Tuesday, 9 October 2012
I take no joy whatever in speaking on a motion of this nature. I am deeply conscious of the gravity of this motion—how rare it has been in the history of this parliament for a motion to remove the Speaker from office to be put forward for debate. It is a subject of great importance and great significance. The decision by the opposition to take this action is one we have taken with the heaviest of hearts.
But these are circumstances which we have surely never before seen in this parliament. The Speaker has been the subject of a series of allegations over a long period of time and we now find that some of those allegations are supported by the Speaker's own words in his text messages. This is unsatisfactory conduct from the person whose primary responsibility is to uphold the honour and the dignity of this parliament, to set an example to other members, to set an example to the community and to be the face of the parliament. We should be able to admire the person in that office. We should be able to respect the man in that office not only because he holds an important office but because he carries out the responsibilities of that office with dignity.
This is no mere censure of a Speaker who has made poor rulings as chair of the parliament. It is not a dispute over standing orders or administration of the parliament. It is about the very fitness of the incumbent to hold this high office. There has been a dark cloud growing for far too long and the government has been prepared to stand in the shadow rather than come out into the light and condemn the behaviour of the man they chose to be Speaker.
They moved aside a man of great integrity, a person admired on all sides of the House, who had carried out his responsibilities with distinction. There had been no suggestion of impropriety. There had been no suggestion that he had behaved in a way which was anything other than fair and appropriate for the Speaker's office.
The former Speaker was stood down.
Put in his place, entrusted with the responsibility for the traditions and standards of the parliament, was a person who did not have such a record. At the very time the member for Fisher was appointed Speaker, there had already been many months of articles in his own local newspapers questioning his integrity, questioning his use of his parliamentary entitlements, questioning his travel bills, questioning the quite strange travel patterns that had developed over the years. These questions were already in the public arena; they were already being considered and under investigation—yet this government chose to make him the Speaker of this parliament. He still holds that office now. He collects the full salary. He continues to collect the travel allowance and travel the world, to entertain in his office. He is marked present, as if he has been here, even though you, Madam Deputy Speaker Burke, have been conducting the most important part of his work.
The office of Speaker is more than just a privileged position. It is more than pomp and ceremony, and parades through the Members' Hall. The Speaker is the custodian of the dignity of this chamber and it reflects on all who are seated here. The Speaker is the arbiter in whom the public must have confidence if they are to believe in the fair workings of this parliament. Despite political differences, the Speaker must be an impartial umpire over the people and the proceedings of the House. From time to time, the Speaker rebukes members—more members on this side, I must say, than others—because he believes they have not appropriately followed the standing orders. If he undertakes the job, he must earn the right to be respected in exercising that discipline. He is not respected just because he holds an office entitled to respect; he must build a reputation and earn that respect; and this Speaker has not done that.
How can you accept rebuke from a person whose own behaviour falls so far short of the standards that we could reasonably expect? The Speaker is the face of the parliament. He is the defender of the rights and privileges of all members. It is a position of honour, but the Speaker needs to bring honour to that post. The member for Fisher has brought dishonour to the post. Further, he has made it absolutely clear through the text messages which have now become public that he does not believe that it is necessary for him to carry out his task with impartiality. That is surely an absolutely essential quality of the person who holds the office of Speaker.
The members for Fisher's comments about the suspension of the member for Indi are a disgrace. They are a disgrace to the office of the Speaker. Of course, they are inappropriate and unacceptable in their sexist nature. But he also demonstrated that that decision was not made with impartiality. It was made because he did not like the member for Indi. He thought it was appropriate to suspend her on a day that was critical in the votes of this parliament: the day on which the carbon tax was to be inflicted on the Australian people. He thought that was good fun—to evict a member of the opposition in those circumstances. That does not reflect the level of impartiality that the members of this parliament have a right to expect from the person who fills the high office of Speaker. A solemn trust is vested in the Speaker. It is a trust that past speakers over the years have assumed with reverence. There is a long tradition of honourable men and women filling this post. All of them have taken their responsibilities seriously. Most of them have built on the reputation and standing of this parliament. But our current Speaker has demeaned that office. He has declared himself innocent of the charges in relation to his private expenditure, although his defence has never been on show. The allegations about his travel costs and cab charges are serious ones that need to be responded to. Nevertheless, in an act of political expediency, this government elevated the member for Fisher to this high office and in the process plunged the parliament into a parlous state.
The allegations of sexual harassment that followed engulfed the office of Speaker to the extent that the member for Fisher could not fulfil his duties in the chamber. He did the right thing in standing aside while those allegations were under consideration. But things have become so much worse because of what has come out of his own mouth, out of his own Twitter, during his absence from the chamber. Those allegations are so serious. They reflect so much his attitude towards women—and they reflect on the parliament. He is not fit to hold this office.
Madam Prime Minister, it is not a satisfactory defence of the current Speaker to indulge in a tirade of abuse against the Leader of the Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition is not on trial here; the Speaker of this parliament is. Over recent weeks, the government may well have tried to distract attention from their carbon tax, from their $120 billion black hole, from crisis after crisis of bad government management, by trying to slur the Leader of the Opposition. That is unsatisfactory behaviour, and the people of Australia can make their own judgements about that. What the Prime Minister should have done today is provided a defence and given us as the parliament a reason to have confidence in this Speaker. In her speech, she should have given us a reason for not seeking to have the Speaker removed. She did not choose to do that. She spent her time criticising the Leader of the Opposition. She spent her time criticising other people and comments they may have made about her, but she did not address the crisis of confidence in the Speaker that there is in this place.
This is a man who has recently involved the government in a payout of $50,000 worth of taxpayer dollars. That suggests that these are more than just allegations against the member for Fisher. The government itself was prepared to pay out $50,000 to settle just one of these actions, along with three-quarters of a million dollars worth of legal expenses and who knows what else. So this is not just idle chatter. These are not just empty words from the man who occupies the Speaker's chair. No matter how inappropriate, no matter how sexist, no matter how repugnant those words are to everybody in the chamber, these are words which now have had the credibility of court action and some degree of judgement and, in reality, in these circumstances, the Speaker is left exposed. The Speaker has no defence. The Speaker is bringing disrepute upon this parliament and therefore lacks the public confidence that the institutions of this government, of our democracy, are entitled to enjoy.
The revelations and the abhorrent text messages have really broken the camel's back. They have shattered public confidence and left this government with no option but to sack the Speaker. The content of the messages is certainly vile. The messages are denigrating to women and even include reference to female members of this chamber. None of that is acceptable behaviour from a person who is supposed to be the custodian of the honour of this parliament. None of that is acceptable from a person whom we should be respecting in the office of Speaker. The facts are that, in truth, the poisoned texts of the Speaker say it all to everyone. The duplicity of the government is laid bare for all to see because of their defence of this Speaker, but the Prime Minister, who showed poor political judgement to support his selection in the first place, can still gain some honour from this shameful incident. She could still do the right thing. She could admit the error of judgement and support the motion that the parliament no longer has confidence in this man and wants to have a new Speaker.
The Prime Minister criticises the Leader of the Opposition but this is about the future of the Speaker. The Speaker must have the confidence of the House. This Speaker does not have the confidence of the Australian people. His behaviour does not befit a person in this important position. I call on the Prime Minister to end the torment of the Australian people—we have had enough—and to restore trust to this office. It is time to stand up for decency and integrity and the honour of the parliament. It is essential that we have a new Speaker to help restore the dignity of this House and the confidence of the Australian people.