The Office of Speaker

Origins

The office of Speaker is an essential feature of the parliamentary system, and of all the Westminster parliamentary traditions the Speakership has proved to be among the most durable. The office is an ancient one with its beginnings going back to the origins of the British Parliament. The first Speaker to be so designated was Sir Thomas Hungerford, appointed in 1377, who became the first in a continuing line of identifiable Speakers. In early times Speakers were variously described as ‘Parlour’ (mouth), ‘Prolocutor’ (chairman) and ‘Procurator’ (agent). Essentially each acted as mouthpiece or spokesman and hence ‘Speaker’ on behalf of the House in communicating its resolutions to the sovereign.

The office of Speaker was central to the centuries long battle for supremacy between Parliament and the monarchy. Historically the role of the Speaker has been an unenviable one. The chequered history of the Speakership shows that a number of Speakers died violent deaths by way of execution or murder while others were imprisoned, impeached or expelled from office. This record is reflected in the custom of a newly elected Speaker showing a token resistance on being escorted to the Chair. As Laundy states in The office of Speaker:

The custom had its origin in the genuine reluctance with which early Speakers accepted the office, for the role of spokesman for an emerging body of legislators bent on opposing the royal will was a dangerous occupation … Until discontinued by Speaker Onslow in 1728 it was the custom for the Speaker-elect to struggle with his proposer and seconder, resisting every inch of the way to the Chair with the result that he was literally dragged to it.[1]

Today in the House of Representatives the custom is maintained by the Speaker-elect being escorted to the Chair by his or her proposer and seconder.

The fascinating historical development of the Speakership has been well recorded by Laundy.[2] For the purposes of this text it is sufficient to say that it is an office of great importance not only in its significant and onerous duties but particularly for what it is held to represent. The following comments by more recent Speakers serve to illustrate this:

… it may fairly be said that as an institution Parliament has proved its enduring worth through the test of time; secondly, Parliament’s past helps us to understand more fully its modern role and present-day organisation. To a large extent, the same holds true of the Speakership of the House of Commons, an office almost as old as Parliament itself.[3]
… the Speaker represents, in a very real sense, the right of freedom of speech in the Parliament, which was hard won from a monarchical Executive centuries ago. The Parliament must constantly be prepared to maintain its right of … freedom of speech, without fear or favour.[4]

By the time of the election of the first Speaker of the House of Representatives the Speakership of the House of Commons, fundamentally the same as we know it today, had already evolved. However the Speakership in Australia differs in some respects from current Westminster practice as its development during the 20th century followed different lines.

The Speaker today

The following statement of the House of Commons practice states succinctly the principal functions attaching to the office of Speaker which apply equally in the House of Representatives:

The Speaker … is the representative of the House itself in its powers, proceedings and dignity. The Speaker’s functions fall into three main categories. First, the Speaker is the spokesman or representative of the House in its relations with the Crown, the House of Lords and other authorities and persons outside Parliament. Second, the Speaker presides over the debates of the House … and enforces the observance of all rules for preserving order in its proceedings. Third, the Speaker has administrative responsibilities … [5]

The Speaker is a Member of the House and upon election to office becomes its principal officer.[6] He or she is supported and assisted by the elected Deputy Speaker and Second Deputy Speaker who act as Speaker in the Speaker’s absence and relieve in the Chair as Deputy Speaker whenever requested to do so. The Speaker appoints a number of Members to the Speaker’s panel and the Speaker or Deputy Speaker may call on any one of them to take the Chair as Deputy Speaker.

The Speaker has the constant support and advice of the staff of the House, including the Clerk of the House, the Deputy Clerk, the Clerks Assistant and the Serjeant-at-Arms, who in turn have the support of staff in the areas for which they are responsible.

The Speaker is commonly referred to as the Presiding Officer, his or her counterpart in the Senate being the President. While Speaker, a Member is entitled to be termed ‘Honourable’. In the Commonwealth order of precedence the Speaker is ranked directly after the Governor-General, State Governors, the Prime Minister, and a Premier within that Premier’s State. If the President of the Senate has served in office an equal or greater period of time, then the President also precedes the Speaker. If the Speaker has served for a longer period in office, then he or she precedes the President.[7]

In the Chamber and for ceremonial occasions the formal Speaker’s dress was traditionally a black Queen’s Counsel gown, full bottomed judge’s wig and lace accessories. Speakers from the non-Labor parties used to wear the full formal dress. However, Speaker Halverson, elected in 1996, wore the gown of a Queen’s Counsel but did not wear the wig, and subsequent Speakers, until 2007, wore an academic gown only, without accessories. Speaker Slipper, elected in 2011, wore a Queen’s Counsel gown. Speakers Bishop and Smith, elected in 2013 and 2015 respectively, did not wear a gown. Speakers from the Australian Labor Party have not worn wig or gown.[8]

The role the Speaker plays by virtue of the office requires the position to be filled by a dedicated, senior and experienced parliamentarian. The qualities required in a Speaker have been described in the following ways:

It is parliamentary rather than legal experience which is the first requirement of a Speaker. He must have an intimate understanding of parliamentary life, of the problems of Members collectively and individually, of the moods and foibles of the House; an experience which can be acquired only through many years spent on the benches of the House itself. He must have a deep-seated reverence for the institution of Parliament, an understanding of what lies behind the outward ceremony and a faith in democratic government.[9]
A newspaper writer once commented … ‘The office of Speaker does not demand rare qualities. It demands common qualities in a rare degree’ … A good Speaker is not necessarily an extraordinary person, therefore; he is an ordinary person, but an ordinary person of the highest calibre.[10]

There has been no general tendency to appoint lawyers as Speakers in the House of Representatives and, since Federation, only six Speakers have been members of the legal profession, namely, Speakers Groom, Nairn, Snedden, Sinclair, Slipper and Bishop.[11]

Traditionally the Speaker in the House of Representatives has been a person of considerable parliamentary experience. Speakers have mostly come from the back bench without ministerial or party leadership experience. Speakers who had had prior ministerial experience in the House of Representatives were Speakers Watt, Groom, Cameron, Snedden, Sinclair and Bishop. Due to the exceptional circumstances created by World War II Speaker Rosevear continued his duties as Controller of Leather and Footwear following his election as Speaker in 1943, and was Chairman of the Post-War Planning Committee of Leather and Footwear Industries between 1944 and 1945. These were not Cabinet appointments. Speaker Snedden had previously been a Minister, Leader of the House and Leader of the Opposition, experience he regarded as important in occupying the Speakership.[12] Speaker Sinclair had previously been a Minister, a party leader and Leader of the House. Speaker Makin became a Minister nine years after he ceased to be Speaker in 1932 and Speaker Scholes became a Minister in 1983, some seven years after ceasing to be Speaker. Speakers Martin, Slipper and Smith had previously been Parliamentary Secretaries. Speakers Salmon, McDonald, Bell, Scholes, Jenkins, Child, and McLeay previously held the office of Chairman of Committees, and Speaker Harry Jenkins,[13] Speaker Slipper and Speaker Burke the office of Deputy Speaker.

Impartiality of the Chair

One of the hallmarks of good Speakership is the requirement for a high degree of impartiality in the execution of the duties of the office. According to May:

Confidence in the impartiality of the Speaker is an indispensable condition of the successful working of procedure, and many conventions exist which have as their object not only to ensure the impartiality of the Speaker but also to ensure that his impartiality is generally recognized. He takes no part in debate either in the House or in committee. He votes only when the voices are equal, and then only in accordance with rules which preclude an expression of opinion upon the merits of a question.[14]

This important characteristic of office has been developed over the last two centuries to a point where in the House of Commons the Speaker abandons all party loyalties and is required to be impartial on all party issues both inside and outside the House. In concert with this requirement the principle has been well established that the Speaker continues in office, regardless of a change of government, until ceasing to be a Member of the House.

In contrast, practice in the House of Representatives has been to change the Speaker with a change of government (for exceptions see page 169). This provides a Speaker who is politically affiliated but who is required to be impartial in the Chair, rather than a Speaker who is both independent and seen to be independent. Historically, the Speaker has not been required to sever his or her connection with the governing party. Speakers have attended party meetings and have not, of necessity, refrained from election campaigning. As a rule, however, the Speaker does not participate in the actual debating and law-making processes of the House (but see page 180).

Notwithstanding the foregoing and the fact that the Speakership has long been regarded as a political appointment, Australian Speakers have striven to discharge their duties with impartiality. The degree of impartiality achieved depends on the occupant but, as a rule, Speakers have been sufficiently detached from government activity to ensure what can be justly claimed to be a high degree of impartiality in the Chair.

During his term in office (1976–83) Speaker Snedden advocated the adoption in Australia of conventions applying to the Speakership in the House of Commons. On the first sitting day of the 33rd Parliament, when there had been a change of Government and after a new Speaker had been elected, in informing the House of his decision to resign as a Member, Sir Billy noted that as Speaker he had endeavoured to apply ‘such of the features of the conventions as were consistent with reality’, that he had rarely attended party meetings and that he had confined his attendance to occasions when major issues of principle were to be discussed. He went on to say that, consistent with House of Commons practice, he would resign as a Member forthwith.[15]

The Speaker must show impartiality in the Chamber above all else. A Speaker should give a completely objective interpretation of standing orders and precedents, and should give the same reprimand for the same offence whether the Member is of the Government or the Opposition.

Experience has shown that the Speaker uses his or her discretion in such a manner as to ensure adequate opportunities for all sections to participate in the deliberations of the House. As a rule Speakers make themselves freely available outside the Chamber to give advice to or discuss matters with Members. Members are entitled to expect that, even though politically affiliated, the Speaker will carry out his or her functions impartially. Likewise a Speaker is entitled to expect support from all Members regardless of their party.

The Speaker embodies the dignity of the nation’s representative assembly. The office is above the individual and commands respect. The degree of respect depends to some extent on the occupant but it is fair to say that the office, despite isolated incidents, has been shown to be respected on both sides of the House.

In recognition of the need to show respect for the office, certain conventions are observed in the practices and procedures of the House:

  • on entering or leaving the Chamber Members acknowledge the Speaker by a bow (S.O. 62(b));
  • a Member must not pass between the Speaker and any Member who is speaking (S.O. 62(d));
  • Members addressing the House do so through the Speaker (S.O. 65(a));
  • Members resume their seats immediately the Speaker stands and the House shall be silent so that the Speaker may be heard without interruption (S.O. 61(a));
  • when the Speaker is putting a question no Member may walk out of or across the Chamber (S.O. 61(b)); and
  • when the House has been adjourned, no Member should leave the House before the Speaker.

(See also chapter on ‘Control and conduct of debate’).

It is unquestionably of great importance that, as a contribution towards upholding the impartiality of the office, the House chooses a candidate who has the qualities necessary for a good Speaker.

Period in office

The Speaker is elected by vote of the House and must be re-elected after each general election. Speaker John (later Sir John) McLeay (1956–1966) holds the record term of office of ten years.

Party

In the House of Commons, if the previous Speaker is still a member of the House on the meeting of a new Parliament, and is available, there has been a practice that he or she will be re-elected under what is known as the continuity principle, regardless of a change of government, until he or she resigns or retires (usually during the Parliament).

This practice has not been followed by the House of Representatives, where, since the early years after Federation, the Speaker has generally been a member of the governing party, and a change in the Government has brought a change in the Speaker.[16]

However, special circumstances have sometimes applied, and on occasion, when numbers have been very close (in the context that the Speaker normally has no vote) a non-government Member has been elected or has continued as Speaker. When the Liberal Government was elected to office in May 1913, Prime Minister Cook invited Speaker McDonald who had been Speaker in the previous Labor Government to remain as Speaker. Filling the Speaker’s position was significant for both parties due to the almost equal numbers in the House. Mr McDonald declined[17] and, when the 5th Parliament met on 9 July 1913, Mr Johnson, a candidate from the government party, was elected Speaker.[18]

A non-government Member has been Speaker of the House of Representatives in the following instances:

  • On 9 May 1901 Mr Holder, formerly Premier of South Australia, was unanimously elected as the first Speaker of the House of Representatives. Mr Holder was the only candidate for the Speakership at that time and on the two subsequent occasions he was re-elected as Speaker.[19] Speaker Holder remained in office until his death on 23 July 1909. During the period of his Speakership, there were six changes of Prime Minister and five changes in the governing party.
  • In November 1916 a group led by Mr Hughes broke away from the governing party to form a coalition Government with those who had been in opposition. Speaker McDonald remained in office until the House was dissolved in March 1917.
  • Speaker Watt, elected Speaker in 1923, was not a member of the governing coalition parties, but was a member of a party which supported the Government and was the governing parties’ nominee for the position of Speaker.[20]
  • On 20 November 1940 Mr Nairn was elected, unopposed, as Speaker[21] during the term of the Menzies United Australia Party–Country Party coalition Government. On 8 October 1941 Prime Minister Curtin informed the House of the formation of a new Australian Labor Party Government[22] but Speaker Nairn, a member of the now opposition United Australia Party, remained in office until he resigned on 21 June 1943. On 22 June 1943 Mr Rosevear, a member of the governing Labor Party, was elected Speaker, unopposed.[23]
  • On 11 November 1975 the Governor-General withdrew the commission of Prime Minister Whitlam (Australian Labor Party) and commissioned Leader of the Opposition Fraser (Liberal–Country Party coalition) to form a ‘caretaker’ Government. Speaker Scholes continued in the Chair for the remainder of the sitting under the new Government,[24] and remained as ‘deemed’ Presiding Officer, under the Presiding Officers Act, until Speaker Snedden, who was a member of the governing coalition parties, was elected when the next Parliament met on 17 February 1976.[25]
  • On 24 November 2011 Deputy Speaker Slipper, a member of the opposition Liberal Party, was elected Speaker, unopposed, following the resignation of Speaker Jenkins earlier the same day.[26] After his election, Speaker Slipper resigned from the Liberal Party and sat as an independent.
Top