Federal Politics

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All rise for new head of the House

ANNA BURKE could scarcely have imagined when she entered the federal Parliament in 1998 that 14 years later she would become - in the most extraordinary of circumstances - the second female Speaker of the House of Representatives.

She had been an official with the Financial Sector Union for five years before she entered Parliament, angered at the increasing number of redundancies as the big banks and other financial institutions made ever-bigger profits.

The continuation of large-scale redundancies, the contracting out of jobs and the casualisation of the workforce, she said in her first speech to Parliament, all led to a ''reduced feeling of job security amongst employees''. She decried ''the decline of collectivism in the face of rampant individualism''.

All these years later, she is suddenly, officially, the most powerful individual in the House, her job won through the most spectacular resignation in recent parliamentary history. She is required to umpire 150 MPs, a lot of them rampant individuals concerned about their own job security, though bound, most of them, into opposing collectives.

It might be enough to make a head spin, but Ms Burke is considered by her colleagues on all sides to have a cool head on her shoulders, even if the social media world spent an inordinate amount of tweets commenting on her fly-away hairstyle when she first came to regular notice in the Speaker's chair.

That was six months ago, when she was required to act as Speaker in the absence of the real Speaker, Peter Slipper. She was officially Deputy Speaker, a job that does not normally attract much attention. But the regularly fractious hung Parliament became her daily stage, and her elevation on Tuesday night after Mr Slipper's teary resignation seemed hardly more than a formality.

Ms Burke might not have been a factional player, but she has achieved one of the more difficult tasks for a female politician: mothering two children, Madeleine, 12, and John, 10. Indeed, she was the first politician outside an ACT electorate to become a mother while an MP.

Accepting the role as Speaker this week, she paid tribute to her husband, Steve, for making it possible to be a politician parent. ''None of us can do these roles without our family support,'' she said. ''None of us are here on our own. Without our staff, without our electorates and without our families we do not do this job.''

The seat of Chisholm, based around Box Hill in Melbourne's eastern suburbs, was held by the Liberals' Michael Wooldridge until he jumped to Casey in 1998. Ms Burke captured the seat in the big swing to the Labor Party that almost unseated the Howard government that year.