Speaker Bronwyn Bishop is an active participant in debates. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
English judge: Are you trying to show contempt for this court, Mr Smith?
F.E. Smith: No, My Lord. I am attempting to conceal it.
This reputed interchange quite often comes to my mind when I see a wrinkle on the face of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop, as she expresses concern that someone has made a reflection on her impartiality or proper interpretation of the rules of parliament. Mrs Bishop does know the rules, of course, if only by having tested almost every one of them in her years before she was elevated. But impartial she is not, and she hardly pretends to be.
My view that this is the case is not made with particular sadness, or even some suggestion that she is in breach of some long tradition of absolute disinterestedness by previous Speakers, Labor or Liberal. There's no such tradition, but Bishop is in a class of her own for making no pretence of hiding her bias, and for making herself an active participant, and interjector, in debates.
Sometimes, however, it is a little unfair that the referee, already playing for one side, makes so free with her power to throw players on the other side out.
Most Australian Speakers have been clear political partisans, and have been frequently unfair, particularly to the opposition. Except in very rare cases, they can, in any event, rely on the automatic support of the government in any motion of dissent against their rulings, and only a few (Bill Snedden perhaps) have been timorous souls enough to care a fig what the media, constitutionalists or the other side of politics have cared about their rulings. Over the years one or two Speakers - Sir Littleton Groom and Archie Cameron come to mind - have not even cared a fig what the government of the day thought of their rulings.
In my years in Canberra I have witnessed at first hand the chairmanship of only 16 of the 29 Speakers there have been since federation, and it is thus a little difficult to generalise. So far as playing by the rules and being actually reasonably fair to both sides were concerned, the three best, in my opinion, were Ian Sinclair, Peter Slipper and probably Anna Burke - the latter perhaps the more so from necessity since the government lacked a majority and the support of independents on procedural matters could not be guaranteed. The Harry Jenkinses - father and son - were reasonably fair-minded, as was Billy Snedden, but lacked much capacity for good-humoured control.
In Britain, Speakers are, usually, actually fair, and have a lot of independence from the government of the day. By convention, indeed, a Speaker is not opposed in her or his electorate after being selected, stays on after a different government is elected, and has a good deal more control over the parliamentary agenda than in Australian parliaments.
The tendency, in Australia, is that the Speaker is seen more or less as a member of the executive government, with a function, somewhat akin to the Leader of the House, of ensuring the efficient management of the legislative and talking-shop agenda of parliament through the sausage machine. Bronwyn performs admirably, although, as a person with ministerial experience, and a never-quite extinguished yearning to be prime minister, she must wish she had the power to order her many enemies - in the Labor Party almost as much as in the Liberal Party - into the kerosene bath.
The way in which she flaunts her open partisanship brings to mind that fundamental difference between different classes of Australian sports followers. There are those who, like me, wish to see a very tight struggle, going this way and that, until, at the very last moment, our side wins by a short half head. At game's end, praise is evenly distributed.
The other side of the chasm consists of those who want to see the opposition - particularly if they are Poms or sheepshaggers - trounced, without pity or remorse. They want excitement, for example, swashbuckling centuries from our batsmen, bone-shattering balls from our bowlers, and exciting tries from our centres. But the only part of the spectacle which appeals is the winning, and by as clear and humiliating a distance as possible. Cricket, or rugby, after all, are not games, but substitutes for armed conflict.
Those who like the second type of sport - and they have their good points - sometimes care little about the umpires or the referees, unless they are biased against us. They can tolerate disinterest and fairmindedness, but not a fear of the sort (before neutral umpires) that one's prospect of getting an Indian out LBW in India was nil.
Bronwyn Bishop, in any event, believes in total war, and her sheer feistiness in prosecuting it makes parliament a far more entertaining institution than it has been when someone boring but scrupulously fair-minded has been in charge of proceedings. And, given the quality of opposition debating, or questioning, and that tone of aggrieved wimpiness with which there are slight but scared protest at her enormities, who cares? I cannot think of a debate this semester which was the worse, or less well-informed, simply because Bishop had remorselessly shot every Opposition soldier who had put their head above the parapet.
The tactic is answerable. It is not by moving motions of dissent, which would simply give her the pleasure of saying Sucks Boo. It is by walk out. From Labor's point of view, numbers matter in the Senate, at least for the moment. But they do not matter in the House of Representatives. There is nothing the government or the Speaker could sneak through simply because the Opposition had arisen, as one woman and man, and marched out the door. But that might be embarrassing, even to Abbott and Bishop.
Perhaps we need F.E. Smith back. If his own anecdotage, usually uncheckable,was correct his repartee was better than that of Eddie Ward, Mick Young, Fred Daly or Jim Killen. Here are a few more examples:
Judge: Have you ever heard of a saying by Bacon - the great Bacon - that youth and discretion are ill-wedded companions?
Smith: Yes, I have. And have you ever heard of a saying of Bacon - the great Bacon - that a much-talking judge is like an ill-tuned cymbal?
Smith (to witness): So, you were as drunk as a judge?
Judge (interjecting): You mean as drunk as a lord?
Smith: Yes, My Lord …
Master of the Rolls (hearing an appeal: Really, Mr Smith, do give this Court credit for some little intelligence.
Smith: That is the mistake I made in the Court below, My Lord.