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Monthly Archives: September 2010

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I have been vigourously opposed to giving the Greens even an iota of credibility because of their utter incompetence at policy. One simple example that I have used to highlight their idiocy is their High Speed Rail policy. My argument, in short, was that high speed rail was unsuited to Australian conditions because of the vast distances between cities and the low population densities in between them. I said that high speed rail was possible between Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong and Canberra but that this was a completely different proposition and business plan to a Melbourne-Sydney rail link because those would be daily commuters rather than air travellers.

Well apparently, the Government had already commissioned a study into the feasibility of a high speed rail and found it severely wanting. And for some reason, it agrees with me.

I think the most important finding is this:

A high-speed rail network would require a minimum of six million travellers a year to be viable, but the briefing said 12 million to 20 million commuters were more typical.

To even be viable, you would need at least 6 million travellers a year. That’s like saying that the entire population of Sydney has to use this high speed rail at least once a year, every year on average. That is obviously ridiculous. Alternatively, there have to be at least 16,000 daily commuters between Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong and Canberra. That sounds more feasible, but the Government Report highlights the highly dispersed nature of these cities. They do not have the density to sustain that sort of centralised rail network.

This is a damning indictment of the Greens. It is just so intuitively obvious that this plan could not have worked that for them to make it a crucial plank of their policy platform loses them all credibility. It might be argued that the Greens are here to fix our social policy, to put forward euthanasia bills; same sex marriage bills; environmental bills etc etc.

But you don’t realise how complex it is to draft those sorts of bills. With euthanasia bills you have to have all sorts of safeguards put in place to ensure that ‘assisted suicide’ is not actually assisted murder of someone who did not consent to that euthanasia. Let us remember that a key reason the Northern Territory’s euthanasia bill failed was because, despite its careful formulation, there were still all sorts of holes in that Bill. The Greens, who are ideologically driven to get euthanasia are not the types who would draft a bill with the same caution.

Likewise, same sex marriage bills are complex in the way that they interact with State marriage laws which do not recognise gay marriage – that is a significant problem in the US. A party as incapable of simple logic as the Greens would be equally incapable of drafting competent legislation on this front.

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As has been made abundantly clear by the media, the Liberals are avowedly breaking the agreement they made with the independents and the Labor Party because of constitutional concerns about the pairing of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker’s votes. I have noted my strong disagreement about the strength of that argument.

However, here is incontestable evidence that the Liberals are not breaking that agreement solely because of constitutional concerns

Mr Abbott is also refusing to pair government MPs for all but critical reasons, forcing the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, to pull out of an event next week with 400 global chief executives.

They are repudiating both the pairing arrangement for the Speaker as well as for ordinary MPs. Why would they break the pairing arrangement for ordinary MPs? They themselves haven’t raised any constitutional issues. The only reason could be naked political self-interest.

If you add this on top of the press release that Tony Abbott’s office sent out pretending to be Alex Somlyay and quoting him (without asking him), it really is quite amazing. Was Abbott trying to muscle him into not becoming Deputy Speaker? That was a pretty poor way of doing it.

Of course, one should never trust a politician, but it is remarkable that the Coalition is willing to so brazenly break an express promise in this manner. As I have argued, this hurts their reputation before the public in the short term and potentially the longer term. More crucially, it hurts their reputation before the independents whom they would need if they wanted to change government on the floor of the House.

http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/going-to-delhi-a-chance-for-athletes-to-show-real-courage-for-once-20100924-15qhf.html

I am tempted to wholly agree, which is something I rarely do not do. But alas, my lawyerly instinct to qualify any statement no matter how blithe or obvious overcomes any desire I may have to reach consensus or build coalitions.

I completely agree on a values basis, then caveat by noting the practical considerations which athletes must face. For example, high class athletes can have their performance significantly impacted for several years after a bout of serious illness; their training routines must be absolutely perfect to compete against others whose routines will be perfect.

But saying that all just really goes to show Lisa Pryor’s main point. Which is that sport isn’t about those values of endurance or comraderie that people are always talking about. It is, in a very literal sense, about being the best that you can be, in the highly controlled, almost rarified environment of the Olympics and Commonwealth Games, both of which are supposedly not open to professional athletes.

So those are the constitutional consequences of the pairing of the Speaker’s deliberative vote. It is very likely to be found constitutional, but there is always the nominal risk of any Bill in the next three years being challenged by some particularly desperate plaintiff or a plaintiff with particularly deep pockets and a try-everything-once attitude causing continuing uncertainty. Of course, if the Liberals refuse the agreement there are no legal consequences whatsoever.

But what are the political consequences of the Liberals rejecting the pairing arrangement? Tony Abbott will definitely face a drop in his popularity in the short term, but will that have a long-term impact? I think the ALP has an excellent opportunity to lay an Abbott on Abbott. Abbott’s particular skill is to use very sharp media management and repetition of key messages to paint a broader picture of the Government as being economically wasteful, factionally-riven etc etc completely contrary to all evidence (at least with respect to economic incompetence). That has seriously eroded the overwhelming popular support that Kevin Rudd (and later Julia Gillard) held with the Australian public (combined with the ALP’s own political incompetence, of course). The flip side of that has been that Abbott’s combative approach has caused attrition damage to his own popularity rating. Although the Liberal primary vote has increased as the ALP primary vote has decreased, a significant proportion of the lost ALP votes have not gone to the Liberals but to the minor parties, including the Greens. And most crucially, Tony Abbott’s preferred PM rating has never, ever exceeded that of the ALP leader because his public image is not Prime-Ministerial. He looks combative, he looks like he’s out for his own rather than the national good.

The ALP has an excellent opportunity to turn Abbott’s own strategy on himself. If they can weave this huge backflip back onto Abbott, they can build onto that image that Abbott has with the public. Despite their best efforts, the Mad Monk image of Abbott has not gripped the public this election. However, if the ALP can make their case to the public that Abbott is combative, that he is risky, that he is out for his own benefit and not for the public benefit, then they can permanently damage his credibility before the Australian people.

As I said, if the ALP does nothing, then the fallout from this political backflip will only be temporary and transient. If the ALP takes its traditional approach of focussing on the short-term message over the long-term message and forgets about this episode, so will the Australian public. However, if it is weaved into a broader message of an untrustworthy Tony Abbott who backflipped on carbon emissions several times, who may bring back Workchoices etc etc, the ALP has a half-decent opportunity to inflict real damage on Tony Abbott, against whom they have been unable to land any real punches.

I don’t think my last post quite addressed or properly rebuttedthe Opposition’s key legal argument about the Speaker. So, in essence, the advice given by the Shadow Attorney-General, George Brandis SC is that you cannot do by the backdoor what you can do by the front door. Since you cannot create a de facto vote through a legal agreement, you cannot create a de facto deliberative vote through a non-binding political agreement, which is written, formalised and signed by both parties. I guess to support this point, he would look at cases like Magennis (where the NSW and Cth governments signed an agreement where NSW would compulsorily acquire some houses in exchange for payments by the th. That scheme was designed to circumvent the clause in the Constitution requiring  just compensation for compulsory acquisition). The plaintiffs adduced evidence that such an agreement existed, the High Court struck down the NSW Act for being in contravention of the Constitution (even though strictly speaking the Constitution only binds Cth Acts in respect of that just compensation clause).

But the difference between a legally binding agreement/Standing Orers and a political agreement strikes at the very heart of the Parliamentary system. Each and every member of Parliament has been vested with the power to vote on Bills and they must themselves make that decision on whatever basis they choose. It is not for the High Court to make that decision for them, nor can others compel them to vote a certain way through binding agreements or through amending the Standing Orders. Flowing directly from that logic, MPs can make their decision on whatever basis they so wish – the Constitution recognises that it is a political decision, and the MPs will be weighing up political recriminations and consequences. Obviously, breaking a political agreement will have (some) political consequences. So the underlying rationale of the Parliamentary system itself demands and compels that a sharp distinction be drawn between a binding agreement and a plitical agreement. It is not attempting to use a back door measure when there is a clear difference in kind between the front door measure and he back door measure.

The Shadow Attorney-General is wrong. The pairing arrangement for a Speaker is constitutional so long as the Deputy Speaker is put under no undue pressure to pair and makes his own decision to do so. The Opposition’s refusal to comply with the agreement is a clear sign that the Deputy Speaker is exercising his discretion wholly free of any legally binding agreement.

What I don’t get however is the practical consequence of not pairing the Speaker. Surely it won’t mean that Bills that would have been passed under a pairing arrangement wouldn’t be passed without it – because the Speaker gets a casting vote in cases where the Bills wouldn’t be passed (and since he gets to vote, the pairing arrangement isn’t in force). Is it that the media is misunderstanding how Parliament works, or am I missing something?

Edit: As a delicious twist of irony, the Constitutional position has been made so much clearer by the Opposition’s intransigence. If Alex Somlyay agrees to become Deputy Speaker (in defiance of thefaceless men of the Liberal Party), then clearly he is doing that out of his own voluntary will (which as I have argued is the crux of the matter). Indeed, the fact that the Liberals feel free to disregard the pairing arrangement shows that it is a voluntary arrangement.

(I apologise for the heading, alas a good headline was never my forte)

The major newspapers, the SMH and the Australian, don’t seem to have reported the release of the Solicitor-General’s advice on the constitutionality of the Speaker’s position last night. It wasn’t on either of their online sites so I had to Google it.

http://www.smh.com.au/national/abbott-wont-back-down-on-speaker-20100922-15n14.html

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/libs-set-to-tear-up-deal-on-speakers-pair/story-fn59niix-1225928046392

Neither story explains the substance of the advice (presumably on the quite correct assumption that most people are too dumb or uninterested to understand constitutional law). My last post focussed more on the practical difficulties with an Oakeshotte speakership rather than the constitutionality of a paired vote in general, so I thought I would briefly explain the constitutional arguments.

[Actually, I typed this out and realised the word ‘briefly’ was completely inapt to describe what I wrote… so here’s a much briefer version I wrote in an email yesterday:

PS: What do you guys think about the debate about the Speaker’s constitutionality? At first, I agreed with the Liberals, then I thought about it and realised I still agreed with the Liberals. Agreements cannot bind the discretion of Parliament or Parliamentarians, so its not an agreement enforceable at law unless it were placed into the Standing Orders – but if it were formalised into the Standing Orders, there’s a risk that giving the speaker an effective deliberative vote would be unconstitutional. It is only effective as an agreement binding at will, such that if the Liberal Party out of the goodness of its heart and fearing political (and not legal) sanction decided to pair one of its members for each and every vote of the Speaker, then that would be a valid bill.

Read on, for those of you who want the full explanation. I am, however impressed by my own ability to turn a 1 paragraph explanation into a 2 page explanation by accident…]

Under s 40, the Speaker may not exercise a deliberative vote but may only have a casting vote. That effectively codifies the Constitutional convention (brought over from the days of Westminster) that the Speaker should be independent if not fully impartial on each and every vote. I think the wisdom of that proposition is so well illustrated by the example of an Oakeshott paired Speakership. If a Bill came up, Oakeshott would have to decide to vote yea or nay on each Bill, and thus have to actively contemplate his position at the beginning. He would then have to listen to debates and consider if he would change his mind. That thought process is totally inconsistent with the idea of an impartial arbiter. Ann Twomey explains.

Now, the problem is that Rob Oakeshott wants a de facto deliberative vote through the pairing arrangement where he himself does not cast a deliberative vote but his vote is counted by removing the vote of someone who intended to vote the other way. That would clearly breach s 40 if the Standing Orders (the procedural rules of the House of Representatives) were amended to enforce that. It would also breach s 40 if some document which was intended to be legally enforceable was drafted between the major parties because Parliament cannot bind exercises of its own discretion (including which way they will vote on future Bills). If I sign a contract with someone, saying that I will vote down an ETS if BHP voluntarily cuts carbon emissions by 100%, that is a void contract which is not enforceable by law. However, if I still choose to vote against an ETS, despite the voidness of that contract, my vote remains unimpeachable. I may have voted against it to honour the spirit of that agreement. I may have voted against it because of the political ramifications of me making such a public agreement with BHP then reneging on it. I could have voted it down for completely different reasons. In each and every case my vote is valid.

For the same reasons, so long as this agreement is not intended to be binding at law, there are no problems. And, as a question of fact, it appears that the agreement between the major parties and the independents was not intended to be any sort of contract. It’s very skimpy on the details, it has no consideration. It’s just a heads of agreement for a political document. That, in essence, is the legal argument for the Government and I think it is the correct legal answer.

The Opposition (and anyone adversely affected by a Bill enacted with a de facto deliberative vote) would argue two things. Firstly, s 40 codifies that constitutional convention I spoke about. The proper process of argumentation has not been followed, and perhaps the voting might have gone differently if the Speaker hadn’t disallowed this question or told Christopher Pyne to shut the fuck up in that particular instance etc etc. Technically, this is a valid argument. Courts often distinguish between procedural fairness and substantive fairness in decision-making under administrative law. If the proper procedures were followed (ie having an independent Speaker) then the decision of a decision-maker is unimpeachable (notwithstanding having come to the correct decision on the merits) and vice versa. In that case of Parliament, however, we can see Courts being far more unwilling to interfere. They will find some easy excuse not to even touch the issue.

Secondly, the Opposition may argue that you cannot do through the backdoor what you cannot do through the front. In other words, s 40 prevents you having a deliberative vote and therefore, you cannot have a de facto deliberative vote. Again, this is a valid point, but I think one which is adequately defused by the point that its not really a de facto deliberative vote. If we have an ALP Speaker, the paired Liberal is not bound to negate his own vote except by political pressure. He is still free (legally speaking) to change his vote. So it is not a de facto deliberative vote.

The other major issue for the Opposition is justiciability. It is wildly unlikely that the High Court would be willing to give standing to an MP to challenge the pairing arrangement just because he is an MP. It is also wildly unlikely (though the HCA has left the door open in certain circumstances) for any Bill to be challenged before it is signed by the Governor-General. So the only option is for someone adversely affected by an Act passed through this invalid procedure to sue. But, if it has been passed by this procedure then it probably conformed with s 40 anyway! Let me put it this way – if the Bill passed the lower House with >2 votes, then even if we invalidate the Speaker’s de facto vote it passed with >1 votes. If the Bill passed by 1 vote…  it was the vote of the Speaker that got it over the line. But that’s exactly what a casting vote is! The vote that gets you over the line.

In those circumstances, the only thing you can argue is that the proper procedure was not followed and that the Speaker was not impartial. But other aspects of the Constitution suggest that the Speaker need not be strictly impartial. For one thing, he is an elected Member of Parliament and clearly must be looking out for his electorate’s own interests. For another thing, the convention also states that he should come from the Government benches anyway. And, as a practical matter, the Courts wouldn’t want to touch this issue with a ten foot pole.

So, in summary, the Solicitor-General’s advice is the correct advice in law. The pairing arrangement is constitutional. But we will probably never find out since there is absolutely no way it will ever reach a Court.

As for the practical concerns – as I said, its a dumb idea for Oakeshott to be Speaker anyway. But a pairing arrangement for an ALP Speaker and a Liberal Deputy Speaker is an excellent idea to make the Parliament more stable in this hung Parliament.

Moving forward, however, Tony Abbott’s choice is a starkly political one. Does he continue to assert the unconstitutionality of an agreement that he himself had agreed to, or does he accept the SG’s advice? If he opposes, then he risks political backlash at reneging on an agreement to ensure the stability of government for his own political gain (though, unless the election is held very soon, that will all be forgotten by then).

In other words, Tony Abbott has the choice of giving the ALP the Speaker now or forever holding the pieces.

PS: As a disclaimer, I obviously haven’t done any research beyond the application of what we learned in Public Law and Constitutional Law. You would be fool to take legal advice from a blog which has, at various points, advocated for a corporation’s right to marriage and called Julia Gillard an inspiring leader. This post provides legal facts and not legal advice.

There’s a kinder, gentler polity out there in the political world now, so in that beneficent spirit, I am going to write a post where I mention the Greens without criticising them.

Bob Brown’s euthenasia private member’s bill into Parliament is a most interesting move from a tactical point of view. During the election campaign, I had sensed that Bob Brown had been more eager to focus on areas of agreement with groups that traditionally had not voted with the Greens. For example, Brown has been making surprising in-roads into country Australia by forging consensus on areas like bio-security (even if they would vociferously disagree on water rights, carbon taxes and social policy). That was reflected in much of the Greens’ language during the campaign and thereafter – where he would speak about the Green’s supposed economic credibility for not opposing the stimulus package and supposedly working constructively with the Labor Government to pass it through the Senate, and also where his rhetoric would be aimed at big business – but he would always remind people that people of all stripes [insert list including small business owners] were flocking towards the Greens.

So, given that, it was quite surprising to see that the first bill Bob Brown introduced was this euthenasia bill. It really harks back to the Greens we all know and love – a party pushing for radical social change on these core progressive issues. And, you know, good on them for that. But because euthenasia is such a contentious issue it could lose them that middle ground and that consensus that they have been forging.

That is not to say that Bob Brown has made a wrong-footed move. I think that he can be a shrewd tactician. I suspect that after the deal he signed with the ALP, he got a great deal of flack from the party faithful with all sorts of calls about him selling out – as evinced by the fact he suddenly turned around to announce that he would be using those powers for gay marriage a day later.

What Brown is attempting to do is really to shift Parliament into this much vaunted ‘new paradigm’ of politics which may not necessarily be the kindler, gentler polity envisioned by our smiling friend from the North but it is one where party political differences will be blurred by the cruel whiteout of political pragmatism. In that sense, he is firstly shifting away from the old paradigm where he would be (legitimately) criticised for sticking by those evil refugee-hating Laborites, and more importantly, he is shifting the power to control the political agenda to the Parliament and not the Executive. In this tightly controlled arge of the daily news cycle, that is a very powerful tool to be having.

An alternative is that Bob Brown simply believes in euthenasia. Quite probably true – but it is a very well selected bill for various reasons:

Firstly, he doesn’t have to write a substantial bill – he merely has to repeal the Cth legislation and let the Territories decide.

Secondly, because he is framing the debate (at present) in terms of Territorian’s rights and not euthenasia he will drum up significant support in the Territories (including the prized second ACT Senate seat). And – in the NT, there’s apparently 90% support for euthenasia probably more out of Territorian parochialism at being snubbed by the Cth than by genuine belief in euthenasia.

Thirdly, whilst euthenasia is a controversial issue, it is not tinged with the same roaring controversy that gay marriage or legalising drugs is.

I don’t think Bob Brown has given up the pragmatic approach just yet. If you compare his statements pre-2010 election and his comments now, you’ll find a stark difference. The old Bob Brown spoke in terms of sharp distinctions and human rights – what was the right and compassionate thing to do. The new Bob Brown and assorted minions speak with tangential arguments that are less controversial. They are not advocating for gay marriage or gay rights, they are advocating o remove discrimination from the Marriage Act. They aren’t fighting for a right to die or for euthenasia, they’re fighting for Territorial rights.

You can learn a lot from watching a politician’s language.

http://www.theage.com.au/national/melbourne-to-sydney-in-3-hours-with-a-bullet-20100917-15gdl.html

It seems that a public transport lobby group has commissioned AECOM one of the world’s experts on modelling fast trains for governments” to write a report on the viability of a Melbourne-Sydney high speed rail project.

The report is very useful for setting out some key data required for a cost/benefit analysis of this project. In particular:

  • At 350km/h (a 3 hour journey from Sydney to Melbourne), high speed rail will be competitive with air travel. The assumptions leading to this conclusion were not stated.
  • The project will cost $13.7 bn in land acquisition costs alone but will balloon to $57bn by 2030.
  • There is a 83% chance Australia will require a HST by 2030 and a 93% chance it will require a HST by 2050
  • There are side benefits:
    • It will reduce road congestion (which costs $10bn/year, Australia-wide)
    • It will avoid the $15 bn cost of building a second airport in Sydney (which has also been problematic from a planning POV)

The other major contribution the report makes (and I missed this on my first reading of the article) is that it suggests staggering the building of the project – so building Sydney to Canberra first. In the interim, it suggests placing legislation to designate particular rail corridors. I think that’s a very useful contribution.

Curiously, the report only covers the construction aspect of building the HST (omitting the overall costs of building the HST, just the land acquisition costs). Importantly, this means there is no data on potential usage of the HST, the price of the HST for travellers (and the subsidy required to make it competitive with air travel). This makes me heavily doubt the first assertion by the report – that 350km is sufficient to make it competitive against air travel. How can you say that when you have no data to base your argument on?

As I have said, I am a big fan of HST in appropriate circumstances. It is very appropriate in Europe where the population is decentralised into clusters here and there rather than huge cities with gaping expanses of desert or farming land between them. It is appropriate in the New England region of the US, which has a similar landscape. It is not appropriate in the New England region of Australia, which is dotted with rural communities none of which is dense enough to host a major rail station (notwithstanding the local Federal MP, Mr. Windsor). Nor is it appropriate in California or the Midwest where there are major population centres like LA, San Diego and San Francisco with much smaller communities between them.

The crux of the question is patronage. As I argued before, the Sydney-Melbourne air link is dominated by business travel who like the convenience of a half hour flight. Security isn’t a major problem for domestic air travel, so a flight would only take 1.5 hours at most. A three hour train trip is double that speed – and more importantly, it’s not possible to travel to Melbourne, have a meeting then return to Sydney in one day. Major corporates are not price sensitive enough to make that sacrifice (though perhaps small business may be).

An associated problem is that if you don’t have patronage, you will find it hard to justify running sufficient trains between Sydney and Melbourne each day. If that happens, that decreases the choice and flexibility of trains vis a vis air travel, further reducing patronage. Long distance travel has peak seasons – but it is much harder to rearrange your infrastructure on yearly cycles. Air travel copes with it by altering their prices. A government-funded rail network cannot.

The only solution (again, as I said before) is to combine holidaying travellers with daily commuters between Sydney and Wollongong (or other regional centres) and perhaps also with commuters between Sydney and Canberra. That would make the HST a viable project, but at a large environmental cost which undercuts the original rationale for building the HST. Plus, how much of the HST is removing excess demand for a second airport in Sydney and how much of the HST is creating new demand?

(Actually, the IPA/Aecom report anticipates this – noting that it leads to potential for future regional development and that it would allow a ten minute trip to Campbelltown (per the SMH).

I think anything that can reduce road congestion within greater Sydney is to be commended. I’m just dubious – you’re redirecting traffic from going into Sydney CBD to these stations in Campbelltown. But will there be sufficient parking there? Plus, what are the benefits of making Sydney larger?

Personally, I think that Sydney needs to increase its population density. Our environmental footprint is already far worse than many other cities because we are so spread out. Increasing population density will require political courage (which is why it will never, ever happen) as well as great political planning because you need to support that extra density with further infrastructure. The solution is not to encourage people to move to Wollongong with the hopes of commuting daily to Sydney to work. It is on the other hand, an excellent incentive for people to move to Wollongong or Canberra to work – knowing they can visit their friends in Sydney on weekends.

All that said, I think having a debate on a HST is one of the more useful contributions the Greens have made and this looks like a very informative report by the IPA. I look forward to the scoping study the government will soon begin on this project.

http://www.smh.com.au/national/oakeshott-warns-of-mexican-standoff-after-coalition-reneges-on-deal-20100917-15fca.html

So it seems that rural independent Rob Oakeshott, having helped the ALP into government and turned down a ministerial position, wants to be Speaker.

Legally and procedurally, it seems that becoming Speaker is going to be a very thorny problem for Mr. Oakeshott (though it is apparently Constitutionally possible).

Firstly, how can he advocate best for his rural electorate if he is stuck in the Speaker’s chair, unable to enter debate himself and unable to advocate directly for his electors?

Secondly, there are issues about when the Speaker’s vote can be paired with another (under the Parliamentary reform agreements passed last month). Under the Constitution, the Speaker does not get a deliberative vote (ie an ordinary vote) but only gets a casting vote when neither side has a majority of the votes. It seems that Oakeshott wishes to have a de facto deliberative vote by having his vote always paired with the vote of someone who intends to vote the opposite way to what Oakeshotte intended to vote. The Opposition argues this is foolish because of what the Constitution says – the Speaker only has a casting and not a deliberative vote (s 40). It makes no sense to interpret the agreement as giving pairing rights to both deliberative and casting votes. Without having studied the agreement, I am inclined to agree. I have no idea about the case law in this area (I doubt there is any). I would wonder the Oakeshott interpretation of the agreement actually breaches the Constitution by giving him what is effectively a deliberative vote. After all, s 40 of the Constitution is both a procedural section and a section designed to stop the House Standing Orders attempting to circumvent it (which is what the Parliamentary reform agreements would do).

Thirdly, there are practical problems (assuming his interpretation prevails and is found Constitutional). People change how they intend to vote as debate progresses, as amendments are passed, etc. Or else, why even bother debating? If, at every stage, Speaker Oakeshott must indicate whether he is changing his mind, or even if he must keep fixed in his own mind which way he will vote, how can he discharge his duty to be a totally independent arbiter of debate? He will, by definition, be favouring one side. (This, by the way, is not a strong a point as it might seem since the Speaker is almost always on the Government’s side and therefore the Speaker is not a wholly neutral position).

Stepping back from the legal and Constitutional issues, I wonder how doing this benefit’s Rob Oakeshotts cause. He is a weaker advocate for his constituents and for country Australia. He weakens his own influence over Parliament. The only advantage is for Rob Oakeshott himself in terms of the higher pay and privileges accorded to the Speaker. We all know he’ll face a tough election next time around. And that’s not just me being cynical and parroting the Liberal line. I cannot think of any advantage Oakeshott hopes to gain from this. Does he think he will be a more independent Speaker than the current Speaker? Does he think he can shepherd in a new paradigm by being a truly independent Speaker? That is a plausible idea – but one which is unlikely given that he is pushing for a de facto deliberative vote.

I think I’ve been too harsh on Fatty O’Barrell, giving him monikers he surely does not deserve. Henceforth, I shall address him by his proper title, Premier-Elect O’Farrell.