Sep 21, 2010

Transcript of Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC Radio National

Subject: Speakership; Opposition’s commitment to parliamentary reform

FRAN KELLY: Well, a key player in resolving this showdown over who will be Speaker is Anthony Albanese. He’s the Leader of Government Business in the House. We’ll keep Michelle Grattan holding on for a moment longer and go to Anthony Albanese instead.

Minister, good morning.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: According to the convention the Government provides the Speaker. You have one there, sitting there in Harry Jenkins, who the Opposition supports. Will you appoint Harry Jenkins as Speaker?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, we’ll see whether the Opposition actually support that or not because it would appear obvious, as Rob Oakeshott has said, that the Opposition change their view from day to day.

They made an agreement with what’s now the Government – one must remember, of course, at that time there was no government; we were a caretaker government and they were, if you like, a caretaker opposition hoping to be the government – along with the independents, in good faith.

And what we agreed at that time, very clearly, was that the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker would both absent themselves, essentially, from voting. That’s clear in the agreement and if they were from a major political party and traditionally, of course, the Government has provided both the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker. The fact that the agreement speaks about them coming from opposite sides was a part of what was worked out, not just with the current members of Parliament but with senior people such as Grahame Morris and Arthur Sinodinos and Bruce Hawker, sat around various rooms over many hours and worked this through.

FRAN KELLY: Did anyone during that process say, oh, this might – we might have constitutional problems here with Section 40? Did you think that?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Let’s get real, Fran. The Opposition have come up with this as a political issue. I don’t believe that they’re fair dinkum in terms of the changes that we’ve seen in their position from day to day.

I heard Christopher Pyne say last night we should have done our due diligence. Well, we did. We honoured and were prepared to honour the agreement. The agreement had in it as well a provision that if Rob Oakeshott had been elected as the Speaker then he could have been provided with a pair. It would have been more complex, no doubt about that. But these things are always by agreement.

The nature of pairing is not recognised in the standing orders at all. It is an informal agreement between the whips whereby essentially the principle that there won’t be a distortion of the outcome of the House of Representatives because someone is absent by the pairing arrangement. You know, the Parliament operates on the basis of goodwill and agreements between the players in both the House of Representatives and the Senate in a number of ways.

FRAN KELLY: No doubt about that. The Parliament does operate on the basis of goodwill when it comes to pairing but is that different to a written agreement? And at the time you were negotiating it, did it ever occur to you, I’d better go check this out, get constitutional advice on this?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, no, let’s be…

FRAN KELLY: Did you get that advice?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Let’s be clear, Fran. We weren’t the Government and weren’t able to get the constitutional advice from the Solicitor-General at that time but the fact is that pairs – it is implied [in] the same Section 40 that members vote and if the Member for Grayndler is paired with the Member for Sturt then there’s an implication there that that is breaching the spirit in which every member of the House of Representatives shall cast a vote on a particular issue – but those arrangements are entered into and this was never raised by Christopher Pyne. The fact is the agreement explicitly states the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker would be paired essentially with each other.

What we want to know today is does Tony Abbott stick by that agreement? There is no doubt that having an independent Speaker makes that more difficult but we believe not impossible, because unlike the Government and the Opposition it’s less predictable what way an independent member would vote. So that would have made it more complex but we were prepared to honour the spirit and the letter of the agreement that we signed up to.

The Opposition now have no excuse. They have to make it clear whether they stand by that agreement because most of the time, of course, when there are votes in the House of Representatives there’s a member of what’s called the Speaker’s Panel – someone else other than the Speaker or the Deputy Speaker in the chair – and part of the agreement is they will be provided with a temporary pair in addition to the Speaker and Deputy Speaker being paired permanently.

FRAN KELLY: It’s eight minutes to eight on RN Breakfast. Our guest this morning is Anthony Albanese. He’s the Leader of the Government Business – of Government Business in the House.

Anthony Albanese, I think voters, you know, they’ve been watching this process unfold. There’s a little nervousness perhaps in the community but also goodwill to make it work but people want to be sure that there is a Speaker when the Parliament resumes next week and it seems that anyone who values their vote on the floor of the House doesn’t want to give up one of those votes to be Speaker.

Will the Government in the end be happy to surrender one vote, leaving you with a majority of one, to make sure there is a Speaker?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: We need to know, Fran, exactly what the rules of the game are in terms of the Opposition. We’ve signed up to an agreement. We will honour that agreement. We need to know whether the Opposition will honour that agreement or not and Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne have to make their position clear. They haven’t up to now. They’ve been crab-walking away from this agreement.

I think that the Australian public do want a more gentle politics, do want more cooperation. I think that the group hug day, if it’s going to be more than – and I said it at the time – if it’s going to be more than just a piece of paper there has to be that goodwill.

What we’ve seen since the Government was formed is Tony Abbott going back to his old habits of talking about conflict politics.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. But if…

ANTHONY ALBANESE: And what we need to know is what the rules of the game are – will they stick by that agreement? – and then we can make a decision based upon the rules of the game.

FRAN KELLY: Just finally, Anthony Albanese, the kicker question then I suppose is if the Opposition says no they’re not standing by that agreement, will the Government appoint the Speaker?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: We’ll make a decision based upon what the understandings are. But we need to know if they are going to be bound by that agreement, Fran. That’s absolutely critical so that people know exactly what the situation is. It was agreed that the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker would come from opposite sides, one from each, and therefore the pairing arrangement then is very simple. Both of them don’t vote and whoever’s in the chair on top of that doesn’t vote. It’s a very simple arrangement. The Opposition have no excuse. No excuse. And they need to make it clear whether they stand by that agreement or not.

FRAN KELLY: All right.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Once that’s made clear, we can then make our decisions.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good to be with you.

FRAN KELLY: Anthony Albanese is the Leader of Government Business in the House.