HE’LL run Parliament, and become one of the most important politicians in Australia, but his name is one we’ll hopefully soon forget.
After weeks of headlines, former speaker Bronwyn Bishop resigned her position last week.
Today, Tony Smith takes her place. He was elected to the role by his Liberal Party colleagues, with Tony Abbott kept well away from direct involvement in his selection — a measure of how much his judgment has been depreciated by his own colleagues.
Mr Smith was elected the 30th Speaker of the House of Representatives. He joins David Hawker, Neal Andrew, Bob Halverson and others you’ve never heard of.
And that’s the objective. The best that could happen to the operation of the House of Representatives is that the umpire be unremarkable and his or her actions largely invisible.
The last thing the Government and the Opposition want is for the Speaker to again become a household name. There has been too much of that over the past three and a half years and Parliament and the broad political process have suffered.
There are other reasons why Mr Smith’s elevation is significant.
It gives the Victorian Liberals a share of the spoils of government. Party leader Tony Abbott is from NSW; his deputy Julie Bishop is a West Australian; Senate President Stephen Parry is a Tasmanian. Mr Smith gives the Victorian Liberals — who consider themselves the grown-up branch of the party — at least one of the seats of power and influence.
The stronger political point is that Prime Minister Abbott was openly kept out of direct involvement in the selection process, after a number of disastrous ‘captains calls’ in recent years.
He championed Bronwyn Bishop for the job and then was slow to appreciate she had lost the confidence needed for her to stay in it.
There were eight Speakers from the 1996 election of the Howard government and prior to Mr Smith. The only ones remembered by most voters are Peter Slipper and Bronwyn Bishop — for all the wrong reasons.
Both lost their jobs in controversies amid allegations of misbehaviour. Parliamentary standards decline when their defenders can’t live up to their own.
Of those eight Speakers since 1996, Bob Halverson, Ian Sinclair, Neil Andrew, David Hawker, Harry Jenkins and Anna Burke never attracted anything like the odium of the two other office holders. They were good and decent servants of the chair.
The flashier the Speaker, the more likely there will be drama.
Tony Smith has never been described as flashy. He is more solid and stolid. When he was a press secretary for Treasurer Peter Costello he frequently used the strained rebuff to journalists’ questions. “Off the record: No Comment.”
“It needn’t be rude, and it needn’t be loud,” he said today of parliamentary debate.
Mr Smith is unlikely to get into personal trouble. He is a disciplined man of integrity and it is unlikely the accusations of party bias which surrounded Bronwyn Bishop will recur. He has announced he will not attend party meetings, a sign he values the independent role of the Speaker, which includes a $340,000 salary ($140,000 more than he was previously on as a backbencher), an impressive office suite and a place in history.
At age 48 he has likely missed out on being a minister but has a good record, repeated by all sides of Parliament, for handling the sensitive matters of committee inquiries.