Matthew Allen reviews Stephen Wilks, ed., ‘Order, Order!’ A Biographical Dictionary of Speakers, Deputy Speakers and Clerks of the Australian House of Representatives (Canberra: ANU Press, 2023).

 

This edited collection of biographies, covers all the Speakers, Deputy Speakers and Clerks of the Australian House of Representatives from Federation until 2021. There has been little previous scholarship on these important public offices (Stephen C. Redenbach’s 1999 Ph.D. thesis is a notable exception) and even less historical study, so the book covers a neglected field. The work is clearly organised with four introductory essays – on the project as a whole by its editor, Stephen Wilks; on the office of Speaker, by Justin Baker; on Deputy Speaker, by Catherine Cornish; and on Clerk, by Natalie Cooke – followed by an alphabetical series of biographies. As is typical of ANU Press, it is well-presented and edited, with photographs of every biographical subject, and is easy to use.

PETER SLIPPER PORTRAIT PARLIAMENT HOUSE (AAP Photos)

The introductory essays provide a helpful overview of the different offices and their significance. Wilks’ contribution is probably of greatest value to historians and he notes the unique and “very Australian” (8) form of qualified independence that characterises Australian Speakers but stresses that the office was “not as resolutely politicised as can be assumed” (7). Indeed, he argues that successful speakers have been required to find a “pragmatic compromise” (7) between party loyalty and duty, and that personality and political ability were essential during the period under review. This distinctive independence is also emphasised by Baker who links it to the importance of numbers in a relatively small parliament, something that Peter Slipper’s recent Speakership illustrates well. He stresses that the Speakership has traditionally been the position of greatest honour in parliament, taking precedence on ceremonial occasions, a tradition that reflects the roots of the office as an elected spokesperson to the monarch. Cornish notes that the Deputy-Speakership was rarely a pathway to higher office but shows the significance of the role to the smooth functioning of parliament. Arguably even more important in this regard is the office of Clerk (and the significant team under their authority) who Cooke suggests function as “the institutional memory of the House” (38) due to their typically long terms of office, and experience in junior clerkships.

Bronwyn Bishop, Women in the Workplace forum 2009 (AAP Photos)

The biographies are of the uniformly high standard we have come to expect of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB). Many of these men (there were only three women who served as Speaker or Deputy Speaker during this period, Joan Child, Anna Burke and Bronwyn Bishop, and no female Clerks) had fascinating lives outside of their parliamentary careers, and the collected accounts of the events and controversies of their terms, give a vivid picture of parliamentary practice and procedure. Read together, they present an intriguing portrait of the men who enforced order in the Australian parliament. Since the Speakership and Deputy-Speakership were often the highest office their holders achieved, they have usually functioned as a reward for particular political virtues, with successful candidates, elected by their parties, modelling loyalty, collegiality, and ability to work across party lines. They hint at the evolving career of the successful (but not too successful) party politician, and the kind of practical reasonableness that our parliament has aspired to, but rarely achieved. The biographies of Clerks are also fascinating, a window into the kinds of middle class lives that rarely come under historical scrutiny.

However, such overall historical narratives are largely implied and rarely explicit. The introductory essays note some obvious points of comparison between the office-holders and point to the significance of early and pioneering Speakers (notably the first Speaker, Sir Frederick Holder; the second, Charles Salmon; and the first woman, Joan Child) but have little to say about the way these offices have evolved over time. Such apparent timelessness is itself worthy of further study. Clearly, the Speakership and its performative rituals are a kind of invented tradition that serves an important political purpose, investing the parliament with a necessary authority. Similarly the changing role of Clerks (and for that matter the broader public service) illustrates the evolution of Australian government. While the alphabetical organisation of the biographies is a very understandable choice for an offshoot of the ADB, it tends to work against such historical analysis.

Given that a reference version of each of these biographies is available online, specialists in the field are most likely to find this book useful.  Ultimately, this successful study lays the groundwork for a more sustained historical study of the speakership and the administrative operation of parliament.

Array
Matthew Allen
Matthew Allen

Dr Matthew Allen is a Senior Lecturer in Historical Criminology at the University of New England.  His diverse research is focused on understanding the unique and extraordinary transition of New South Wales from penal colony to responsible democracy, and the way that this process was shaped by the conflict between liberal ideals and authoritarian controls within the British world. His work on the history of alcohol, policing, summary justice and surveillance has been published in Australian Historical Studies, History Australia, the Journal of Religious History, and the ANZ Journal of Criminology and he is currently writing a monograph for McGill-Queens University Press, entitled Drink and Democracy: Alcohol, Politics and Government in Colonial Australia, 1788-1856.