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On Speaker terms

Three weeks ago I spent an eye-opening half hour at the Australian House of Representatives. I witnessed Question Hour on the 19th of March and what I saw was almost unbelievable, writes Karan Thapar.

columns Updated: Apr 06, 2013, 23:46 IST

Three weeks ago I spent an eye-opening half hour at the Australian House of Representatives. I witnessed Question Hour on the 19th of March and what I saw was almost unbelievable. Yet every word of what follows is absolutely true. You can check it out at <>.

Let me, however, begin by pointing out two facts. First, it was during Question Time in October last year that Julia Gillard, the prime minister, delivered a stinging put-down to Tony Abbott, the leader of the Opposition. I'm referring, of course, to her anti-misogyny speech. Second, the Speaker of the House has since changed. Anna Burke has been in the job for just six months.

Now, this is what happened on the 19th. It began when the PM responded to a question from the Opposition leader with another snide remark about his alleged misogyny. This brought the manager of opposition business to his feet demanding she withdraw. However, he shouted out his last few sentences.

Immediately, without even a second's hesitation, the Speaker ordered the MOB to leave the Chamber. Without demur, he instantly did.

Then, turning to the prime minister, the Speaker asked her to withdraw her comment. This was the PM's response: "If the leader of the Opposition is upset in any way then I withdraw." Unsatisfied, the Speaker sternly rebuked the PM: "The prime minister will withdraw unreservedly." The PM, however, hesitated. "Order!" the Speaker barked. "Would the prime minister withdraw?" Admonished, she did. Softly, but unequivocally, the PM said: "I withdraw". The Speaker thanked the prime minister and continued with the business of the day.

I couldn't believe the way the Australian Speaker had handled not just the Opposition front bench but the prime minister herself. Could such a thing ever happen in India, I asked myself.

The amazing thing is that in the next 20 minutes it happened again. Not once. Not twice. But three times!

First, when an Opposition front bencher gratuitously interrupted the minister for financial services, he was immediately asked to withdraw. "The Member for Mayo had better leave quickly and quietly." He did.

This prompted the minister to recklessly comment: "Up goes the IQ of the Chamber." Unwilling to put up with even this, the Speaker demanded the minister withdraw. Without hesitation, he did.

Then a third Opposition MP rose to interrupt the PM on a point of order. It was, however, a spurious one. The Speaker cut the MP short and ordered she resume her seat. But she hesitated. That was enough to re-ignite the Speaker's fury. "The Member for Mackellar will leave the Chamber." Silently but swiftly, she did.

Can you, even for a moment, imagine any of our Speakers handling the Lok Sabha with such iron discipline? Not just our soft spoken Meiraji but even the male heavies who preceded her? To ask the question is to answer it.

More importantly, can you imagine our MPs responding with such unquestioning alacrity to orders to leave the Chamber? Frankly, neither our Opposition front bench nor our PM would accept the Speaker's ruling so unflinchingly.

This is why I've given you the web link so you can check the accuracy of what I've written.

With two weeks to go before Parliament resumes, every MP should be required to visit this site and witness for themselves the efficiency with which the Australian House of Representatives functions. It won't take more than 30 minutes. What they learn would be a lesson for a lifetime.

Views expressed by the author are personal

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