Government survives as Wilkie withdraws support
The government survived potentially embarrassing votes against Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper in Parliament this afternoon – but in an ominous sign for Labor, key independents have signalled they have serious concerns about the matters.
Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie twice sided with the Coalition in motions to suspend standing orders; Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott have said they are taking advice on the Fair Work Australia report that concerns Mr Thomson.
The manager of opposition business, Christopher Pyne, opened question time this afternoon by seeking to suspend standing orders as part of a bid to reinstate former Speaker Harry Jenkins to the chair.
Christopher Pyne speaks during question time in the House of Representatives, where he moved a motion to reinstate former speaker Harry Jenkins to the chair. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
The house was drawn at 72 votes on each side, with Mr Wilkie siding with the Coalition – a sure sign that the Tasmanian MP has torn up his agreement to support the government.
Ms Burke said her casting vote was not needed, because the motion required an absolute majority (of 76) to be carried.
Independent Rob Oakeshott sided with the government on both votes but later released a statement explaining his actions.
No-man's land ... independent MP Craig Thomson during question time at Parliament House today. Photo: Andrew Meares
Mr Oakeshott said the Coalition had not even asked Mr Jenkins if he would accept his old job back.
"I sat alongside Mr Jenkins in the vote, further confirming this lack of desire on his behalf," Mr Oakeshott said.
His crossbench colleague, Mr Windsor, later told ABC TV that he thought it was "unlikely" Mr Slipper would return to the speaker's chair.
During the debate, Mr Pyne said the standing of the Parliament had never been so low, and the house needed a Speaker who had demonstrated fairness and integrity.
"That man is sitting in the house right now," he said of Mr Jenkins.
Mr Pyne insisted that the Coalition move was nothing personal against Deputy Speaker Anna Burke – who is standing in for Mr Slipper – but that the clock needed to be "restarted", back to before Mr Jenkins resigned as Speaker in November last year.
The Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Julie Bishop, called on the independents to vote against the government, calling Julia Gillard a "scheming Prime Minister".
The Leader of the House, Anthony Albanese, led Labor's response, saying the Opposition had ignored question time with the motion. Mr Albanese also said it was unconstitutional to try to depose the Deputy Speaker.
"Well done by those opposite," he concluded.
Mr Thomson – who made his debut on the crossbench today, having handed back his ALP membership – also came under fire from the opposition in the house this afternoon.
After Ms Gillard ended question time at 3.10pm – after only two questions – Mr Pyne again moved to suspend standing orders, this time so that the house could debate suspending Craig Thomson for 14 days.
Mr Wilkie again voted with the Coalition, but the vote was lost 72 to 70.
Liberal backbencher Paul Fletcher had been kicked out of the House since the last vote, and Bob Katter – who voted with the Coalition regarding Mr Jenkins – did not vote in the Thomson round.
Mr Oakeshott later signalled that his vote was not rock solid when it came to Mr Thomson. He said he regarded the Fair Work Australia findings as "serious" and that he was "deeply considering all options available".
Mr Windsor also told ABC TV that he was very concerned by the Thomson issue and was seeking further advice on the matter. The member for New England said he had sided with the government today because he believed in due process.
During the debate, Ms Bishop said that Mr Thomson needed to make a statement to the house about allegations that he misused union funds before entering Parliament in 2007.
Mr Albanese repeated the government's view that Mr Thomson was entitled to the presumption of innocence.
As Mr Thomson looked on without expression, Mr Albanese dismissed the Coalition's 14-day plan.
"Think about what the implications are of that," he said.
"It's called democracy," Mr Albanese said, noting the separation of the Parliament and the courts.
Earlier today, Mr Slipper stepped aside from the Speakership, but said he has more work to do as Speaker and looks forward to resuming the role.
Mr Slipper has temporarily passed on the role to Ms Burke due to allegations of sexual harassment and travel rorts, made by former staffer James Ashby last month.
Before stepping down, Mr Slipper said that he believed he was entitled to the presumption of innocence and to have the civil and criminal claims made against him dealt with by the proper processes.
"It is unfortunate that trial by media seems to have become the order of the day in this country," he said.
"There is much more to be done and I look forward to completing what I have begun."