Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

Unpredictable Parliaments op ed by Dr Melanie Sully

Op ed in the Austrian quality "Die Presse" on the role of Speakers, voting, elections in parliaments.

"Unberechenbare Parlamente" by Dr Melanie Sully appeared as an op ed in "Die Presse", 29.8. 2014.

Adaptation of the op ed "Unpredictable Parliaments" in “Die Presse” in English

 by Dr Melanie Sully

According to the Speaker of the UK House of Commons an unpredictable parliament is a more effective one and it is desirable that the government cannot always tell what is going to happen next. This has been the case for example on Europe, foreign policy, and military intervention where the government has suffered defeats. Also in the Upper House, the reformed Lords the government has lost 14 times over the last year forcing it to rethink on policy. This element of surprise is it seems what some miss in Austria amidst fears that a new parliament president could be too friendly to a government party.

The current Speaker in the UK parliament is anything but a consensus figure, challenging tradition and modernising that historic institution and in the process making enemies amongst sections of the government and the popular press. From the start he made himself unpopular with some by introducing a crèche and closing a bar to make room for it.

Upon election to the post the Speaker resigns as a party member and gives up party positions never again to resume them. After serving he or she usually goes to the Upper Chamber and sits as a non-party member. During the time in office interviews are confined to matters of parliamentary business rather than party political points.

The current Speaker was elected after his predecessor was obliged to resign following his perceived mishandling of the parliamentary expenses affair. The Speaker cannot technically be removed during the legislative period but having clearly lost the confidence of the House he stepped down.

In debates the Speaker has considerable discretion to call MPs to speak unlike in Austria where the parliamentary groups play a key role. The Speaker can and has cut short even the Prime Minister who threatened to speak for too long and delights in allowing ordinary MPs to question ministers at length.

Internal party revolts too play a greater role in the parliament as well as open splits in the coalition cabinet itself. During a debate on press regulation the leader of the Liberal Democrats demonstrably delivered a separate statement in contra-distinction to Cameron. As one commentator remarked the UK has coalition government but not coalition parliament.

A factor influencing this is a new law making early dissolution and a snap election more difficult. Government defeats and internal disputes do not necessarily lead to a premature election. Press speculation on a government collapse during any crisis is now more muted. In contrast the coalition pact in Austria specifically refers to voting behaviour in parliament meaning deviant voting runs the risk of early elections. The idea of fixed term parliaments as in Sweden or Norway was supported by Barbara Prammer some years ago but met with a mixed reception. As reform plans now indicate commissions of inquiry would be wound up for an election campaign, meaning a sudden fall of the government would herald the end of an inquiry. That the government needs to secure a majority in parliament goes without saying but parliamentary control of an already dominant executive needs to be effective.

While the parliament building is being renovated it might be worth reflecting on how debates and parliament itself could be made more lively and even unpredictable.