Misbehaving members

]MICHAEL SUTHERLAND was speaker of the WA Legislative Assembly from 2013-17 and Mount Lawley Liberal MP from 2009-17. He is a candidate for the City of Perth at the upcoming local government elections. In this week’s SPEAKER’S CORNER he tramples the corn around MPs behaviour in parliament, in the wake of the federal government announcing it wants harsher penalties for MPs who lose the plot in chambers.

IT was reported in the West Australian recently that the federal parliament wanted to toughen up penalties for badly behaved MP’s.

Currently extensive use is made of the “sin bin”, where members are excluded from the chamber for one hour .

Members can also be excluded for longer periods of 24 hours or more depending on the circumstances of their misbehaviour.

A parliamentary committee is now  considering hitting badly behaved members, in the hip pocket, by levying fines of $285.00.

This will  beef up sanctions available to quieten members down and make the control of the house easier for the Speaker.

• Michael Sutherland, as speaker, in 2013. File photo

A hit in the hip pocket might be more unpleasant than being given a “rest from parliamentary duties”.

Some members for whatever reason may relish the prospect of being thrown out.

I was pulled up, sometimes with tongue in cheek, by more than one country member for not throwing them out on a Thursday afternoon which would have enabled them to leave parliament and head for home early!

Parliament must be the only workplace where work “colleagues” are encouraged to publicly abuse one another.

The bedlam which can ensue in the chamber, more particularly during question time, often leaves those in the chamber gallery or who are watching TV shaking their heads in disbelief.

Very often the “wall of noise” drowns out what is being said, the Speaker has to bob up and down like a yo-yo trying to keep order and the Hansard reporters, who take the record,  look back at the Speaker for help in desperation, as they cannot follow what is going on.

The theory is that once the Speaker gets onto his feet every other member must keep quite.

In practice this does not always work or takes some time to work.

There is no truth in the story that one of the Speakers died in the chair; he had a heart attack in the chair but died in the corridor outside the chamber!

I have very often heard people say to me that the members of parliament are more unruly than a  group of schoolchildren.

More often than not there is a group of schoolchildren in the gallery watching the antics and histrionics.

Talk about a bad example.

This bad behaviour in the chamber only adds to the disquiet in the community about politics and politicians.

The theatrics that go on in question time is all that many ever see of parliament on TV.

This increases the number of people in the community who  have little if any confidence in parliament, which bodes ill for our democratic system and institutions.

The precedent for the configuration of our parliamentary chambers, where members face one another and which is confrontational, was the result of the parliament being held in choir pews of St Stephens Chapel at the Palace of Westminster in  1547.

One might ask where the answer to the problem lies.

The problem could be largely solved by changing the layout of the chambers.

They could be reconfigured to auditorium  type chambers as is seen in the US and many European parliaments which are less confrontational.

The personal attacks, vitriol  and nonsense would  largely be  removed if instead of members looking across at each other from two sides of the chamber, they sat facing the front.

Members would have to go to the front of the auditorium to speak.

This would largely stop the, “screaming, wailing and gnashing of teeth”,  that ensues when the one side is staring down their adversaries on the other.

Winston Churchill supposedly said, “Your adversaries sit opposite you, your enemies sit with you!”

There is an even greater problem where chambers are small.

In the Western Australian Legislative Assembly opposing members sit in very close proximity to one another.

The desk that currently separates the two sides of the Chamber was supposed to be “two swords and two armlengths wide”, wide enough  to stop those sitting at or speaking from  the table from “running each other through” with their swords.

Our table is that small that it would be as easy to strangle the person on the opposite side!

Unruliness leads to time wasting, the serious business takes a back seat to the theatrics and often nastiness.

Name calling, snide remarks, the imputation of bad motive demeans the whole process.

We however follow  precedent set by Westminster and by Federal Parliament.

Any change, will if at all be slow and a long time in coming, I suggest that nobody holds their breath!

Let the biffo and insults continue.

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