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Reforming question time: A few less mouths that roar

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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10 comments

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  1. Keitha Granville

    Mobile phones MUST be banned. How dare they be so rude as to be tweeting or texting or just playing a game, who knows?

    I like your ideas, definitely an independent speaker, that should be first. And definitely ban DDs, if the government wants to promote what it is doing it can send out an email newsletter.

  2. Terence Mills

    This enquiry into Question Time is open for public submissions and you can do this via the website :

    https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House/Procedure/Questiontime

    Trying to ban Dorothy Dixers’ will be difficult but it is essential. My suggestion is that questions from the government side – where Dixers’ are spawned – be restricted to one day, a Friday afternoon.

    As Parliament usually knocks off on a Thursday arvo so that everybody can get home for the weekend, Friday should work well.

  3. Kaye Lee

    Liberal Sharman Stone said of QT….

    “Do away with all of that. We need women in the place who will say: ‘Enough of time-wasting’. The public is over it. They look at Parliament, they see it as time-wasting, totally confrontational, men versus men screaming at each other to see who can get thrown out the quickest.”

    Malcolm Turnbull said….

    “If you love your country, have an interest in politics or policy, and care deeply about our nation’s future, there is nothing more certain to arouse your fury and invite your contempt than listening to an entire House of Representatives Question Time….There is a reason it is called Question Time and not Answer Time.”

    He suggests that we should adopt something similar to the British system where the PM answers questions on Wednesday but, on the other days, question time is devoted to different departments in turn.

    His reasoning for this (written in 2012)….

    “For the last two years the questions from the Opposition have been almost entirely focussed on people smuggling and the carbon tax. Are they really the only important issues facing Australia? A regular viewer of Question Time would be excused for thinking they were.”

    It was a very interesting speech by Turnbull….worth the read if you haven’t seen it before.

    https://www.malcolmturnbull.com.au/media/republican-virtues-truth-leadership-and-responsibility

  4. Stephanie Hammett

    Great ideas..we must not forget we pay their salary..they work for us!

  5. Michael Taylor

    Dr Sharman Stone was the only decent Liberal Minister I ever worked for. She came across as a progressive trapped in a conservative web. In other words, she belonged in the ALP.

  6. John Lord

    Thanks for the links Kaye and Terence.

  7. Patricia

    I suggest that the opposition and cross bench stop asking questions of the government in QT until the government starts acting like adults and not like spoilt bratty three year olds throwing tantrums because they are expected to answer to the people who employ them.

    QT IS a disgrace, it is an embarrassment and any politician worth their salt would look at their performance at QT and cringe.

    I think that all the suggestions in this article are valid and should be implemented.

    The type of behaviour exhibited by the government especially at QT would never be tolerated in a business meeting environment. And QT is a meeting, albeit without an agenda, and maybe it should have one.

    Every regular meeting that I have attended in my working life has usually had plastered somewhere very prominently in the meeting room or on the meeting room door the rules of the meeting. At the first meeting these rules are pointed out to everyone at the meeting and everyone is asked to agree to and abide by them.

    10 Ground Rules for Meetings

    Show up on time and come prepared.
    Stay mentally and physically present. (Mobile phones and other electronic devices should be banned)
    Contribute to meeting goals. (There have to be goals in place in the first place and this is where an agenda comes into play)
    Let everyone participate.
    Listen with an open mind.
    Think before speaking.
    Stay on point and on time. (There should be an allocated time span for both a question and an answer)
    Attack the problem, not the person.
    Close decisions and identify action items.
    Record outcomes and follow up.(Hansard does the recording but there seems to be no follow up by those who have taken questions on “notice” (a way of saying that they are not going to answer the question))

    I see no reason why these ten very basic requirements cannot be implemented for QT.

    And as far as mobile phones in QT go, while they are not banned at meetings generally it is frowned upon that they be used, except for contact in an emergency (most of my meeting of the last 20 years having been held on construction sites this was necessary), there is no reason that politicians, who have a plethora of staff to attend to their every needs, should have a requirement to take their mobile phone into QT.

  8. Kaye Lee

    You have to understand, we are talking about people who need a written code of conduct to tell them it is not ok to sexually assault their female employees.

    They don’t see their behaviour as bullying. If they make the women cry, they are snowflakes who aren’t up to the “rough and tumble” of politics and should get out.

    The behaviour exhibited in question time is that of a class where the teacher has lost control.

    What I would love to do is what I did when teaching – change the seating arrangement.

    I would do away with the treasury, opposition, and cross benches and sit them in alphabetical electorate order. That would eliminate the gang tactics of the pile-on, pointing and jeering. It would also make it much easier to identify people for both us and the Speaker. They are all elected members and should all have equal status.

    Those who misbehaved would certainly not get an early mark from me to get to the canteen line or the showers early. They would be moved down to the middle of the chamber to sit in single file in front of the Speaker and then asked to remain behind whilst they read the standing orders about behaviour – repeat offenders would be given a written exercise on how they will adjust their behaviour in order to be allowed to rejoin normal proceedings.

  9. wam

    What a great read this morning as I sit at the breakfast table in Bundalong. I missed my morning swim but your state’s climate, at current global warming status, is not conducive to such an activity.
    DDs are important in today’s parliamentary process as it give ‘bragging rights’ to ministers and allows backbenchers to be seen.
    Google says, misleading the Australian parliament is serious but lying is not an offence? Wow that makes my gobbledegook seem almost sensible, but the fun of English is the surprise that discourse is debate but not vice versa?
    Did you read your thoughts for the day, lord?
    So are you discoursing, debating or opining?

    ps dance of the cuckoos
    I have been rejected and defriended by pollies for repeating criticism of little billy and torpid Tanya but only outright attacked for my assertion that politicians would avoid most criticism if they published the who with, where, how long and outcomes of their meetings. The ferocity of the attack invoked suspicion as it was in the middle of labor chasing the Brandis diary?

    pps
    The boys are jealous of potus who can grab pussy with impunity
    These are not just elected they are SELECTED and that gives them the rights of government power?

  10. Bronte ALLAN

    Hear,. hear Mr Lord! And he sooner something like what you have proposed is set in motion, the better!

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