New House speaker strengthens Australian gov't

November 24, 2011 - 2:45 AM
Australia Speaker Resigns

In this photo taken on March 23, 2011, Peter Slipper, right, the deputy speaker of the House of Representatives, meets with Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress, in Parliament House, Canberra. Australia's Parliament elected opposition lawmaker Slipper as its new House of Representatives speaker on Thursday, Nov. 24, an unprecedented move that strengthens Prime Minister Julia Gillard's tenuous grip on power because the speaker does not vote in most cases. (AP Photo/Mark Graham)

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia's Parliament elected an opposition lawmaker as its new House of Representatives speaker Thursday, an unprecedented move that actually strengthens Prime Minister Julia Gillard's tenuous grip on power.

The election of Peter Slipper quickly followed the surprise resignation of speaker Harry Jenkins, a member of Gillard's Labor Party, on Parliament's last sitting day of the year and the fourth anniversary of Labor's first election to power. The speaker can only vote to break a tie.

The change effectively gives the center-left government, which nearly lost power in last year's elections, an additional vote in the chamber on most legislation.

Slipper defied his own opposition Liberal Party by accepting the speaker's job, and says he will quit the party to become independent. Gillard denied that the change was planned in advance by her party.

Gillard commands 76 seats in the 150-seat chamber with the support of three independent lawmakers plus a legislator from the minor Greens party.

But with Jenkins in the speaker's chair, she had only been able to rely on the support of 75 lawmakers on most votes. Speakers can rarely use their votes and have done so on only 23 occasions in almost a century.

The conservative opposition had been able to muster up to 74 votes, but now can only hope for 73. Slipper has been a divisive figure in the Liberal Party, which had already been considering dumping him in elections due in 2013.

Slipper told Parliament he had been "encouraged" to accept the speaker's job by the actions of his opponents within his own party.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott had warned that any Liberal who accepted the nomination would be expected to resign from the party, and Slipper said he would do just that.

"I do intend to be an independent speaker," Slipper said.

Slipper was elected speaker uncontested. Opposition lawmaker Chris Pyne had nominated nine government lawmakers as alternatives, but each declined the nomination.

"It would be the first time in this country's history that the government did not support one of their own to be speaker of this Parliament," Pyne said as he opposed Slipper's nomination.

Slipper later ordered four opposition lawmakers to leave the chamber for an hour for misbehavior during a rowdy debate. No government lawmaker was ejected.

Abbott told reporters before the speaker vote that Jenkins resigned "so that the government can shore up its numbers on the Parliament."

"This is clearly a government in crisis," he said.

Gillard denied opposition claims that she had orchestrated the power shift. She told Parliament that Jenkins had given her only 90 minutes' notice of his resignation. She said she had had no private discussions with Slipper.

Jenkins had been speaker since Labor won control of the government in 2007. But when Labor formed a minority government with the support of independent lawmakers following elections last year, he agreed to bring more independence to the role by dropping out of Labor policy development.

"In this era of minority government, I have progressively become frustrated at this stricture," Jenkins said.

"My desire is to be able to participate in policy and parliamentary debate, and this would be incompatible with continuing in the role of speaker," he added.

By quitting, Jenkins cuts his salary by 106,000 Australian dollars ($103,000) a year to the base lawmaker's pay of AU$141,000 ($137,000).