The NSW opposition has accused the Berejiklian government of using “Trumpian” tactics to secure control of a powerful position in parliament.
The government has been in a standoff with the opposition and cross bench over who should be president of the NSW upper house, a position of leadership over an influential legislative body where the government doesn’t hold a majority.
The upper house often performs an oversight function over the government and actions taken there can in some cases make or break its agenda.
Last week, when the most recent president, Liberal John Ajaka, quit after four years on the job, it triggered a crisis in the chamber.
Both sides nominated candidates – and both failed twice to win a majority of MPs’ votes.
That was last Wednesday, and since then all activity in the upper house has been on ice.
But on Monday, the government sent out a press release congratulating Liberal MP Natasha Maclaren-Jones on being elected president.
“Ms Maclaren-Jones has the demonstrated temperament, character and expertise to be the President of this House,” the government’s upper house leader Don Harwin said.
“She was elected to the House 10 years ago in 2011 and has served for a decade with distinction.”
The statement said the government had received advice from the Crown Solicitor that interpreted the rules of the chamber in a way that meant Ms MacLaren-Jones was the winner of the first ballot.
The move sparked fury on the other side of the chamber.
“I think it’s an outrageous step to just declare the candidate elected, when she clearly doesn’t have the support of the majority,” Labor’s deputy leader of the upper house Penny Sharpe said.
“We do not accept the government’s Trumpian declaration that their candidate has been elected. It’s an extraordinary and unprecedented action for the government to take.”
In declaring last Wednesday’s votes inconclusive, the clerk of the chamber cited a rule called standing order 13 and said: “In the absence of one of the two candidates receiving a majority of the votes of the members present, I am not in a position to declare either of the candidates elected.”
Standing order 13 is one of hundreds of rules that have been set up to govern the functions of the upper house. It deals with how a ballot for electing a new president should work.
The government’s legal advice highlighted part of the standing order that says: “The candidate who has the greater number of votes is to be declared elected President.”
It said the clerk was wrong to rely on a different section of the standing order that says the winner has to have the majority of votes.
Labor said that following the government’s announcement, the clerk had sought his own legal advice from top Sydney silk Bret Walker.
After the opposition first decided to put forward their own candidate for upper house president, the MP Peter Primrose, Gladys Berejiklian called their move a “stunt” and said it was a longstanding tradition that the government’s pick for president got the job.
“You can’t be out there one day, marching for women’s rights and more women in leadership positions, and then come into this place and put on stunts and not support the government’s candidate who happens to be an outstanding woman,” she told reporters last Wednesday.
The upper house is next scheduled to sit in May.