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Question Time Ahead of Time

Question Time for Monday began almost entirely as predicted, with the protests by some members of the Islamic community in Sydney being the first thing mentioned in Question Time after procedural matters. Both the Acting Prime Minister, Wayne Swan and the Acting Opposition Leader, Julie Bishop rose, on indulgence to condemn, in no uncertain terms, the actions of a violent minority of demonstrators who caused mayhem in Sydney on the weekend. But the actions on the weekend did not result in any questions as predicted prior to the commencement of parliament. There were simply the statements by the two leaders and then Questions Without Notice began for the day.

Question Time on Monday, as far as the Coalition was concerned, was pretty evenly split between two issues. There was the return of the usual prominence of the anti-carbon tax campaign, which has taken somewhat of a backseat and then there was a number of questions in relation to the visa of a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist group, who spoke at a conference here.

The Gillard Government through the Dorothy Dix pursued, as has become their strategy for some time now, a much broader range of policy areas in an attempt to highlight positive differences in policy and perceived shortfalls of the Opposition in these policy areas. There were questions on the economy, taxation, duplication of the Pacific Highway, disability, healthcare and school education, all now regular features in questions from Labor backbenchers.

Question Time on Tuesday looks like it will play out in a similar fashion to Monday. It now seems likely that the Coalition will return to asking questions related to the carbon tax, around power bills quite likely, as it was today. Questions on the carbon price could also centre around the dropping of the floor price as well as the decision to not seek the closure of the 5 biggest coal-fired power stations and the impacts of the policy on businesses not compensated for price impacts.

Questions about the Hizb ut-Tahrir conference matter may continue tomorrow, but if this occurs it seems likely to not be as prominent as it was today.

Another issue which may compete for top billing, but was non-existent during Question Time today during Opposition questions would be matters related to spending priorities and the budget and what services would be cut, or taxes increased to pay for the significant new policy promises from the ALP.

Even more certain is the broad range of areas that the government will ask questions of itself on during Question Time. This will likely included comparative economic performance, healthcare and school education reform and could just as likely include infrastructure. taxation, the environment and families and community services questions.

Nobody was asked to leave the chamber under Standing Order 94a, but that could all change tomorrow as our parliamentarians begin getting back into the parliamentary groove.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Parliament and Question Time are back after just a weekend break. It has been a rather eventful weekend, with tensions exploding from within elements of the Islamic community of Australia in response to a lame video by an American individual. The government here and most across the Western world, including the United States of America, were quick to condemn the video when it became known. These events seem likely to change the complexion of Questions Without Notice early in the week at least as the government seeks to explain their position and possibly answer questions on the matter from the Opposition.

Last week, like the previous sitting week, was all about the Opposition asking questions about the spending priorities of the Gillard Government, especially in relation to the budget, which the government is trying to say, will return to surplus.

The carbon price was next in line on the list of priorities of the Coalition, with a number of questions on the issue throughout the week. But unlike many previous weeks in this, the 43rd parliament, it actually took a backseat to something else on the political agenda of the Liberal and National Party Coalition.

Of course too, it would not have been a parliamentary week, or even a week in politics in general, without the Tony Abbott led Opposition asking the government some questions on asylum seekers and refugees.

The government again continued to have their backbencher’s ask questions on a number of issues including the economy, health, education, infrastructure, the environment and workplace relations as well as immigration.

In the week ahead, not much is likely to change as far as the overall make-up of Questions Without Notice goes. Early on in the week, probably limited to Monday, there is likely to be a question or questions from both sides of the political fence as Australia seeks to make sense of the angry protests which took place at the weekend.

After that, it is likely that the Coalition and the government will return to other issues. But the policy areas considered will likely remain the same.  Only the number of questions on each regular issue will change.

Asylum seekers might well dominate the week, at least early on, as the Opposition seeks to goad the ALP into allowing the re-introduction of Temporary Protection Visas and the turning back of asylum seeker vessels. This comes after the first asylum seekers have begun to head to Nauru

If asylum seekers isn’t the main political game this week, it will again be government spending priorities, taxation and the budget that make up the majority of questions that come from the Liberal and National Party’s.

That small matter of the carbon price will also make an appearance, but it may not be as prominent again as it has been in previous weeks of parliament.

The Labor Government for their part will also aim to respond to the events of the weekend during Question Time, with Government MP’s likely to ask a question or questions on the matter, but probably limited to Monday.

After that, attention will again to return to the spending priorities of the government, those announced and half-announced, including health, education and infrastructure in particular. There will however, also be questions on the environment, the economy in general and workplace relations.

The only unknown factors in Question Time are the exact make-up of questions on each issue, whether any other topical issue arise during the week and just how bad the behaviour is and how hammy the theatre.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Another day of federal parliament and Question Time has passed us by. Tuesday was a bit of a noisy one, louder than Monday anyway. Tuesday’s session of Questions Without Notice saw the Member for Mayo, Jamie Briggs booted from the lower house under standing order 94a for abusing a point of order he raised in relation to an answer from the Acting Prime Minister, Wayne Swan. Despite that, a wide array of issues were canvassed from across the parliament, though the variety of policy areas was more diverse on the government side through the use of the Dorothy Dixer.

The Opposition spent the bulk of Questi0ns Without Notice pursuing the government over their spending priorities, in particular the so-called “big new spending” announced by the government this financial year. The questions pointed out the spending and revenue problems that the Gillard Government faces as they prepare to, most likely in vain, return to surplus next year. Most of the questions asked whether or not taxes would be raised in order to aid the government in returning to surplus.

Though there were a majority of questions focused on the budget, the price on carbon did make a much larger return to the Question Time arena on Tuesday, with questions about hospitals and the carbon tax and closing coal-fired power stations which will at this stage no longer occur as the government seeks to cut carbon emissions.

Oh, and there was the obligatory asylum seeker question from the Coalition at the start of Question Time.

The government again was much less focused on one or two issues during Question Time and continued using the Dorothy Dixer to ask a number of different questions on different policy areas. There were questions on the economy, supporting those in need, the so-called ‘super trawler’, schools investment, health, jobs, skills, wages and housing.

Because of the predictable nature of this, the 43rd parliament, it is almost certain that the strategy for Questions Without Notice for both sides of the political divide will remain the same, or at least largely identical.

On Wednesday, again the Coalition will most likely focus questions to the government around the budget. They will again ask how the government will return to surplus with new and continued spending commitments and whether or not this will require tax increases or whether or not it just won’t happen.

A second major focus may be the price on carbon again which was the focus of the second part of Question Time on Tuesday afternoon. This will likely focus around coal-fired power and businesses and organisations that are impacted by the carbon price but will not receive compensation from the government.

Of course, it being the Coalition, there is always the distinct possibility that there will be at least a question or two on asylum seekers and refugees as the government prepares to send the first boat arrivals to Nauru.

The ALP for their part will again try to prosecute their case for having acted in a wide selection of policy areas. This will likely include again, the comparative strength of the economy, schools investment, health, vulnerable people, jobs, wages, skills, housing and infrastructure.

The only unknown is how bad the behaviour will be, but we can all live in hope that it might just be a little more constrained and dignified than we have become accustomed to when it comes to politics.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Question Time for Tuesday has thankfully flown by at warp speed, meaning we’re ever closer to the end of another week of Questions Without Notice, the second week in a row since the winter recess. After the events of yesterday, you could have been forgiven for thinking that much of the same was on the way, comparatively it was tame. That’s not to say it was shouty and screechy, it certainly was. But there wasn’t the same level of ill disciple that saw multiple Coalition MP’s booted for an hour under Standing Order 94a yesterday including the Opposition Leader and Manager of Opposition Business.

Probably tired from the amount of energy burnt yesterday, members of parliament, particularly on the Coalition side, fell back into the rhythm that’s been common since this 43rd parliament commenced in 2010.

Again, aside from Joe Hockey on spending priorities and the prospect of new taxes to pay for those immense spending allocations, the Tony Abbott led Opposition continued on the obvious ground of the carbon tax. Yesterday it was all about fruit and vegetable farmers and businesses, today it moved to the carbon price and meat producers and businesses.

The Gillard Government as they have shown in recent times, were much more varied in the areas of policy that their backbenchers asked questions on. Questions did include the price on carbon, but also education reform, health and workplace relations.

It would be folly to not accept much of the same during Questions Without Notice for Wednesday.

You can expect the Coalition to continue with questions about the carbon tax and any deviation from that would almost be a letdown, perhaps even like living in an alternate universe. The only question is what type of business will be focused on? We know that power prices and small businesses will continue to be the focus.

It would almost be equally as strange to not expect a question at the start of the session from Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, again on the spending priorities of the Labor Party as occurred yesterday and today.

A question or questions on the Fair Work Australia investigation and Craig Thomson are also likely to make an appearance after the KPMG report into the Fair Work Australia investigation of the HSU was released.

The certain thing about the issues that the ALP Government ask questions of itself on is that there will again be variety. The carbon tax will attract the most questions again, of course.

However, other areas of policy will definitely be highlighted during the hour and ten minutes that is Question Time. This will undoubtedly include, as it has particularly this week, leading up to an announcement, education reform.

Other questions on the economy, health, infrastructure and workplace relations are also likely to appear.

A New Kind of Question Time for Australia, We’ve Earned It

Question Time, that hour and a bit of politics most sitting days, that Australians despise even more than the broader political discourse itself. Questions Without Notice frustrates everyone, from those who accidentally stumble across it on television or the radio and feel like they’ve had acid poured on them to the rusted on supporters that subject themselves to it freely on a regular basis.

Question Time in particular needs new rules to make it work better.

Some of the following are serious rule changes, the others, clearly not. The point is, that Question Time is still a joke despite changes to the Standing Orders- the rules that govern parliament and Question Time, when Australia discovered they’d voted for a minority government.

The Speaker of the Lower House is a very important position in the scheme of things. There should be a change which sees an independent Speaker, not necessarily an Independent MP, ideally a suitably qualified member of the public, elected to take the chair. This Speaker would ideally be elected by a popular vote of the people, but if an Independent MP or other suitable person were to be elected by the parliament, with at least 2/3 of the parliament in agreement, this would suffice.

Next cab off the rank- questions. Debate is not allowed in questions and questions asked in the House of Representatives are now limited to 45 seconds and to 1 minute in the Senate. This is simply too long.

Questions in the lower house of parliament should be limited to no more than 30 seconds- 15 to 2o seconds would be brilliant. It would be preferable, indeed beneficial, if questions asked in the Senate were limited to the same amount of time. Y0u could call it ‘The Katter Clause’.

The so-called ‘Dorothy Dixer’ should be completely removed as a feature of the parliament. If the government of the day wants to talk about their policies, have a press conference. Question Time should be all about holding those on the government benches to account, not allowing them a public relations exercise.

In addition, as far as questions go, there should be a new rule that business, education and health must be the focus of a certain number of questions every week. In an ideal world, that would mean one question in each area every day that parliament is in session.

Answers to questions asked during Question Time, in fact at any time, by anyone, politician, journalist or citizen during any political discussion involving our parliamentarians invoke very strong feelings. Even with a new ‘direct relevance’ clause our politicians waffle, blissfully aware that they are nowhere near answering a question.

Politicians should, as a matter of course, be ordered to be directly relevant to every single question asked of them from the moment they open up their traps. Any minister not immediately relevant is sat down by the independent Speaker. This will be hard for, well all of them, but if they want our respect they have to be weaned off the bullshit.

Not only that, but the time limit for answers to initial questions should be at least halved- from 3 minutes to at least as little as 1 minute and 30 seconds, but it would be glorious if answers could be limited to just 1 minute.

Ideally too, a device to measure decibels should be installed and if any one politician records more than a reasonable amount of loudness, they are sat down for their screeching. Call it a screechometer if you like.

The number of point’s of order that can be raised should be unlimited.

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 this should always be allowed.

Interjections really get under the skin of both sides of politics, they appear to cause the most angst in both chambers. They result in name-calling and can completely destroy the tone of any reasonable debate that exists in the parliament. If someone is overheard making offensive remarks about another politician across the chamber, they should be immediately booted, but only after being asked to withdraw first.

Both the government and the Opposition should have what could be described as a ‘captain’s challenge’. This would be a rule where the Prime Minister or Manager of Government Business on the government side and the Leader of the Opposition or Manager of Opposition Business on the other side can call for a video review by a third umpire when they think interjections are at their loudest on the opposite side. Question Time is then stopped and on the video evidence, anyone found interjecting on the opposite side of the chamber is immediately evicted for an hour under Standing Order 94a.

A bullshit meter was also considered, but frankly, they would cost too much as they’d be broken a number of times every day and our economy simply could not support that kind of spending.

Question Time Ahead of Time

The first week back in the federal parliament has been and gone. The week started off with a bang with the expert panel on asylum seekers headed by former Australian Defence Force declaring that a variation of the Coalition’s former Pacific Solution, which is also the Coalition’s current policy, being deemed the best way forward in dealing with boat arrivals. This set the scene for the early part of last week  being dominated by attacks on the government over the issue and was all about the Opposition scoring some political points on this difficult and complex issue.

After a couple of days of political posturing and games over asylum seekers, the debated returned to the main-game in politics since the August 2012 election, debate over the carbon tax and there it stayed.

It’s likely, with the asylum seeker issue now muted politically, that debate will stay with and over the carbon price introduced by the Gillard Government which commenced on July the 1st.

The Opposition will continue to try and paint price rises, in particular power prices, as in large part down to the price on carbon which has been in operation for a matter of weeks. The Tony Abbott led Coalition will also likely during the week direct their questioning to industry specific areas and to the Treasury modelling done in the lead-up to the beginning of the policy. It is also entirely within the realms of possibility, in fact alm0st certain, that as has been done time after time, the Opposition will ask the Prime Minister to apologise for breaking her pre-2010 election promise.

It is possible that the asylum seeker debate will result in at least some questions during Question Time this week with the Coalition indicating that they would have liked the government to go further and reinstate Temporary Protection Visas (TPV’s) and begin towing boats back to Indonesia.

The government will, after having spent today talking about the Gonski Review and school funding, likely spend the bulk of the hour and ten minutes of Question Time with backbenchers asking questions of the Prime Minister and Education Minister on education reform.

The ALP Government, through their usage of the Dorothy Dixer will probably, in some small part, continue to sell the message of carbon tax compensation that they have been trying to prosecute. This message appears to be cutting through to the public with a big swing in the perception of the carbon price in the community.

Another policy area that the Labor Party may choose to highlight is the National Disability Insurance Scheme progress, particularly in light of recent machinations involving New South Wales and Victoria.

The only uncertainty of the week is just how well behaved our MP’s and Senators will be in parliament this week. Will they be loud and bickering with each other more than usual? Or will they act with a little more restraint than in recent times? I

f last week is any indication then there will be some improvement in the level of childishness that has infected our parliament. The issues that will be at play this week are not exactly new so our parliamentarians will just be going through the motions, but as always there will be at least one or two who find themselves on the wrong end of Standing Order 94a.

Oh, and then there’s also that ever-present possibility of a motion to suspend standing orders that we’ve sadly become accustomed to as a regular function of Question Time during this 43rd parliament.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Yesterday was an abnormally quiet and subdued day by recent parliamentary standards with tempers comparatively subdued and the shoutyness of Parliament House at a more reasonable level. Probably helping the matter was the comparative lack of focus on the Craig Thomson/Health Services Union matter which, while prosecuted during Question Time, didn’t reach the proportions that we have become accustomed to in parliamentary and political debate.  The fact that there was again no suspension of Standing Orders motion for the entire hour and ten minutes or so of Question Time today probably served to help quell tempers and give the parliament at least the appearance of a modicum of modesty.

But alas my friends, tomorrow is another day and in this very minority parliament we have learnt that just about any depth will be plumbed and no stone left un-turned.  We have also learnt that this 43rd parliament has in it the innate ability to surprise, even if that is rare and surprises cannot be discounted for Question Time today.

But this is probably how it will unfold:

The Coalition have used Monday and Tuesday in Question Time to pursue the matter of the Enterprise Migration Agreement that was struck between the Gillard Government and Gina Rinehart and endorsed today, with further safeguards inserted, by the Labor caucus. They have done so because of the reported divisions and lack of consultation between the Prime Minister and Immigration Minister in the matter so there is a chance that they will continue to pursue this matter in Question Time tomorrow in the House of Representatives, possibly until the end of parliament on Thursday.

A return to an intense focus on  the carbon tax by the Opposition is a real possibility, with questions related to the matter rarely being displaced from the main forum of Question Time, especially when the commencement date nears and the compensation has commenced flowing.

It is not unreasonable and indeed completely likely that the Fair Work Australia investigation into Craig Thomson will again be the subject of a question or two, perhaps three when Questions Without Notice commences tomorrow. It is likely that there will be a question or questions related to a memo that was sent three years ago by Fair Work Australia which suggested that the authorities should be called in to inquire into the Health Services Union as there were questions on the matter yesterday.

For the ALP Government the narrative will be just as predictable with it beyond all doubt that the majority of questions tomorrow and on Thursday most likely being all about selling the budget delivered on the 8th of May and also about trying to quell fears about price rises under the carbon tax with the Dorothy Dix being used to outline just what payments particular areas of the population have and will continue to receive as the policy rolls along from July the 1st.

The stage is set, the roles devised and the complexion of Question Time pretty much a certainty except for the exact number of questions focused on each issue and dependent upon there being no left field questions that pretty much nobody saw coming.

Question Time Ahead of Time

It’s Wednesday and that means only two more days of the parliamentary sitting week lie ahead for our federal politicians in Canberra jockeying for momentum going into the May budget. Question Time is likely to be a loud, argumentative and at times farcical affair. Many eyes will be on the Senate where the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, sworn in as a Senator and Minister yesterday will face his first Question Time in the role.

The Opposition without any shadow of a doubt will continue to focus their Question Time efforts on pursuing the Labor Government over its carbon tax and Minerals Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) which has a parliamentary report handed down today.

While the Fair Work Australia investigation into Craig Thomson still proceeds at snail pace, it can certainly be expected that there will be a question or two aimed at the Gillard Government over the issue.

The fallout from the Skype sex scandal in the Australian Defence Force may also get an airing in Question Time from the Opposition as it did yesterday in relations to comments from Major General John Cantwell.

Equally predictable is the government focus of their backbencher questions to Ministers, also colloquially known as the “Dorothy Dixer” or “Dorothy Dix”. Again these questions will likely focus on the economy through the spending related to the MRRT windfall as well as other spending allocations made by Prime Minister Gillard and her government.

In the Senate, the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr will draw the most focus from interested observers, though not face the most questions as both the government and the Opposition are set to pursue different lines of inquiry. The new Foreign Minister is likely to get a question from his own side, but may also get a question or two related to the Defence Minister from the Coalition in the prism of overseas operations.

There is also a distinct possibility that the Coalition will attempt to suspend Standing Orders in an attempt to challenge the Government after not answering questions though that seems less likely than in recent days because of the exhaustion of content on that front.

Yesterday Question Time in the House of Representatives was quite feisty and resulted in a handful of ejections for one hour under Standing Order 94a, one of those being a Government MP. Two Ministers were also sat down for straying out of the ballpark of relevance in their answers and that is a positive development. So be watching today at 2pm AEDT where the drama that is the play called Question Time looks set to continue with loud interjections, irrelevant answers and plenty of name-calling.

A ‘New Paradigm’, But a Better Question Time?

It is over a year since the so-called ‘new paradigm’ came into force in Australian political life. It promised more open parliamentary debate, with less rhetoric, a better deal for the Opposition and cross-bencher’s and more. The question that is now asked and which I have asked recently is: Has the level of parliamentary debate and discussion and accountability been heightened or remained much the same?

To begin we must go back to the reason why we were endowed with this ‘new paradigm’. As a part of the 17 day negotiations, a list of essential parliamentary reforms was put together for all both major parties to agree to, they largely did, though some reforms were more welcome than others but it would have been nigh on impossible to gain support of the Independents without agreeance.

First we start with the ‘moderator’ of parliamentary proceedings, the Speaker. The proposal called for an independent Speaker, but not necessarily an Independent as Speaker although Rob Oakeshott put himself up for a time for the role. If the Speaker were to come from a major party, traditionally the Government, and they did, then they would excuse themselves from all parliamentary meetings and caucus. The Labor Government put forward Mr Harry Jenkins, Speaker of the previous parliament and it was agreed to by a majority.

The question then is: Has the independent Speaker in this case, as a member of the ALP, been the most beneficial outcome? The answer is yes, it has worked quite well under the conditions set out in the agreement. The Speaker has been fair-minded, a point reiterated at times by Coalition members who do not appear to be simply paying lip service to him under the unusual circumstances of this parliament.

A further question could be asked and that is: Would a truly independent Speaker be a worthwhile journey in the future? The answer to that is yes, it would be beneficial to trial that idea in a future parliament. Everyone does have an underlying political bias, that is granted, but somebody away from the political process and not a member of any political party, if vetted well, may prove to be a good addition to the Speaker’s chair.

Another beneficial change has been the fairer allocation of questions to all members during Question Time, including the ability in the House of Representatives to ask a supplementary question. This has allowed for cross-bencher’s to get a better share of the questions.

Furthermore, in addition to the better allocation of questions, the limiting of questions to forty-five seconds and their answers to 4 minutes is a welcome change from previous parliaments where, particularly the ‘Dorothy Dix’ would lead to long-winded and self-serving answers which did nothing to further democracy.

There is scope to call for questions and answers to be made even shorter, perhaps say 30 seconds for a question and no more than 2 minutes to questions from the Opposition. Personally, I do not like the Dorothy Dix and think it should be banned as it does nothing to expand democracy and is simply a short campaign speech on a particular issue where the Opposition, whatever hue gets bashed. In any case, the Dixer should at least be given a much shorter response time, say perhaps a minute and a half maximum. Further to that, any reference to alternative policies should be ruled out of order.

The next port of call on our journey through the ‘new paradigm’ is the ‘direct relevance’ part of the Standing Orders. This calls for Ministers to be directly relevant in the answering of the question. However, the ‘direct relevance’ clause does not truly compel a Minister to be directly relevant, sure relevance has been policed somewhat better but it does not herald enough power to the Speaker or Opposition who often perceive and see Ministers going off on tangents.

The ‘direct relevance’ rules being further strengthened may be one area in which the reform could lead to more people becoming interested in or at least paying attention to politics, because being economic with the truth is probably the principal reason why so many feel disenfranchised from politics.

Finally onto the big show itself, Question Time and has it really changed much since the last election? It has changed in structural areas such as question times and answer lengths yes as well as a few other procedural ways. However, it has not become quieter, bearing in mind Newtons law, “every action leads to an equal and opposite reaction”. Opposition MPs and the occasional offending Government member are still being thrown out for unruly beaviour, a lot of which, though silly, perhaps can be traced back to the way a Minister answers the question.

The reforms we have had as a result of the hung parliament have been a welcome addition to the parliamentary process. They are broadly positive changes, with nothing in parliamentary process going backwards. However, there is scope for and a need for further change, focused on Question Time which may result in some of those who feel disaffected from the political process actually being able to comfortably begin to show an interest again, if at least a cautious one, because lets face it, other areas of politics are sick too.

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