Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Mayhem On Day 1 As Hickey Nicks The Chair!

(NOTE: My very old 25 vs 35 seats article has been updated.)

The opening of the Tasmanian parliament on May the 1st was meant to be a routine affair.  After the election of the new Speaker we were expecting to start off with the ritual parliamentary theatre of a Greens no-confidence motion over the Liberals' failure to disclose any pokies-related donations prior to their re-election in March.  It seems to be the Greens' lot in life lately to have their thunder stolen but in this case they won't mind.  Former Hobart Lord Mayor Sue Hickey has decided that starting her parliamentary career on the backbench was not acceptable, and she's nabbed the Speakership instead.  

That part is by no means unprecedented.  In 1992, Ray Groom's Liberals won 19 of the then 35 seats and they nominated the flamboyant Michael Hodgman (Will's father) as Speaker.  However, Liberal Graeme Page and a colleague voted for Page and Page was elected Speaker with Labor and Green support, 18 votes to 17.  Previous Labor Speaker Michael Polley is generally credited with hatching the plot.  In this case there had been some speculation that the former Liberal Speaker Mark Shelton could do the same thing (if he wanted) but the Greens poured cold water on it.  While I did tweet that this year it would only take one renegade Liberal to repeat the dose, that tweet was better classified as a bit of stirring at Hidding's expense than a serious prediction.


What has now unfolded seems more serious than 1992.  That was just a piece of personal opportunism; after all being Speaker pays a lot better than a backbench seat.  It posed no threat to the Groom government's legislative program.  But Hickey, while still a Liberal as I write, has announced she will not sit in the party room and will exercise her casting vote on all but confidence and supply matters on what she sees as the merits of bills before the House.  However she has stated she will "mostly" vote along party lines.

So this is not just 1992-style popcorn.  Unless the Government can fix it (perhaps by bombarding Hickey with ministries, which seems unlikely because of the precedent it sets), this is at least highly embarrasing. At worst, who knows, though I suggest lefties not get too carried away with hopes Hickey will now become one of them.  At the very least, if the government wants smooth passage of its program through the Upper House it will have to try very hard to keep the Speaker onside.  What voters going to the polls in Hobart and Prosser this weekend are meant to make of all this (especially Prosser), one can only guess.

So Is This A Minority Government Now?

Not just yet (as I write) but it's complicated.

As of the morning of the 2nd, the Liberal Party still holds a majority of seats, as Hickey is still a member of the party.  The problem is that while the Government has supply and confidence from its 13 MPs, it not clear that it has the other characteristic that is normally associated with majority government, which is ability to pass legislation unimpeded.  

Some slender-majority governments do from time to time have problems with backbench rebellions threatening their numbers on the floor on particular issues.  The Turnbull government is now and then pestered by George Christensen threatening to cross the floor.  So far it seems that Christensen plays chicken with them and will only do it when it doesn't affect the outcome.  A majority government doesn't technically cease to be such because of these problems.  However the government will clearly cease to be a majority government should Hickey become a fully-fledged Independent.  Another possibility is a majority government in name only, in which Hickey is tolerated as a Liberal in order to uphold the government's claim to not be a minority government.  However this would become farcical if Hickey started voting against the government on major legislation.  

The best case for the government is probably that Hickey's thoughts on voting independently are retracted in the interests of stability or turn out to be just a warning signal to the party not to cross her.

A Primer For Readers From Elsewhere

If you've just tuned into this from some other island, what you need to know is as follows.  Sue Hickey is frequently (but not always) left-wing by Liberal standards, though while she was Lord Mayor of Hobart it wasn't easy to tell how much of this reflected her own views and how much the view of a Council that has been just about infested by the Greens.  Hickey was an extremely successful candidate for Council in 2011 and unseated the sitting Lord Mayor in her first tilt at the job.  Despite her obvious credentials she continued to be overlooked for a desired Senate seat, claiming preselectors were only interested in whether she shared their (conservative/reactionary) views on "social issues" and not in her business experience. 

After Liberal Minister for everything Matthew Groom decided not to run again at the 2018 election, Hickey decided to seek Liberal preselection and was selected.  At the 2018 state election she was the second Liberal elected.  In all she was elected fourth out of five candidates in Denison (not last as Paul Murray maintained on Sky News).  To not be elected, Hickey would have had to be behind both remaining Labor candidates Madeleine Ogilvie and Ella Haddad at a certain point.  At this point she was in fact 5264 votes ahead of Ogilvie, or 8% of the total.  So that's not just sneaking across the line, as Gary Hardgrave claimed (also on Sky News).  While she didn't poll quite as strongly as I thought she might, she nonetheless bolted in at her first attempt by any standard.

Hickey made it very clear she was interested in possible ministries including local government, small business or state growth, but wasn't given a ministry.  I am not aware of Hickey's opinion of Hidding but he is certainly similar politically to the preselectors who failed to impress her.  While it is hard to say what Hickey will be like as a Speaker, I suspect that for all his parliamentary experience the somewhat abrasive Hidding would have been at best a routine party Speaker, and more likely somewhere between that and Bronwyn Bishop.  Hickey is well known for her views on gender in politics (suggesting at least that she won't tolerate heavy-handed behaviour by male politicians) but can also be somewhat inconsistent

Have We Ever Had A Rookie Speaker?

One unusual aspect of this saga is that Hickey has become Speaker on her first day in the parliament.  Usually it is a position reserved for MPs of several years' standing who have had a lot of time to learn parliamentary regulations and observe the work of their predecessors.  

I have checked the history of the House of Assembly and it has never had a rookie Speaker without prior parliamentary experience.  The first Speaker, Michael Fenton in 1856, by definition became Speaker at the start of his career in the House, but he had already served as a Legislative Councillor before the House of Assembly was created.  The shortest series of total parliamentary service before becoming Speaker was ten months by Harry Holgate, who was elected on a recount in 1974 and became Speaker in 1975.  Holgate only held the position for a year and a half.

Abetz Should Butt Out!

Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, whose minions have long been blamed for Hickey's sidelining in her attempts to seek higher office, really needs to get some perspective on this one.  Abetz has attacked Hickey for "grossly selfish behaviour" that appears to be "a betrayal of the people who endorsed and elected her".

Hang on, this is the same Eric Abetz who has been undermining his party's Prime Minister more or less non-stop since Tony Abbott was deservedly thrown under the bus.  Abetz has even criticised his own Prime Minister for not appointing Abetz or any of the fellow fossils of the Monkey Pod brigade to ministries after Tony Abbott was removed.  While there has been a little distancing in Abetz's position on Abbott lately, Abetz's loyalty has always been first and foremost to his own religious social issue views, with his party's best interests a very long way behind that.  He's not in any position to talk, and it's not helpful to Will Hodgman that he does.

I expect I will add more about this situation later.  

9 comments:

  1. "1992...was just a piece of personal opportunism" And this is not? Or does she have some difference in principle with the "Liberals" over, say, pokies or gun laws?

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  2. I don't know about Hickey's position on pokies but she did express concern about the gun laws after the election: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/mar/06/tasmania-premier-claims-mandate-for-policies-kept-secret-during-campaign

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  3. And I wonder how this will go down with the voters of Denison/Clark? She may have 4 years (or less if Hodgman asks for an early dissolution) as Speaker and then be consigned to the gurgle-hole of history.

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    1. She'd only need her time as speaker to go down extremely well with ~12% of the electorate (and then a trickle of preferences from the 3 parties because she has a name) to be fairly safely re-elected. It's surprising high profile independents aren't common in the HoA with Hare-Clarke in use.

      She's no Wilkie, but she certainly has a good shot.

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    2. ...which means she will have to be as independent as possible to get that independent Denison/Clark vote next time. Won't happen if she just sits in the Speaker's chair going through the motions for the next four years and occasionally voting against the government on minor matters only. This ultimately means the government hasn't got a chance of lasting the full four years if Ms Hickey is in it for the long-term?

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    3. Who would take Ms Hickey's seat if she made the decision to resign from the parliament before the next election?

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  4. Another Liberal. Very probably Kristy Johnson, though if it came up Simon Behrakis would be well advised to contest it just in case. Johbson would be slightly disadvantaged by what I call the Hare-Clark recount bug.

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  5. This is and is not a huge shock to me. The Liberal party is left leaning these days in any event. When I heard Hickey was running I assumed it would be as a Labor candidate and was very surprised when it was as a Liberal. Not sure why Will and Co are that socked. Distinguishing the parties is becoming more difficult by the day.

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  6. Erika, a hint. Look at their industrial relations policies. One is all about total power to the bosses, and the other is about giving some power to the workers. If you think the Illiberals are "left leaning" you've just told us a lot more about yourself than them.

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