In last Wednesday’s Melbourne Age there was a piece written by Max Kostowski about an upcoming inquiry into Question Time.
Those who follow my words would know that Question Time is just one of the many elements that form our democracy that I think are badly in need of an overhaul. I am of the view that until our democracy goes in for a long-overdue service we will not be able to extract ourselves from the crisis we find our democracy in.
The original inquiry was set up in 2015 but ran headlong into the 2016 federal election and never saw the light of day.
At that time Julie Bishop quipped that question time “does more damage to the Parliament than virtually any other issue.”
The terms of reference for the new inquiry to be headed by Queensland Liberal Ross Vasta with will be decided later in the current sitting and “members of the public will be able to lodge submissions.”
Question Time in terms of the time it takes from the total parliamentary sitting is rather insignificant but given it is the prism through which the public form an opinion of how our parliament goes about its business, it is very important.
As it is now the general public when they see snippets of this particular function of parliament must be left wondering if a rehearsal of Macbeth has descended into comedy.
It is a serious time put aside for the opposition and crossbenchers to ask questions of the government pertaining to its function.
It should be a Q&A period, which provides information about the current functions of the government, and an opportunity for the opposition to keep the government on its toes.
As I have said in the past, as it is currently conducted it is devoid of wit, humour, words of intelligence and those with the eloquence and debating skills to give them meaning.
Mostly it embraces a maleness that believes in conflict as a means of political authority over and above the pursuit of excellence in argument.
Some Speakers have been better than others with the current Speaker Smith and former Speaker Harry Jenkins among the better.
Bronwyn Bishop – when Speaker – in her partisan efforts of undiluted bias allowed Question Time to descend into a bear pit of mouths that roared with loudest being the angriest.
She gave the appearance of having an intent dislike of men with a bitchy witch-like headmistress’s loathing more suited to an evil character in a Harry Potter movie than a democratic parliament. Without doubt she was the worst Speaker ever.
No one would wish Question Time to be reduced to polite discussion without challenge. Nonetheless, all too often it can only be viewed as a combative match between two protagonists shouting at each other, and at the same time degrading the parliament and its politicians.
Before any agreement is reached on how Question Time would serve our democracy better than it does now we must first ask ourselves just what purpose it serves under the existing rules.
To do this I need to refer the reader back to my original post.
The Parliamentary Education Office tells us that the purpose of Question Time is to:
“… allow the opposition to ask the executive government questions and to critically examine its work.
Ministers are called upon to be accountable and explain their decisions and actions in their portfolios. Question Time also provides ministers with an opportunity to present their ideas, their leadership abilities and their political skills.
During Question Time, the opposition also has a chance to present themselves as the alternative government.
Question Time occurs at 2pm every day when Parliament is sitting and usually lasts for about an hour and a quarter. By custom, the Prime Minister decides how long Question Time will last and indeed if it will be held at all.
Ministers do not know the content of questions posed by the opposition during Question Time. These are likely to be tough, designed to test ministers’ capacity to answer quickly and confidently.
During Question Time, government backbenchers also pose questions to ministers in order to highlight government policies and achievements.
These are prepared prior to Question Time and are known as ‘Dorothy Dixers’, after a magazine columnist who used to write her own questions and answers.
Question Time has evolved in the Australian Parliament over a long period of time. The first Parliament made provision for questions on notice to be asked and the relevant minister read the answers to the chamber.
Over time, questions without notice were also put to ministers, particularly in regard to important or urgent matters. The focus in Question Time today is on making the government accountable for its actions and dealing with the political issues of the day.”
Well in short that’s the purpose. Does it work in reality? Of course not. The new Speaker Tony Smith has reignited a modem of decorum but its structure doesn’t allow it to function properly.
Prior to the 2010 election the then Manager of Opposition Business, Christopher Pyne – better known as the Mouth That Roared, or Mr Fix It – had this to say:
“An elected Coalition Government will move to reform Parliamentary Standing orders in the House of Representatives.
Our reforms will make Parliamentary Question Time more concise and ensure Ministers are held to account and remain relevant to questions asked.
We will look to strengthen the definition of ‘relevance’ in the standing orders so Ministers must stay directly relevant to questions and ensure Matters of Public Importance debates follow Question Time”.
This was of course more bullshit from the Coalition.
Ministers could not care less, but the way in which they answer shows them up as a shambolic gaggle of incompetent unedifying politicians not in the least interested in enhancing our democracy.
Question Time has deteriorated to the point of uselessness. It is untenable, so biased that there is no purpose in asking questions.
Ministers must be made more accountable.
Whatever the government’s terms of reference for the up-coming inquiry might be you can be sure they won’t damage the advantage incumbency.
At the same time the government is leaving open suggestions from the community.
Let the ideas flow
I have a number of ideas on how to improve Question Time. Consider the following:
1 I propose appointing a panel of former speakers from both sides of the House to rewrite the standing orders that reform Question Time without ‘Dorothy Dixers’.
2 An independent Speaker who is not a politician. Not only independent but elected by the people. A position with clout. A Parliamentary Speaker’s Office with the power to name and shame Ministers for irrelevance. Power over politician’s expenses. It could include a ‘Fact Check Office’.
3 Imagine if the Speaker’s office adjudicated on answers and published on its own independent web page a factual relevance scale. This might serve two purposes. Firstly, it would promote transparency and truth; and secondly provide an opportunity for ministers to correct answers. It wouldn’t take long for profiles of ministers to build.
4 If in the course of Question Time the Opposition wants to table a document that they say supports their claim, in the interests of openness and accountability it should always be allowed. Documents would also come under the scrutiny of the Speakers Office and both their authenticity and relevance be noted in the Speaker’s weekly accountability report.
5 Freedom of Information could also come under the umbrella of the Independent Speaker’s Office with it deciding what could be disclosed in the public interest.
6 Dorothy Dixers would be completely outlawed because they serve no purpose. If backbenchers want information then pick up the bloody phone.
Question Time is not a public relations department. It should only ever be about Government accountability.
7 I acknowledge that our system requires vigorous debate and human nature being what it is, passion will sometimes gets the better of our politicians. When it occurs the Speaker should have the power to call time-outs.
8 Lying to the Parliament is a serious misdemeanour yet the Prime Minister and the Ministers in this Government do it on a regular basis. An Independent Speaker would be able to inflict severe penalties on serious offenders.
9 In fully answering a question, a minister or parliamentary secretary must be directly responsive, relevant, succinct and limited to the subject matter of the question. Penalties would apply.
10 Mobile phones could be banned.
At this point in time nothing has changed. The Government owns Question Time, the Speaker and the Standing Orders. It must change.
My thought for the day
To those who think they can win a debate by being loud and crass. I say be quiet. To those who think they can win with a perceived superior intellect I say be humble. Discourse requires civility in order to produce reasoned outcomes.
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