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Common(wealth) Knowledge #4: Being Speaker is such a drag

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

Milton Dick has been announced as the new Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The 47th Parliament of Australia opened on 26 July 2022. One of the first orders of business was electing a Speaker of the House of Representatives, which Labor MP Milton Dick won. As Speaker of the House, Dick will be responsible for running the House of Representatives and maintaining order there. Dick’s counterpart in the Senate, confusingly referred to as the President of the Senate, is Labor Senator Sue Lines. Yet despite seemingly appearing equal in rank, the Speaker is usually portrayed as more important.

Like many things in Australian politics, part of this dates back to the British Parliament. Originally, the monarch sat in Parliament and presided over it. But as Parliament’s power grew, and the separation of powers developed, this was increasingly uncommon, and so the monarch appointed a Speaker to run things in their place. The monarch always retained the right to sit in Parliament, and although it is rarely used, it is why the Speaker’s chair is so ornate.

With the monarch no longer watching Parliamentary debates and votes, the Speaker had the responsibility of reporting the news from the House of Commons to the monarch. However, if the Speaker delivered bad news, especially if the monarch was having a bad day, this was potentially fatal. King Henry VIII, who famously had two of his three wives beheaded, also executed three Speakers. This is why all Speakers, including Dick, are dragged to the Speaker’s chair once elected, to symbolise the unwillingness of the Speaker.

When the British Parliament split into the elected House of Commons and the aristocratic House of Lords, the Speaker stayed with the House of Commons, and would eventually be elected, while the House of Lords became less powerful. This same dynamic exists in Australia, except the upper house was also elected. The power of the House of Representatives is the second reason for the Speaker’s importance.

The House of Representatives represents the people directly, is where the Prime Minister and most Ministers are drawn from, and is where most government business happens. In contrast, the Senate has more limited powers. A prominent example of this is that appropriation bills, to spend government money and taxation bills, to raise taxes, must originate in the House of Representatives, according to Section 53 of the Constitution. Furthermore, the Senate cannot amend these bills; it can only pass or block them.

Although the Speaker is no longer likely to be killed by the monarch, there are still certain rules that only the Speaker is subject to. Because the Speaker is meant to be impartial, they generally cannot take part in debates or vote. The only time they are allowed to vote is in the event of a tie, in which case they have the tie-breaking vote. Former speaker Tony Smith took impartially so seriously that he refused to take part in party meetings.

Because the Speaker is generally a member of the party forming government, the limitation on voting is why a party seeking to form a majority government must control half the seats in the House of Representatives, plus one seat for the Speaker. This ensures that the government can pass legislation in its own right, because when there is an even number of seats, the Speaker gives the government a one-seat advantage.

Forming government does not depend on controlling the Senate, only the House of Representatives. Therefore, Section 22 of the Constitution allows the President of the Senate to cast a vote like other Senators. However, as there have always been an even number of Senators, if there is a tie, the motion fails. Because the President’s vote is therefore less decisive, the President is given less attention than in the media than the Speaker, especially when the government is a minority government or has only a slim majority, as the harder it is for the government to pass legislation, the Speaker’s tie-breaking ability becomes more important.

One criticism of the position of the Speaker is that the voters of the Speaker’s seat are effectively robbed of their voice in Parliament. Because the Speaker cannot debate or vote, they are unable to represent the people who elected them. It has been suggested that this goes against the fundamental principles of democracy. One response to this has been that the importance of the role of the Speaker means that the Speaker’s electorate still has a voice.

Unlike in Britain, it is unlikely that the monarch will ever preside over either house of the Australian Parliament. Unless and until this happens, it is likely that the role of the Speaker, with its centuries of history, will remain influential in Parliament and will be more important than the President.

Stuart Jeffery is a freelance researcher & digital editor for 6 News. His views on personal social media pages are his & his only, and do not reflect the views of 6 News or our journalists. He abides by 6 News' editorial standards relating to fairness & accuracy.

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Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1901 (Imp), 63 & 64 Vict, c 12.


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