FOR the first time since self-government in 1989:
The ACT Assembly has a Speaker who is not part of the government.
The single cross-bench member is a Minister.
And the committees are balanced with even numbers of Labor and Liberal members.
All of which makes for some interesting challenges.
The predecessors of the Speaker did not have to confront the sort of issues faced by Vicki Dunne. While all Speakers, since the advent of the self-government Assembly, have attempted to be even handed, it has not always been possible.
At times, it has been apparent that the Chief Ministers have had considerable power over the Speaker, including the effective capacity to remove them should they become too troublesome.
In this Assembly, the Speaker comes from the Opposition and draws her power and position not just from those of her own party, but also from the Minister for Territory and Municipal Services (as well as Corrections, Housing, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs and Ageing), lone Greens member Shane Rattenbury.
The key power broker, Mr Rattenbury as the former Speaker, at least understands the challenges that are placed in front of Mrs Dunne. When he was Speaker, the Government relied on the Greens for their power. A quid pro quo was the stability of his position as Speaker. There is no equivalent situation for Speaker Dunne. The best she can hope for is an understanding from Mr Rattenbury that judgement calls are made on the spur of the moment, in the heat of debate and often with the conflicting sides convinced of the righteousness of their position.
In her own words it requires “punctiliousness” to manage such an arrangement.
The unusual balance of the current Assembly impacts on much more than the role of the Speaker. The committee system has been a great strength of the ACT Assemblies.
From the time of the first Assembly, with a mix of Labor, Liberal, No-Self Government, Abolish Self Government, Independent and Residents Rally, the committee system has been used to examine issues, test evidence, understand community views and, most importantly, find compromise.
New members of the Assembly have been assigned to committees on the basis of an even balance between Labor and Liberal. With the one cross-bench member a Minister and the Labor and Liberal parties providing the other eight members each there is not much choice. However, the dynamics have shifted considerably. Although the Assembly has resisted the Federal extremes of the last few years, there is still an understandable antagonistic and combative element that permeates the struggle for power, including in committees.
Whereas compromise could be facilitated with the past in a three-way exchange, the temptation in committees will be to toe the party line. In the past, the committees have taken on many controversial issues, exposing the community to different ideas and perspectives. So far, this has not been the practice of the current committees. The inquiries are largely more pragmatic, being based on accountability and legislation.
The one exception is a carry-over from the Seventh Assembly. The issue of sentencing in the ACT is being considered by the Justice and Community Safety Committee chaired by Steve Doszpot.
The predecessor committee in the previous Assembly did not complete its inquiry and therefore the current committee has determined to examine “the practice and effectiveness of current arrangements in the ACT for: parole; periodic detention; bail; restorative justice; and circle sentencing, and will consider alternative approaches to sentencing practice in the ACT”.
Personalities and leadership have always been key factors across the range of roles in the Assembly. As long as the MLAs respect their daily commitment when the House is sitting to “pray or reflect on our responsibilities to the people of the Australian Capital Territory”, there is a chance that the system can work. It is just more challenging than it has been in the past.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health