Tony Burke promises crossbench ‘guaranteed respect’ in new parliament but says staff cuts to stay

by Paul Karp
Leader of the House also outlines changes to make sitting hours more family friendly

Tony Burke has promised the crossbench will be “guaranteed respect” under new rules for parliament, but signalled the government will not turn on MP staffing cuts.

After negotiations with the crossbench, the leader of the House has outlined a series of changes to give the growing crossbench more input and make sittings more family friendly ahead of parliament resuming on Tuesday.

The House of Representatives crossbench has grown to 16, including four Greens MPs and 12 independents or minor parties, leading to demands for more say on how parliament is run.

In June, crossbenchers were shocked when their staffing allocation was cut from eight to five. Crossbench senators hold out hope their allocation could yet be increased, arguing the cut will slow the consideration of legislation because they hold the balance of power.

But Burke scotched suggestions of any prospect of varying the decision for MPs: “No, there’s not.”

Burke told Guardian Australia it was “not reasonable for them to have more staff than senior members of the opposition” such as the shadow treasurer and manager of opposition business.

He also rejected claims crossbench MPs are busier, arguing the claim backbenchers don’t take an interest in legislation “defies reality” and is “demonstrably not true”.

“This whole debate has really undermined the role that other backbenchers play. The concept that you can’t possibly use electorate staff to help with parliamentary work? Every backbencher does that.”

Elizabeth Watson-Brown is among four Greens MPs on the crossbench after the party gained three lower house seats in the election.
Elizabeth Watson-Brown is among four Greens MPs on the crossbench after the party gained three lower house seats in the election. Photograph: Dan Peled/Getty Images

Burke said there will be “a lot more guaranteed respect for the crossbench” including ensuring their share of questions in question time, speeches in speaking lists, and that “proportionality is taken into account for who gets [to select the matter of public importance]” to be debated daily.

However, the government has not relinquished control of which bills will be voted on, which he said will “still be able to be controlled” by a bills selection committee despite the crossbench asking “to handle that differently”.

The second big change is family friendly hours and days of sitting, responding to Kate Jenkins’ review into parliament’s workplace culture.

“This is one that came principally from parents that bring young children to parliament,” Burke said.

“They have usually had to leave around 6.30pm [because] to wait for adjournment at 8pm when you’ve got a little one becomes impossible.

“They had to go through daily checking with the whip whether they would be able to leave that day.”

To solve that problem, in the 47th parliament no votes or quorum checks will be held after 6.30pm. Sitting days during school holidays have been “completely avoided”, Burke said.

On Tuesday Labor selected Oxley MP, Milton Dick, to be the next speaker of the House of Representatives, with Sharon Claydon, another Labor MP, to serve as deputy.

Burke said a lot of the culture of parliament is set by “how governments behave, beyond the standing orders”. He blamed the previous government for “diminishing the parliament” by silencing debate and attacking its political opponents within 10 seconds of answering a question.

By contrast, Burke credited former treasurer Peter Costello for “really funny and brutal answers” in question time that spent “a substantial amount on government policy at the start” and delivered “at hit at the end”, with “wit”.

“It was fine. It was an appropriate use of parliament.”

Burke said at times the government may use the motion to silence an opposition member if it “needs to keep debate moving, to get a bill across to the Senate” but the tactic would not be used to render debate “non-existent”.

“Governments do better when people publicly disagree and you have it out in parliament, and you’re forced to make your case.”