LET'S start with the bottom line. The government should cut Speaker Peter Slipper loose. He is not an appropriate occupant of a position that carries all the symbolism of Parliament's role at the apex of our democratic system.
Slipper is standing aside while allegations he breached the criminal law by misusing Cabcharges are examined. He is not waiting for the police to finish their assessment - last night he released a batch of Cabcharges that he obtained from the Finance Department, saying the ''documents have all been completed by me and are clearly in my handwriting, as I said they were''.
The government has said he can return to work if cleared of these allegations, made by a male staffer, even though civil action claiming sexual harassment, brought by the same man, will not have been resolved.
This is not tenable, in either practice or principle. At a practical level, the opposition looks as if it could muster the parliamentary numbers to call on Slipper to remain in limbo until the civil issues are dealt with. Crossbenchers Tony Windsor and Andrew Wilkie say he should not resume duties until everything is satisfactorily squared away; Rob Oakeshott could take the same view. The government will go to almost any length to avoid losing a significant vote, so it would not risk the big embarrassment of a defeat on this.
Apart from talking about the presumption of innocence, it argues that if political figures have to stand aside whenever civil cases are brought, this will encourage vexatious actions for political motives.
It highlights Malcolm Turnbull being named in a case brought by the HIH liquidator when he was a minister and opposition leader; Julia Gillard yesterday referred to Liberal senator Sean Edwards, accused of deceptive conduct in a commercial transaction. At one level, the argument about civil cases is strong, and probably should usually be the default position.
When it comes to Slipper, however, having a matter as serious as alleged sexual harassment hanging over him when he is trying to manage the House, and to represent Parliament, is a bridge too far. At the very least, the government should tell Slipper there can be no return while any legal action is afoot. But, for the sake of the speakership, it should go further.
Lawyers have to meet the test of being of ''good fame and character'' to practise their profession. This concept is useful when applied to senior political offices. The bar is higher than just the obvious disqualifications. In the legal case, the principle is that it is difficult to maintain trust in the system if practitioners have clouds over their characters; also, at a day-to-day level, for the ordinary business of the courts to function properly, there has to be a level of trust between judges and lawyers.
Slipper would be familiar with the ''good fame and character'' principle. He is the chief legal adviser to the Traditional Anglican Communion (a position from which the church's archbishop, John Hepworth, is trying to get him to stand aside until the civil matters are over).
Even if he has not broken the criminal or civil law, Slipper's long-term behaviour has not been up to what is required of someone who becomes Speaker. His extravagant taxi charges, frequently running into hundred of dollars a trip and totalling $45,000 over an 18-month period, are, even if within the law, pretty clearly a misuse of taxpayer dollars on any commonsense measure. His alleged comments to his staffer, even if not sexual harassment, would seem to many people inappropriate between employer and employee.
The Speaker is a representative of Parliament to the people; he also has to run the House of Representatives, a difficult job, especially when the numbers are hung. The electorate is already cynical about politicians. To have the Speaker discredited further corrodes trust in the political system and its institutions. In performing his duties in the House, Slipper has done well, being tough and establishing a fair degree of order. But assuming he resumed duties after this controversy, he would not carry authority with many MPs. For these reasons he should never return to the chair, not just stay out for the duration of his legal issues.
Without Slipper in place, the government's buffer is wafer thin. You can understand why it has been desperate to have him reinstalled ASAP if at all possible.
At the very least, the government should tell Slipper there can be no return while any legal action is afoot.
Some in government circles think the public will see this as all ''inside the beltway''. But voters, while (often unfairly) regarding politicians generally as a venal crowd, do react sharply to abuses of entitlements. More importantly, this affair adds to the perception that the government is lax on standards, defined widely to include its breaking of promises, something about which voters appear to have become more fierce recently. This impression was reinforced by the sleazy deal that installed Slipper.
Surely, sooner or later, the government, unless it is suicidal, will have to take a step back on Slipper. But it will be too late and it almost certainly will not go far enough. Once again Gillard will have compromised the standards she should meet.
Oh, and if the government ever did find itself searching for a new Speaker, it should avoid the tricky stuff and just stick to one of its own, tight numbers notwithstanding.
Michelle Grattan is political editor.
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