Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott in the Howard government, and contributes regularly to the Australian edition of The Spectator.
The ongoing and undignified Westminster brawl over John Bercow’s championing a hitherto unknown Australian, Carol Mills, to be the next Clerk of the House of Commons, is a sorry spectacle for all holding respect and affection for the House of Commons.
Australian media have enjoyed following the Mills fiasco, especially after the respected Clerk of the Australian Senate, the formidable Rosemary Laing, e-mailed Sir Robert Rogers, the retiring Commons Clerk, with what she saw as a few home truths about the Mills selection.
“We were utterly taken aback here when we saw a brief press report in early July that Carol Mills had emerged as ‘front runner’ to take over from you, and have followed events with increasing disbelief and dismay…It seems impossible someone without parliamentary knowledge and experience could be under consideration for such a role.” Laing wrote, perhaps with a touch of envy of Mills’s success.
Sensationally, Laing highlighted that the Australian Department of Parliamentary Services, headed by Mills, is being investigated by the Senate privileges committee for using closed-circuit TV footage of Canberra’s Parliament House as part of its own investigation of inappropriate conduct involving a senior senator’s parliamentary office. Ms Mills’s lack of chamber experience (especially compared to Sir Robert’s overlooked deputy, David Natzler), that Senate investigation, and Laing’s implication that Mills should have resigned over it, have been central to the gale of criticism of her selection by an appointments panel chaired by Bercow.
The Speaker has, somewhat ungraciously, bowed to pressure from MPs to “pause” the appointment in order to allow its scrutiny by a Commons select committee, and more details about the selection process and Ms Mills’s recommendation are emerging. David Cameron has reportedly mocked Bercow’s recommendation letter in private with Tory MPs, and even from this distance it seems incredible that Ms Mills emerged as the preferred candidate.
As head of its Department of Parliamentary Services, Mills is well-regarded in Australian parliamentary circles, notwithstanding the CCTV issue. Since 2012 she has overseen Canberra’s Parliament House community – not just catering, but the Parliamentary Library and a wide range of essential support services and infrastructure. In effect, she is town clerk of a community of several thousand people when Parliament sits, answerable to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and to the President of the Senate.
Notwithstanding Dr Laing’s bitchy comments to Sir Robert Rogers, there is no evidence that Mills is anything but a competent and diligent servant of the Australian Parliament. To her credit, she has maintained a dignified silence. That the Speaker’s handling of her selection has caused her international ridicule and humiliation as the “Canberra Caterer” is therefore something on which Bercow should reflect. He certainly doesn’t seem to have done much to protect her once he found himself on the firing line from MPs furious about her selection and the treatment of Natzler.
The only thing that Mills is guilty of is applying for a position for which she must have known she was under-qualified. While she clearly had the managerial credentials and ability to run the House of Commons Service, she is a career civil servant, not a parliamentary chamber official.
Even if Mills had risen through the clerkly ranks like her now-declared enemy Laing, it would be very difficult indeed for her to succeed in the role. Erskine May ceased being a manual for the Australian Parliament over 30 years ago. Australia’s parliamentary practice has left Westminster behind: just look at how Canberra’s brawling Question Time, where every minister is on notice every sitting day, makes PMQs look like a church picnic.
Not even a highly-skilled Australian chamber practitioner like Laing would master readily
the intricate British constitutional and procedural lore, let alone radically different parliamentary
and political cultures, in which Sir Robert Rogers had been steeped for 35 years.
Conversely, Sir Robert would flounder in the Australian Parliament if the reverse applied. Mills stood
no chance of being the principal constitutional and procedural adviser of the House of Commons, however good a chief executive she would be. Surely Bercow knew that, and yet he pressed
With this in mind, when the House reviews the “paused” appointment, the Prime Minister and William Hague, as Leader of the House, must do their utmost to protect the dignity of Mills herself. She is no villain, but is collateral damage in the struggle between a wilful Speaker and a House whose already shaky confidence in him has been rocked by his conduct in this matter. Even Mills’s current Australian appointment probably is untenable because of Laing’s unfortunate intervention – which, in turn, is fallout from Bercow’s messy selection process.
An irony of this sorry affair is that had Mills applied to become Clerk of the Australian House of Representatives, she would have been ruled ineligible. Section 58(4) of Australia’s Parliamentary Service Act 1999 provides that:
“A person is not to be appointed as the Clerk of the Senate or the Clerk of the House of Representatives unless the Presiding Officer making the appointment is satisfied that the person has extensive knowledge of, and experience in, relevant Parliamentary law, procedure and practice.”
However much a statement of the bleeding obvious, had such a provision operated in Westminster this whole unseemly fiasco never would have arisen.
Mills is a decent person being hung out to dry by Bercow’s determination both to get his way and save his parliamentary skin. His decisions devalue the great Parliamentary institution over which he is but a temporary custodian. This sorry affair reflects far more on the Speaker, his ego, and the political judgment of Labour for helping him into the Chair, than it does Mills.