The role of Speaker, which has a history dating back to the Middle Ages, requires someone who is like a rugby referee—an impartial and authoritative presence in parliament.

If you have ever seen footage of Question Time in the House of Representatives on the news, you will have noticed the person perched on an elevated platform that looks like a cross between a throne and boardroom.

This is the Speaker—a very special parliamentarian, and not just because they have their own oversized office chair.

So what does the Speaker do while occupying the perfect spot for overseeing the chaos of 150 clamorous parliamentarians? And where did this democratic tradition come from?

What is the history and purpose of the Speaker in parliament?

The role of Speaker is old and venerable; in Westminster, the first Speaker designated as such was appointed in 1377.

The position is alive and kicking in modern Australia, as we adopted Britain’s Westminster parliamentary system and many of its traditions.   

Australia’s House of Representatives Practice informs us that the Speaker is “a Member of the House … [who]… upon election to office becomes its principal officer”, fulfilling functions “constitutional, traditional and ceremonial, statutory, procedural and administrative”.

The Speaker’s most visible role is presiding over House sittings by enforcing standing orders, the main rules by which the House conducts its business.

Overseeing the clamour and chaos of parliamentarians is just one of the Speaker’s responsibilities. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

Managing the commotion of Question Time doesn’t constitute all that goes on in the House, much of which is comparatively routine and dull.

There are more than 200 rules to enforce, which include details about how long members of parliament’s speeches, questions and replies can be; how votes are taken; how to deal with petitions; and disorderly behaviour and how it will be managed.

Speakers are chosen by the House, but in reality, this choice just formalises the selection made by the nominee’s parliamentary party.

Why would a party politician take on the impartial Speaker role?

Foremostly, it’s a great honour to be Speaker. You are central to the functioning of the House, which determines the government of the nation.

You also have onerous responsibilities to assert authority over Members, administer the parliament (with the President of the Senate) and uphold parliamentary traditions.

In truth, most candidates for the speakership lack prospects for promotion to the ministry—not necessarily on grounds of lack of ability, but often due to insufficient political standing within the party. Only two Speakers, Norman Makin (1929-31) and Gordon Scholes (1975), went on to the ministry, both many years after leaving the speakership.

Several have been past ministers for whom placement on the backbench seemed risky. Frederick Holder (1901-09) was a former state premier who missed out on the first federal ministry; Billy Snedden (1976-83) had been treasurer. Interestingly, both proved excellent Speakers.

Others landed the Speaker role as they seemed too unpredictable to leave on the backbench, including former Country Party leader Archie Cameron (1950-56), described by a contemporary as a “mixture of generosity, prejudice and irresponsibility”.

For certain party elders, such as Ian Sinclair (1998) and Bronwyn Bishop (2013-15), the speakership was a dignified position that seemed fitting.

What stops the Speaker being biased towards their own party?

Holder’s efforts to embed the Westminster convention of a neutral Speaker who ceases to be active in a political party didn’t survive his untimely death in the parliament building in 1909. Alfred Deakin’s anointing of his ally Carty Salmon (1909-10) put a decisive end to that ideal.

House of Representatives Practice sternly proclaims that the Speaker must maintain impartiality through “a completely objective interpretation of standing orders”. However, in practice much depends on the individual, political circumstances and that fragile but vitally significant thing—convention, itself based on respect for parliamentary tradition.

Although Speakers are formally chosen by the House, the nominee’s party makes the initial selection. Photo: Debu55y/stock.adobe.com

Neil Andrew (1998-2004), argued persuasively that any seeming deference to the ruling party is counterbalanced by an impartiality with roots in the Australian “fair go” ethos. Such fragile non-partisanship has probably been helped by the fact that the speakership is not usually a pathway to political promotion.

Most Speakers have successfully balanced party loyalty with wider expectations of the office, with the occasional outlier. Snedden, an advocate of Westminster convention, once simultaneously sat down both Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam, reminding them that their behaviour “should reflect their status as a leader in the national parliament”. Tony Smith (2015-21) was also lauded for his impartiality.

What makes a good Speaker?

Speakers are usually judged by ability to assert personal authority over the House, and their non-partisanship.

Amusingly, Stephen Martin (1993-1996) considered his experience as a rugby league referee good preparation for the task of being Speaker. Truly effective Speakers exercise their authority with a deceptively light touch, and keep any apparent favouritism within tolerable bounds. Barring Holder, all Speakers have had at least five years’ prior experience in the House.

Sometimes they have surprised observers. Two formerly little-known Queenslanders, George Mackay (1932-34) and Peter Slipper (2011-12), were effective in the chair. Only a few, such as the combative Cameron, faced persistent calls for resignation. The first female Speaker, Joan Child (1986-89), was unlucky enough to have to manage Bob Hawke and Paul Keating simultaneously.  

Who gives the Speaker advice?

Let’s not forget the unsung Clerks. The Clerk administers the Department of the House of Representatives and advises the Speaker and Members on parliamentary law and procedure.

They are a parliamentary officer, not a politician. In the House, the Clerk must be able to offer sound advice to the Speaker at an instant’s notice.

The first and current female Clerk is Claressa Surtees, who was appointed in 2019.

‘Order, Order!’: A biographical dictionary of Speakers, Deputy Speakers and Clerks of the Australian House of Representatives is edited by Stephen Wilks and is available to download free at ANU Press.

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