fairly independent view of things, that might quiet Labor, too, which again would help the government, via the absence of chaotic vision on the evening news.

Smith has also promised not to attend party-room meetings. As Laurie Oakes observed on the weekend, this pledge meant that Smith’s election would “signal a clear change of direction from the dreadful Bishop period”, and would belatedly keep an election promise made by Christopher Pyne.

While Smith’s election might end well for the government, there was no sign Abbott recognised it today. Instead, he implied – pretty much said – that Smith had been elected because his peers felt bad for his failure to progress in the ministry.

There is some reason for this bitterness. Abbott is of course sad that Bishop has gone. Beyond his personal feelings, the fact that Abbott had to step back from the Speaker ballot, as his colleagues had signalled fairly clearly that they would tolerate no more “captain’s picks”, is a wound to his authority. Katherine Murphy put it well: “Abbott had no control at all over the outcome of this process for one reason: his internal authority is diminished, and Tony Smith sitting in that chair is a symbol of it.”

Abbott will have to live with that symbol every day he is in parliament. He should learn to see the good in it.

 

Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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