The serious side of parliament

Tony Smith

Kevin Rozzoli Gavel to Gavel: An Insider’s View of Parliament Sydney, UNSW Press, 2006 (314 pp). ISBN 0-86840-900-6 (paperback) RRP $39.95.

Kevin Rozzoli represented the seat of Hawkesbury in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly from 1973 to 2003. During that time he was a loyal member of the Liberal Party but also a dedicated parliamentarist, believing in the political supremacy of the institution and advocating its social necessity. From 1988 to 1995 (the 49th and 50th Parliaments) he held the difficult position of speaker, a role which demands that even the most hardened party adherent must attempt to be objective and even-handed. In 1991 when Rozzoli was re-elected to the speakership, then opposition leader Bob Carr said, ‘This is the second occasion on which your election has proceeded unopposed by the Opposition. Such a rare union ticket in this place could begin to earn you the suspicion of your colleagues’ (p. 7).

From all reports, Rozzoli succeeded to a rare extent in maintaining the integrity and dignity of the office.

Surviving in Macquarie Street

Given this experience, Kevin Rozzoli might be expected to produce a unique ‘view’ of the parliament, and Gavel to Gavel contains some insights that no-one but he could supply. Yet readers would be well advised to avoid thinking of the book as a political science text, a work of history or even as a memoir. These forms of writing have their distinct demands, and while Gavel to Gavel contains some of each, it ought not to be expected to meet their specific criteria. Rather, this book is akin to advice to the new Member of Parliament (MP) from a veteran of 30 years’ service in the crucible of the ‘Bear Pit’.

Observing that there was no book that a new MP might read to understand what the role entailed, Rozzoli aimed to ‘fill this void’. He expressed the hope that the book would be ‘informative and useful’ to ‘all persons interested in how parliament really works’ (p. x). The book’s greatest strength is its comprehensive range. Most textbooks include some historical background on the parliament, an explanation of the institution’s purposes and a description of its procedures. Only Gavel to Gavel includes chapters entitled ‘A Healthy Parliament’, ‘The Procedure Offices’, ‘The Library’, ‘Educating Members’ and ‘A Better Parliament’. It contributes most where it breaks new ground, and considering Rozzoli’s reputation as a presiding officer, most readers will approach the book with the specific aim of finding fresh comments and recommendations about the role of the speaker.

Better speakers

Rozzoli succeeded to a rare extent in maintaining the integrity and dignity of the office.

While Part IV (of the book’s seven) is dedicated specifically to ‘The Speakership’, its two chapters ‘Role of the Speaker’ and ‘A Continuing Independent Speakership’ occupy just thirteen pages between them. The first of these chapters describes the duties of the speaker and should certainly assist any new MP. The second explains Rozzoli’s proposals for improvements in the role. Of course, the brevity of Part IV is misleading because all of Gavel to Gavel gives a speaker’s eye view of the parliament. Throughout, Rozzoli reflects on the demands on presiding officers as they represent the parliament, chair debates, administer the parliamentary bureaucracy, and oversee parliamentary privilege.

Rozzoli says that a ‘good speaker’ requires many qualities. These are a combination of ‘intelligence, study, authority, compassion, diligence, patience, good humour, the ability to take advice, and above all, an innate sense of humility, fairness, impartiality and respect for others’ (p. 193). He notes that the speaker is solitary and can feel lonely and that the isolation must be ‘borne with fortitude’ (p. 193). If this sounds like a list of qualifications for sainthood, prospective presiding officers would know from their own experience that backbench MPs understand the demands and limitations of the speaker’s role, and make allowances for the pressures on the incumbent and his or her human frailties.

Rozzoli argues that the speaker should have considerable parliamentary experience and be prepared to abandon membership of any political party. Others have suggested that speakers no longer attend party meetings, but Rozzoli goes much further. He insists that the speaker should agree never again to seek election as an MP following the end of his or her speakership, and suggests an amendment to the Constitution Act to enable the incumbent to stay in the role without facing re-election in his or her local constituency. Rozzoli’s main interest here seems to be in keeping the speaker above politics rather than ensuring the speaker is not penalised for concentrating on presiding officer’s duties, perhaps to the relative neglect of electorate duties, because he claims that speakers have a better record of surviving elections than do ministers (p. 193). (He is almost certainly correct about the survival rates but some statistical evidence would be desirable.)

Better parliamentary debate

Speakers have a vital role to play in ensuring that MPs debate issues with decorum.

Speakers have a vital role to play in ensuring that MPs debate issues with decorum. Occasionally, MPs can become so passionate that they forget they have a responsibility to conform to the Standing Orders and speakers must take a strong stand to maintain discipline. The speaker can call for order, rise and remind MPs of public expectations and as a last result, take action to suspend a member who offends continuously. Rozzoli describes how in 1988 he was forced to suspend a minister who kept defying his ruling by attempting to speak to a personal explanation (pp. 141–142). He says that this

had not occurred for eighty years nor has occurred since. It did little to enhance my standing with some members of the Government but it did much to cement my reputation as a speaker who would stand up for the forms and rules of the House.

Perhaps Rozzoli judges that telling the reader about the circumstances circa 1908 would be a digression, but given that the book aims to educate new or prospective MPs, such details would seem like more than trivia.

Sometimes, even the strongest action available to a speaker is inadequate. Rozzoli observes that a number of areas of parliamentary procedure require improvement, but his section dealing with Matters for Urgent Consideration (pp. 164–166) suggests that there is more to this story than he reveals. Rozzoli says that ‘during the Fiftieth Parliament the significant decline in questions asked each day led to the call for a guaranteed number’. One change was the removal of ‘urgency motions’ from Question Time, as one such motion could consume much of the 45 minutes allocated to Question Time. This hour or so, usually straight after lunch, is among the most important in the parliamentary day. Theoretically, all ministers must attend and answer questions about the administration of their portfolios, and so the period should be an essential element in keeping the executive government accountable to the parliament. In practice, as both the chamber and the press gallery have full attendance, it is the time when government and opposition strive for political ascendancy. Urgency motions do not seek to elicit information from ministers but to ensure that specific issues receive the parliament’s immediate attention. Typically, such motions arise from the opposition or the crossbenchers, because they imply that the government has not set its business agenda appropriately.

Governments have several advantages during Question Time, as presiding officers allocate almost half the questions to government backbenchers, who inevitably ask friendly questions. These ‘Dorothy Dixers’ are written by ministers themselves, and provide opportunities for ministers to bring their achievements to the attention of the public and to attack the opposition. Seasoned parliamentary performers tend to treat Question Time with contempt and introduce a sense of theatre to the chamber. Although MPs realise they must address all remarks to the chair, they also know where the television cameras are situated. Wits in the public gallery sometimes refer to the time as ‘questions without answers’.

Seasoned parliamentary performers tend to treat Question Time with contempt.

Rozzoli notes that Standing Orders were amended to ensure that at least ten questions would be asked, and concedes that the previous practice of ministers giving long answers was at fault. He does not say who called for the changes, or whether these were possible only because of the attitude of the Independents who held the balance of power. With regard to the Urgency motion however, he says that the Independents were swayed by government arguments that some notice should be given. So, to avoid the impression that these motions were meant to ‘ambush’ ministers, it became the practice for motions in writing to be handed to the speaker before Question Time, and for the motions to be presented immediately after Question Time. When there is more than one motion, each mover has five minutes to tell the House why his or her motion should have preference. Then the speaker asks the House to decide which motion shall have precedence.

There are two unfortunate aspects to this practice. The first is that, assuming the government has the numbers, it can always ensure that a motion by one of its members is adopted. Secondly, the five minutes allocated is reduced by points of order and other interruptions. When Members rise on a Point of Order, they are given precedence because procedural matters must be settled before debates can continue. Generally Members try to convince the speaker that an opponent who has the call is offending against Standing Orders in some way. The mover of the Point of Order asks the speaker to direct the member with the call to proceed in a way that stays inside the guidelines provided by Standing Orders. The Point of Order is not always sincere, because it can be used to interrupt an MP in full flow, to delay proceedings, or even to make a political rebuttal. Because it is considered unparliamentary to interject during speeches, some MPs exploit the device to disrupt proceedings, and speakers routinely condemn MPs for attempting to make ‘spurious’ points.

In most of his critical arguments, even handed Rozzoli notes that both major parties exploit procedures when they are able. With regard to the use of Points of Order during urgency debates however, Rozzoli gives an example from the 51st Parliament (1995–99) and says that his successor ‘Speaker Murray would aid and abet this farce’ (p. 166). No-one who has witnessed this period in parliament could disagree that it is a farce. However, it seems harsh for Rozzoli to condemn his successor when the Coalition Government apparently introduced the practice. Rozzoli should explain more clearly how the procedure worked during his tenure.

In ‘Guarding the Guardians’, Rozzoli mentions that his comments on a draft report of an Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) investigation into an MP’s activities became an Appendix to the report. The report concluded with general comments and the

suggestion was made that the New South Wales Parliament could do more to educate its members by providing guidance on ethical behaviour through suitable induction programs … and the development of a parliamentary code of conduct as an ongoing reference point (p. 236).

This seems the ideal place for Rozzoli to describe how he and the Government reacted and responded to these suggestions.

Rozzoli makes some sound criticisms of the operations of the press gallery.

Rozzoli makes some sound critical comments about the operations of the press gallery. These might be read more as warnings to naïve MPs than as practical suggestions for changing the relationship between press and parliament. It is difficult to believe that he really thinks that a ‘full telecast of proceedings’ (p. 253) is possible. Here, as in most of the book, Rozzoli quotes overseas works rather than Australian ones. This seems a pity, because many Australian works have drawn on the British sources Rozzoli uses, and local content would suit our political culture better. So, for example, when he draws on Shakespeare or Gilbert and Sullivan to illustrate his text and make it vital, it seems likely that Stephen Sewell or Bruce Dawe—or Clarke and Dawe—would serve better.

Parliamentary practice rather than theory

While new and prospective MPs will surely appreciate the book, historians and political scientists might find Gavel to Gavel somewhat frustrating. Historians rely on writers to make definite statements that can be either accepted and allowed to stand as part of the record, or contested. Apart from Chapter 3, ‘A Historic Parliament’, Rozzoli makes few specific claims about his memory of events. For example, for some days after the 1995 election, it was possible that the Labor Party would secure 49 of the 99 Legislative Assembly seats. Rozzoli was approached about the possibility of staying in office if he could maintain his ‘stance on independence in the chair’ (p. 51). He says that ‘overtures were made to me’. Perhaps the overtures were made in confidence, but it would be of interest to know where the power lies to make such approaches.

Rozzoli ‘indicated, without prejudice’ (p. 51) that he would consider the offer. He saw several ways in which he could contribute in such a position. In the event, the Carr Government secured a bare majority when it won a fiftieth seat, and so the matter was settled. Interestingly, in 1991 when the Coalition did have to govern with a minority, Rozzoli notes that Premier Greiner ‘made overtures to the Independents’ about the position, and John Hatton ‘was left to flirt with the tantalising possibility’ (pp. 4–6). The difference in the language is striking, but at least in the 1991 case, Rozzoli gives sufficient detail for the historian to research further and for Hatton perhaps to give his version of events.

Some other episodes receive detailed treatment, including the banning of smoking within the precincts (pp. 90–91), matters sub judice (pp. 152–155), and the Independent Commission Against Corruption (pp. 262–269). Elsewhere, it could be that Rozzoli earnestly strives to avoid giving offence by being too explicit, or that he modestly wants to avoid giving his recollections too much prominence when others will recall things very differently.

Political science and practical politics belong to separate worlds.

When I was interviewing members of the 51st Parliament, one MP with experience of academia remarked that political science and practical politics belong to separate worlds (Smith 2003). Rozzoli’s approach is firmly rooted in the practical world, which is to be expected given that Gavel to Gavel aims to assist practitioners. It does seem unfortunate however, that the book contains so few references to Australian research. Frequent reference to the Macquarie Dictionary for definitions gives the impression that the material is intended to be accessible to non-specialist readers, but for scholars, it is not a substitute for established political science writings that could elucidate some concepts such as democracy more succinctly and authoritatively. When mentioning cases that provide interesting examples, Rozzoli sometimes names the people involved but sometimes he does not. Specific references are more likely to facilitate further research.

Preference for a down-to-earth approach might also explain why the book contains few statistics. For example in discussing the Cabinet Rozzoli mentions a ‘specified number of members called ministers, the majority of whom sit in the Lower House’ (Rozzoli 2006, p. 56). He says that ‘oppositions do not always oppose, in fact the majority of legislation is supported’ (p. 64). The political science student would demand to know how many bills were opposed or supported in say, 2005, as well as how many members might be in Cabinet, and indeed how many speakers there have been. Rozzoli also gives a full discussion of the speaker’s casting vote but does not say how often he used it (pp. 118–120).

It is inevitable that when a writer attempts to cram 30 years’ experience into the length of a readable volume, much detail must be omitted. Consequently, Gavel to Gavel leaves many questions unanswered. For example, Rozzoli says that he was ‘fortunate to be contesting a by-election’ in 1973 (p. 13), but it is unclear why. He contrasts Independents in the Assembly and crossbenchers in the Council (p. 36) but needs to explain how the difference comes about. He refers to the ‘currently high level of turnover’ of MPs (p. 43) but does not provide supporting statistics. He refers to a ‘legislative log-jam’ and proposes that some attention should be given to sitting days and hours, but again, does not cite statistics to elucidate let alone to support his case (p. 48). Rozzoli suggests that a ‘larger than life image’ and building ‘your own legend’ helps in elections (p. 70). He cites as example Milton Morris but does not explain how Morris achieved this.


Rozzoli did not want Gavel to Gavel to be the final word on parliament.

While Gavel to Gavel mostly eschews partisanship, Rozzoli does make some contentious points. Of the period of Coalition minority government following the 1991 election, he criticises the Independents for not using ‘the review process more effectively’ (p. 8). In the next paragraph, he acknowledges that ‘many believe’ that the parliament was ‘in terms of governance and accountability, one of the best parliaments the State has experienced’ (p. 9). There seems to be some contradiction here. In defence of Premier Greiner, Rozzoli says that the ‘electorate extended no credit to a politician who honoured his promises’ (p. 49). This seems to ignore the possibility that in the 1991 election voters may have been punishing a politician who they perceived had betrayed their trust in making reforms too quickly. It also seems slightly bizarre to say that Carr took a ‘derisive attitude to being treated fairly’ (p. 50).

Rozzoli did not want Gavel to Gavel to be the final word on parliament. Indeed, he concludes by remarking, ‘I am told that this is the first book of its kind written by an Australian member of parliament. I certainly hope it will not be the last’ (p. 297). Both the tone and the content of Gavel to Gavel should ensure that other former MPs will take up the pen. As would be expected of someone with a reputation for fairness and moderation, Kevin Rozzoli has managed to write in a remarkably temperate tone, and with a serious respect for the dignity of parliament. Potential successors will be encouraged to believe that they too can write about controversial issues and characters without abandoning their personal integrity.

As a pioneer in its field, Gavel to Gavel has produced the hard work that will free followers to concentrate on their particular interests. Because his book is the first of its kind, Rozzoli has taken a detailed approach that others would have found daunting. He has supplied for example, a Glossary that helps to demystify parliamentary terms and a set of photographs of the parliament and the author at work to help the reader understand something of the institution’s unique atmosphere. As an element in their education, Gavel to Gavel should help to ensure that new and prospective MPs regard parliament with the seriousness it deserves. For that, we should all be very grateful.


Smith, T. 2003, Gender in the Fifty-first New South Wales Parliament, Unpublished PhD Thesis, Faculty of Arts, The University of Sydney.

Tony Smith is a regular contributor to the Australian Review of Public Affairs. He has taught Australian Politics at the Australian Catholic University, Charles Sturt University, the University of Technology Sydney and The University of Sydney.

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