Tuesday, 9 October 2012
It is with a heavy heart that I rise to speak on this motion, for it represents a dark and ugly and shameful episode in this parliament. The Prime Minister's choice of Speaker was the member for Fisher. But this motion must be moved because his occupancy of the Speaker's role is no longer tenable. When this House votes to elect a Speaker, a heavy responsibility falls upon the shoulders of the person privileged to take that role—a responsibility to the House, a responsibility to the parliament and a responsibility to the Australian people. It is among the greatest honours in our parliamentary system to be chosen by peers to hold the most important office in this chamber. It is enshrined, no less, in section 35 of the Constitution:
The House of Representatives shall, before proceeding to the despatch of any other business, choose a member to be the Speaker of the House …
This means that the parliament cannot function without first electing a Speaker to preside over the workings of the House. The role of the Speaker rests upon 800 years of tradition, harking back to the early genesis of our parliamentary system in England. All nations that have adopted the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy have a Speaker, playing a critical role as an impartial judge, whose foremost duty is to uphold the dignity of the House, to enforce standards of behaviour and to represent the House and the parliament in the traditional and ceremonial roles that are required of the Speaker. The Speaker's role in the Westminster system has been described thus:
The office of the Speaker occupies a pivotal position in our parliamentary democracy. It has been said of the office of the Speaker that while the members of Parliament represent the individual constituencies, the Speaker represents the full authority of the House itself … symbolises the dignity and power of the House over which … presiding. Therefore, it is expected that the holder of this office of high dignity has to be one who can represent the House in all its manifestations.
The Speaker can only function if he or she commands the respect of the House. In terms of upholding standards, the authority of the Speaker can only be effective if the Speaker has the respect of members.
While the parliamentary authority of the Speaker cannot be challenged, it can be undermined by the conduct of the person who occupies the chair. While I do not presume to speak for all of my female colleagues on either side of the chamber, I would personally struggle to show appropriate respect for the Speaker should the member for Fisher return to the role of presiding over question time. How the women in this House can be expected to show respect to the Speaker when we are now aware of the views that he holds of women is beyond comprehension. The published remarks of the member for Fisher have been read into evidence in a court case. They are uncontested, they are available to the public, they are on a website and they are reported in the media; they are not sub judice.
There has been running commentary on the case involving the member for Fisher and one of his staffers. That running commentary has come from no less a person than the Attorney-General, the first law officer of the land. For the first law officer to think it is appropriate to intervene in proceedings to protect the member for Fisher against a case calls into question her fitness for office. There are legitimate questions being directed to the Attorney-General about why she would intervene in those proceedings to provide special privileges for the member for Fisher that were not afforded to the other litigants in the proceedings. Indeed, the judge in these proceedings has given what I think is an unprecedented statement about the Attorney-General's failure to uphold the dignity of the court, for that is the first duty of the Attorney-General of this country.
These remarks of the member for Fisher that were read into the court transcript, that are uncontested, that are now on the public record, are offensive. Many of them are obscenely offensive and what female Labor members would describe as sexist and misogynist if anyone else had uttered them. One comment maliciously attacked a serving female member of parliament while the member for Fisher was occupying the chair as Speaker. It was a malicious, vicious comment showing the partial nature of the member for Fisher's role as Speaker. It was not impartial; it was impolite, it was obscene and it makes it untenable for the member for Fisher to occupy the position of Speaker. His attitude to women as revealed in these remarks that are now public is entirely, absolutely and utterly incompatible with what is expected of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. We do not need to see the outcome of the court case. We do not need to hide behind the fig leaf of sub judice. These comments are public. The public are judging this House and the actions we will take in relation to them.
This is also a very serious test for the Prime Minister and her leadership, because it was the Prime Minister who sanctioned the political deal with the member for Fisher that elevated him to the position of Speaker. The deal was done to allow the Prime Minister to break her written commitment to the member for Denison on gambling reform. I am sure the member for Denison has not forgotten that betrayal. The deal involved the removal of the member for Scullin from the speakership, a man who had conducted himself and the affairs of the House with enormous dignity. He had earned the respect of all members. Indeed, I recall at one point the Leader of the Opposition intervening when there was a question about confidence in the Speaker. The Leader of the Opposition intervened when members opposite did not to assure the Speaker, the member for Scullin, that he had our support. The member for Scullin is a decent man, an honourable man. Could anyone in this chamber imagine the member for Scullin making the remarks about women that have been made by the member for Fisher, the Prime Minister's choice for Speaker?
The Prime Minister must show leadership on this issue and acknowledge that the member for Fisher was her choice of Speaker. It was a grave error of judgement. There were very serious and deep reservations held about the member for Fisher before he was elevated to the position of Speaker. The Manager of Opposition Business moved that any number of Labor members be appointed to the position of Speaker—I am reminded that he nominated nine Labor members to be Speaker—yet every time the Manager of Opposition Business moved that another Labor member be appointed as the Speaker the government voted against it. On nine occasions we tried to inform the government that it was a grave error of judgement to appoint the member for Fisher but, because he was part of that grubby political deal, the Prime Minister went ahead and said, 'Damn the consequences.'
Sadly, the potential for this grubby political deal to drag down the reputation of the parliament has now been realised. The member for Fisher is still the Speaker, as Madam Deputy Speaker well knows. He still commands the salary. He is still carrying on the business of the Speaker behind the scenes. He just does not turn up for question time. This is all part of the ruse to enable the government to say he has stepped aside. He has not stepped aside. He is still the Speaker. He does not turn up for the public viewing of question time, but in every other respect, sadly, he is the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Yes, the member for Fisher has been embroiled in a court case, a sexual harassment case brought by one of his staffers. It is in the course of that case that this evidence has come to light—and this is uncontradicted evidence. The member for Fisher has not denied it. He has not claimed it was fake. It is entirely and absolutely uncontested evidence, accepted by the court as evidence, as any lawyer would know.
The Prime Minister struggles to admit fault or errors of judgement, and there have been plenty of errors of judgement on the part of the Prime Minister. I guess it is a matter of pride that she does not like to admit when she gets it wrong, but this is an issue that goes beyond the pride of the Prime Minister; this is an issue that goes to the heart of our democracy. If members of this parliament lose respect for the Speaker, it follows that the broader community will lose respect for the office of Speaker and that will impact on the respect the community holds for the Australian parliament.
All members elected to this House know from their first days in this place of the important role of the Speaker of the parliament. We are keenly aware of the need to accord the Speaker the highest levels of respect and obey the rulings of the chair, and when we do not the Speaker takes action and we oblige. The current Speaker, if he is retained in this role by the Prime Minister, will be an embarrassment not only to members of this parliament but to the Australian public as he carries out the duties of Speaker.
Of course, it is important to our democratic system to have a Speaker who upholds the dignity of the House; it underpins our system of government. But the Speaker also holds a very public role: he is the senior representative of the parliament in welcoming foreign leaders—foreign female leaders—and entertaining foreign dignitaries. And yes, they too read the media. They too will be aware of the member for Fisher's views on women and the partial role he has played as Speaker in condemning a serving shadow minister in this House. He also leads delegations internationally. He is meant to be the person to lead our members of parliament overseas, to represent the parliament, to lead female delegates. Does the Prime Minister think it is going to be easy for female delegates to go on trips overseas with the member for Fisher knowing the sexist, misogynistic views that the member for Fisher holds about women?
The Speaker also liaises with other governments and liaises with the Governor-General on our behalf. As the Prime Minister often points out, not only do we have a female Prime Minister of this country; we have a female Governor-General. She is meant to receive the member for Fisher, the man who the Prime Minister chose to uphold the dignity of the House. The Speaker also leads the staff of the parliament and is meant to set standards of behaviour for staff in the parliament, and we now know through this exchange of text messages how the Speaker, the member for Fisher, deals with his staffers. There is uncontested evidence of the most appalling kind.
The Speaker should be setting a personal example for others to follow. I remind the House of previous speakers who have set such an example: Speaker Harry Jenkins, Speaker Steve Martin, Speaker Neil Andrew and Speaker David Hawker. There are many, many more from both sides of the House—speakers who have upheld the dignity of the House. Can you imagine any one of those occupants of the chair ever descending to the type of sexist, offensive, obscene conduct that is enshrined in these text messages that the member for Fisher sent to his staff? I call on all members to maintain the high standards to ensure that the Speaker is a person of dignity. It is a grave situation that only the parliament can resolve by removing the Speaker from office and electing a new Speaker. (Time expired)