Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott in the Howard government, and contributes regularly to the Australian edition of The Spectator.
Although attention is on the General Election, the avalanche of daily opinion polls and speculation over whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband will take the keys to Number 10, Lynton Crosby isn’t the only Australian of interest in political Britain today.
For here in Australia, it has been announced by both the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate that the head of the Australian Parliament’s Department of Parliamentary Services, Carol Mills, has been terminated as of last Wednesday. The “Canberra Caterer”, John Bercow’s rank outsider choice to be appointed as Clerk of the House of Commons, has been canned.
The Australian presiding officers’ statement gave no reason for Mills’s dismissal. Their statement was brief, terse and made perfectly clear that Mills was being sacked, even though she sent an email to parliamentary staff after the announcement, praising them and saying that under her leadership parliamentary management had become more rigorous, effective and transparent.
But no amount of window-dressing by the ousted Mills can hide the trail of mismanagement, poor decision-making and misjudgments that marked her parliamentary tenure. Some of these are already familiar to ConservativeHome readers, such as the use of CCTV to “spy” on a whistle-blower’s visit to a senior senator’s parliamentary office; a related damning privileges committee report that cast doubt in Mills’s evidence over the CCTV incident and barely stopped short of accusing her of misleading Parliament; and poor advice to the presiding officers that led to a ludicrous decision to segregate, as security risks, wearers of the burqa and niqab visiting Canberra’s parliamentary chambers – by seating them in a glassed-off gallery used for school visits.
Since her doings were last updated on this website, Mills’s department has been castigated by an Australian National Audit Office performance audit which the Auditor-General said, with delicious understatement, was “at the more critical end of the reports we produce”. And, to cap it all, the audit revealed that a photographer commissioned at a cost of around A$30,000 to take candid behind-the-scenes photos of life in Parliament House turned out to be a friend and neighbour of Mills. The photographer was selected without a formal tender and, while Mills denied influencing the process improperly, the audit was critical of the lack of documentation and the failure by Mills to manage her conflict of interest.
Any one of these episodes would be enough to finish the career of a senior parliamentary official in which impartiality, probity and competence are integral. What seemed unfair criticism of Mills when the storm broke over her Commons appointment has turned out to more than reasonable. If anything, what she has got is mild compared to what she deserved.
The rise and fall of Carol Mills is an embarrassment to the Australian Parliament, the administration of which has been racked with anger, suspicion and factionalism since the first complaint was made about the CCTV incident early in 2014. While it was a highly unprofessional personal intervention, the emailed warning last year of Rosemary Laing, Australia’s Senate clerk, about Mills to Sir Robert Rogers, the Commons Clerk (now Lord Lisvane), proved to be on the money. Even aside from her lack of chamber experience, Mills is an inappropriate individual to run a cake stall, let alone the Palace of Westminster: sadly, that is now absolutely clear.
All of which leads us back to the Commons Speaker, John Bercow. Bercow it was who presided over the headhunting and selection processes that found Mills and then recommended her appointment, pushing aside disquieting reports of the CCTV incident and related privileges investigation. Bercow it was who championed her to Parliament and the Executive in the face of implacable opposition from many senior Conservative MPs. Bercow it was who urged David Cameron to put Mills’s name before the Queen. And Bercow it was who resisted fiercely the decision of a Select Committee to investigate the fiasco of the Mills appointment.
As a result, the Mills bomb has finally blown up in Bercow’s face. Even though he already had quietly cut Mills loose and recommenced the search for a new candidate, Carol Mills is his albatross. If he has a shred of parliamentary integrity, Bercow must accept full responsibility for his choice. He must be held accountable for his conduct throughout this whole sorry saga: his poor political judgment; his capricious going all out for an outsider simply to cock a snook at the Westminster “establishment”; and, above all, his poor judgement of character.
Had Mills been sacked two months ago, before outgoing William Hague and Michael Gove moved to make the election of the Speaker a secret ballot in the next Parliament, last month’s 228-202 result against the motion might have been reversed. Indeed, the vote might have been won very decisively, and rightly so.
Whatever the result of this election, the Speaker is now surely fatally damaged. He cannot credibly carry on with the albatross of the Mills fiasco around his neck. If he has any true sense of the dignity he so often claims for himself and his great office – not least when humiliating MPs who dare question him in the House – he will vacate the Chair when the next Parliament gathers for the good of the great institution of which he is the custodian, if not his personal reputation.
If Bercow doesn’t take the hint, and go for the good of the Parliament, both David Cameron and Ed Miliband must make him, by ensuring that the Conservative and Labour parties withdraw their confidence from the Speaker.