Parliamentary Pomp In The Land Down Under
By Mike SeccombeFebruary 9, 2012
New Speaker of the House Peter Slipper is tweeting, togging up in robes and tweaking a parliamentary culture that’s long been quite casual about ceremony — so casual that a broomstick used to do as the official staff.
The British Parliament does pomp well. Its Australian offspring, though, not so much.
An illustrative example: One of the central ceremonial functions of Parliament, the rapping on the door of the House of Representatives by the Usher of the Black Rod, to summon members to joint sittings in the Senate, was for many years carried out with an implement whose shaft was piece of broomstick, painted black.
Or, at least that was how the ceremonial rod was described to this writer some years ago, by the man who should be best placed to know, the former gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, Rob Alison.
But that anecdote is only part of a bigger story, which really begins in 1642, when King Charles I mounted an armed raid on the British House of Commons, with the intent of arresting several of its members.
Since then, tradition holds that no sovereign or representative of the sovereign — in this country meaning the Governor-General — may enter the lower house of Parliament. Instead, when the G-G addresses the opening of each new Parliament, it happens in the "other place" as they call it, the Senate.
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The ritual goes like this: The Usher is instructed to go across to the Reps and invite members over. He does this by rapping three times on the door with the black rod. His counterpart in that house, the Sergeant-at-Arms, asks who it is, then peeks out to ensure there are no soldiers out there.
The coast clear, MPs troop across to the Senate chamber.
The original British black rod was so named because its staff was made of strong black ebony. When Australia got its own federal government 111 years ago, it copied the tradition. Notwithstanding the fact that the country did not even have a proper national Parliament House for its first 27 years — and when it got one, it was plonked in a sheep paddock in the middle of nowhere — it had an usher, who frocked up grandly in long-tailed coat, knee breeches, buckle shoes, black gloves, jabot, lace cuffs and at one stage (between 1972 and 1996) a proper, silver, Wilkinson sword.
For a long time though, the Usher lacked a proper black rod. It is uncertain what he used from 1901 to 1927, but when the Parliament moved to Canberra, one was constructed for its opening.
Ebony must have been in short supply, hence what Rob Alison described as a "painted broomstick."
When the Parliament next moved, to the new, permanent Parliament House in 1988, however, the shaft was replaced with ebony.
And so we move to the eve of the opening of the 38th Parliament in 1996, when Alison decided to take the new, improved 1.8-kilogram rod home for a bit of cleaning.
The phone rang, he put the rod down atop the vanity unit in his bathroom, it fell, and Alison rushed in to find it lying in the floor "like a footballer with a broken leg." Snapped.
Parliamentary carpenters worked through the night to fix it. The good news is that since then, the dowels have held.
Incidentally, one might note that the ceremonial implement of the House of Representatives, the Mace which is carried in by the Sergeant-at-Arms, was "borrowed," from the Victorian Legislative Assembly from 1901 to 1951, before the Federal Parliament got around to acquiring one of its own.
Does this not all seem somehow quintessentially Australian? We cared enough about the essence of our democracy to construct a brilliant blend of the American and British systems but were always a bit casual about the accoutrements. We adopted the forms, but never took them all that seriously.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Peter Slipper, the new Speaker of the House of Representatives.
The Honourable Mr. Speaker has not been much honoured in recent days, because he has insisted on reinstating certain formalities which have been observed only sporadically over recent decades.
He has adopted the practice of wearing a gown. Reportedly he even considered wearing a wig but was talked out of it. Those reports might even be true; Mr. Slipper does like a bit of pomp.
Thus he has decided also to revive the practice of making a grand entry to the chamber at the start of each sitting week, in company with the Sergeant-at-Arms, and all done up in morning suit-trousers, QC's robe, and, we lately learn, a white bow tie.
Slipper's office has defended the procession idea, saying he is doing only what presiding officers do in the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, too.
And indeed, while the whole deal is a bit of a throwback, it is very much in accord with his stated intention of observing tradition, and modernising it. (He may wear old-fashioned clothes, but he is an enthusiastic Facebooker and Twitterer - though not, he insists, during Question Time.)
As the bible of Australian Parliamentary procedure, House of Representative Practice, notes, the tradition was for the Speaker, while in the chair or at ceremonial occasions, to wear "a black Queen's Counsel gown, full bottomed judge's wig and lace accessories. Speakers from the non-Labor parties used to wear the full formal dress."
Parliamentary officials tell us that the last Speaker to wear the full kit and do the ceremonial entry was the Liberal Party's Sir Billy Snedden, whose tenure ended in 1983 with the election of the Hawke Labor government.
Since then, Labor Speakers have worn normal business suits and have entered the chamber through a door behind the Speaker's chair, rather than processing down the aisle from the "bar end," that is, the far end of the chamber.
Coalition Speakers also have made more discreet entries, though they have worn variations of more formal dress, some QC's robes, and some academic robes.
The Speaker's wig (or at least one of them; there have been several, although each adorned more than one head) was subsequently given to the Museum of Australian Democracy in Old Parliament House.
So why has there been such focus on Slipper's return to tradition? Partly, no doubt, it's because of Australia's resistance to pomp. Partly, too, it reflects the fact that he is not well-liked, having repeatedly shifted his political allegiance: he was once a National and then a Liberal, before he took Labor's offer of the Speakership. Another explanation, though, may be that, in one important regard, he is not a traditional Australian Speaker at all. He is more akin to a traditional British Speaker.
One tradition Australia did not adopt from the British Parliament was that of having a Speaker independent of party alliance. Over there, once he is elected, the Speaker cuts ties to party, and is unopposed at election time.
In that sense, says Paul Bongiorno, the Ten Network's Parliament House bureau chief, Peter Slipper represents something entirely new.
As a Liberal Party representative serving as Speaker at the behest of the Labor Government, he is about as close to unaligned as we've ever got.
Or, as Bongiorno puts it, in the blunt terminology of Canberra: "He is a Liberal rat, but he is not a Labor member trying to look fair."
And while the Parliament has been sitting only a couple of days, the reviews so far have been good.
"We've yet to see how he goes when someone puts on a real tantrum," says Bongiorno, "but his first two days have been exemplary."