Speaking of which…
By Gay Alcorn
Scott Ryan met Tony Smith in 1991 on his first day at the University of Melbourne. It was near the end of Smith’s time at the Uni.
“I think we met at the orientation week barbecue,” says Smith (BA(Hons) 1990, BCom 1992). “Could have been; I thought it was the AGM,” says Ryan, (BA(Hons) 1997).
Whichever it was, it was a function organised by the University’s Liberal Club, which both men would head, Smith in 1988 and Ryan in 1994.
More than a quarter of a century later, the two are close friends and agree to meet in their Melbourne office at Treasury Place.
Smith, 51, often described as perennially boyish, is the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Ryan, 44, nerdish and “obsessive” about his vocation, according to one analysis, is the President of the Senate, the equivalent position in the Upper House.
Each is responsible for upholding parliamentary rules and maintaining order and fairness at a time of deep mistrust of politicians and even of democratic institutions. Together, they oversee the workings of Parliament House, managing a $300 million budget and more than 1200 staff.
It is unusual enough that the two presiding officers in Australia’s national parliament attended the same university, where they both studied Arts. Ryan had many of the same lecturers as Smith in subjects such as history and politics.
It is even more unusual that both rose to their current positions in “sudden and unusual circumstances”, as Smith puts it. He was a backbencher representing the sprawling electorate of Casey in Melbourne’s outer east. He had been a shadow frontbencher at different times and had no burning interest in the Speakership.
“It wasn’t a thought in my head,” he said. “To be very blunt about it, most Speakers of the House of Representatives and most Presidents of the Senate are quite a bit older than us, and it was something they tended to do for the last couple of terms of their careers.”
But when Bronwyn Bishop took a helicopter ride from Melbourne to a Liberal fundraiser in Geelong, and charged taxpayers more than $5000 for it, her role as Speaker was doomed. Smith was elected in August 2015, the nation’s 30th Speaker, at a time when all sides of politics were looking for someone who would settle things down and show fairness and consistency rather than partisanship.
“I had decided I would very much do it my way; there was no right way. So, at a practical level, I wasn’t going to wear robes. I don’t know why that stuck in my head, but I wasn’t going to wear them.”
Ryan’s path was equally unusual. He is the youngest person ever to be Senate President (only the 25th person to hold the title) and gave up his job as Special Minister of State to do so. “I enjoyed being a minister and I think there have been seven ministers who have been President, but I am the first to quit the ministry to do it.”
Nobody imagined the impact of the crisis that saw politician after politician resign because they had breached the constitutional requirement that dual citizens could not be MPs. One victim was Stephen Parry, the Liberal Senator who stood down as President because he was possibly a dual British citizen. Ryan, elected as Liberal Senator for Victoria in 2007, took over in November last year.
“I never expected for [the citizenship issue] to create a vacancy in the office of Senate President, but I’ve always valued the parliament,” he says.
The roles have many similarities, but key differences. The Speaker does not usually vote in the House but has a casting vote should a ballot be tied. The President of the Senate votes on every bill, the idea being that the Senate is meant to be the states’ house and all states should have equal representation.
The President does not have a casting vote in the 76-seat Upper House; if the vote is tied, the measure is defeated.
Smith has decided not to attend Liberal Party room meetings; Ryan does, although rarely participates in discussions.
“The Senate President’s role is subtly different through having that vote [on every bill] and they are very different cultural places because of this lack of a government majority and the fact that you rule by consent in the Senate,” Ryan says. Malcolm Turnbull’s government does not have a majority in the 76-seat Upper House, relying on negotiations with 11 cross-benchers to pass legislation.
“I can’t even throw someone out in the Senate without there being a formal naming process,” adds Ryan. “Tony can. In the Senate, you rule by consent rather than by authority is the way I describe it. It’s a very important distinction.”
Both men are aware of the plummeting trust in political institutions and in the current squabbling style of politics, a trend recognised by the University’s new McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership, which aims to reward outstanding public leadership.
Yet they have deep knowledge and respect for the workings of the parliament, despite a more polarised debate prompted by a revolution in the way people receive information.
Smith likes to remind people that there was never a golden age of civilised debate – he recalls that, back in 1965, then-Labor leader Gough Whitlam threw a glass of water in the face of External Affairs Minister Paul Hasluck in parliament.
“A lot of people say to me, ‘Gee, you couldn’t do that in a classroom or a church’. And I say, ‘Well, it’s not a classroom or a church’. It’s not. People these days see so much more and they think, therefore, this hasn’t happened before.
“Televising parliament has changed things and modern communications – it’s all very instant. Arguably, it’s had a behavioural effect.
“We’re both students of history and you can look at some of those Hansard debates, going right back, contentious issues like the conscription referendum, and they were pretty willing.”
Ryan says it would take a doctoral thesis to fully explore what has changed in politics in the past 15 years or so, but a crucial shift is that the way people consume information has been upended. That has led to “fragmentation, reinforcement of existing world views and prejudice, but it has also meant that to get attention you sensationalise or escalate your rhetoric. So that has led to, in my view, an incentive and a reward for saying extreme things.”
The idea of qualification, or compromise, is being lost and what has replaced it is arguing about someone’s motive rather than the worth of a proposal. “People can say, ‘Scott, you opposed the mining tax because you’re in the pay of big coal’, or ‘You opposed the CPRS [the carbon pollution reduction scheme] because you get money from big carbon-polluting companies’.
“It’s that introduction of the word ‘because’ which has meant that we don’t debate whether a mining tax or a CPRS should be implemented, or have objective measures on what it should be measured by.”
Ryan wonders whether, these days, people would insist that then Prime Minister John Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello should have refused to compromise when they introduced the GST in 1999. They negotiated with the now-defunct Democrats to get it passed.
“That issue of something-is-better-than-nothing, that compromise may not be perfect but can be an improvement . . . the point I made about inflated rhetoric has made that harder.”
When they are not working, Smith and Ryan are reading, particularly history and politics. Their shared interest in the former is particularly apt; to be a successful President of the Senate or Speaker of the House requires knowledge and respect for parliamentary history, traditions and norms. To adapt to a changing world without throwing out what matters. To be respected as fair by all sides of politics. So far, Smith and Ryan seem to have that in common, too.