CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australian government lawmakers on Monday elected a new speaker of the House of Representatives after the previous speaker resigned over an expense scandal that has damaged Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s conservative government.
The new speaker Tony Smith defeated his nearest challenger Andrew Southcott in a ballot of ruling Liberal Party lawmakers 51 votes to 22.
His selection was later formally endorsed by the House of Representatives, where the government holds a clear majority.
In an indication that the low-profile Smith intends to play a more independent role than his predecessor Bronwyn Bishop, he said he would no longer attend party meetings in which government policy and legislation are discussed.
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“It’s my view that the speaker should not only be, but also should be seen to be independent of the partisan, day-to-day foray,” Smith told Parliament.
Bishop was regarded as one of the most blatantly partisan speakers to preside over the House of Representatives in its 114-year history. Since she first took the chair in November 2013, she has expelled opposition lawmakers on 393 occasions for misbehavior and government lawmakers on seven occasions. Despite her relatively short tenure, no speaker has expelled more lawmakers.
Bishop, 72, was the choice of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who once described himself as the “ideological love child” of Bishop and John Howard, the second-longest serving prime minister in Australian history and the last conservative prime minister before Abbott.
Abbott on Monday let party lawmakers decide who Australia’s 30th speaker would be.
Abbott’s government has suffered in opinion polls in recent weeks over publicity surrounding travel expenses claimed by Bishop and by other lawmakers both within the government and the opposition. Claims have included flying children business class at taxpayers’ expense for family vacations.
Bishop had a long history for making excessive or questionable travel expense claims. She resigned last week in the face of fierce criticism after it emerged that she spent more than AU$5,000 ($3,700) to charter a helicopter for an 80-kilometer (50-mile) trip to a golf course to attend a fundraiser for the ruling party, rather than drive the 90-minute route.
Bishop apologized for what she called the “ridiculous” expense and repaid the money. But scrutiny over her other travel expenses continued, including claims that she charged taxpayers for travel costs associated with trips to attend weddings. She said she would repay those expenses as well.
The Finance Department is investigating whether she violated any rules.
Abbott said there would be a review of lawmaker entitlements in the wake of the scandal.
An opinion poll published in The Australian newspaper on Monday showed Abbott’s coalition was trailing the opposition Labor Party by 46 percent to 54 percent. The poll by Sydney-based market researcher Newspoll was based on a random nationwide telephone survey at the weekend of 1,727 voters. It has a 3 percentage point margin of error.
The poll was published six months and a day after Abbott survived a leadership challenge from within his own party prompted by poor opinion polling. Abbott at the time implored his colleagues to give him six more months to improve the government’s popularity.
This story has been corrected to show 393 expulsions instead of 383.