Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraSpeaker Tony Smith – who has been battling to force better behaviour in the House of Representatives on MPs including Scott Morrison – has announced he will not contest the next election.
Smith, 54, has held the Victorian seat of Casey – which takes in outer eastern suburbs in Melbourne – since 2001. He’s been around Parliament House much longer, though, having worked previously for Peter Costello from 1990 to 2001.
He said in a Wednesday statement his decision not to re-contest had been taken “after a great deal of thought and consideration”.
“I love our parliament and serving the Australian people. I am honoured that the Liberal Party and the electors of Casey voted to give me this privilege for two decades.
“However, I believe now is a good time to give the Liberal Party and the people of Casey the opportunity for renewal.
“I also believe the time is now right for me to pursue other endeavours following the conclusion of this forty-sixth Parliament.”
Smith followed as speaker the highly partisan Bronwyn Bishop, after she was forced to quit the post in 2015 over misuse of entitlements.
From his start in the role, Smith has been highly regarded by both sides of politics for his even-handedness and fair rulings. He said at the beginning he would not attend party room meetings and noted he had friends in opposition ranks.
One of those lobbying for Smith in the ballot (among Liberal members of the House) for the nomination was Scott Morrison, who was social services minister.
Immediately on assuming the chair Smith said parliament should be a robust place, however “it needn’t be rude and it needn’t be loud.”
Recently, against the background of the apparently intractable loud and rude behaviour, he has made a toughly determined effort to impose greater discipline on an unruly house. This surprised colleagues and shocked (and probably angered) ministers who have felt the lash of his tongue.
In particular he has cracked down heavily to stop the government frontbenchers, including Morrison, flouting the standing orders, notably by giving answers that are irrelevant to the questions they are asked.
A few weeks ago Smith brought Morrison into line in a way that was highly embarrassing for the PM. After Smith insisted Morrison be relevant in answering, the PM replied. “I’m happy to do that, Mr Speaker.” To which Smith retorted, “I don’t care whether you’re happy or not. You need to return to the question.”
On the same day, Smith also dealt sharply with the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and brutally with Health Minister Greg Hunt who was repeatedly refusing to sit down when told. “The minister for health can resume his seat, full stop. I’m not going to be ignored,” Smith said.
Subsequently he told parliament: “Obviously in the course of the last week I’ve enforced the standing orders vigorously. I intend to keep doing that.” He said the reason was “to get an improvement in parliamentary standards”.
Morrison said in a Wednesday statement: “Tony has been an outstanding Speaker, in the true Westminster tradition”.
He said Smith’s “intellect, temperament, dry wit, staying above the fray and respect for the Parliament as an institution, has earned him respect, far and wide.
“Many Speakers can get caught in the crossfire of parliamentary debate. Instead, his actions have elevated debate and demonstrated the great strength of parliamentary democracy.”
Manager of opposition business Tony Burke tweeted on Wednesday: “Tony Smith leaving will be a huge loss to the parliament. He’s one of the only speakers in history to have been nominated by the government and seconded by the opposition. He’s been consistent, principled, and most importantly fearless.”
At the last election Smith held Casey on a two-party vote of 54.6%-45.4%.
Smith said in his statement he had been first elected 20 years ago this November “and have had the honor of being re-elected on six occasions making me the longest serving Member for Casey”.
He said his announcement now gave the Liberal party time to choose the best candidate for the election.
If the Coalition is re-elected it will be looking for two new presiding officers. Senate president Scott Ryan, also from Victoria, announced some time ago he would not be standing for another parliamentary term.
In the meantime, in the remaining parliamentary weeks between now and the election, which is expected in March or May, Smith will continue his quest to improve behaviour.