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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

Question Time in the lower house disappeared today, replaced by parliamentary debate on the bill introduced by Independent MP for Lyne and Gillard Government backer Rob Oakeshott to try to bring about the ‘Malaysian Solution’ and any other offshore processing option that the ALP would wish to introduce. The bill sparked over half a day of debate in the House of Representatives and in the end was passed, despite an amendment put by the Coalition, albeit with a sunset clause included after Independent MP for Denison, Andrew Wilkie moved his own alteration to the bill. However, the bill faces certain defeat in the Senate tomorrow.

Barring unforeseen circumstances Question Time will return to the political scene tomorrow with a vengeance with both sides trying to get as much media attention as they can before the long winter recess commences and the carbon price begins on Sunday.

Question Time is quite likely to start where it left off with the majority of focus being on the carbon tax, at least as far as the Opposition goes and almost certainly the same being the case for the Labor Party.

The Coalition will almost certainly continue coming at the issue from the direction they have taken since the idea was floated back in 2010 and that is to scour for any reports suggesting that price rises, particularly in electricity, but also other costs for individuals and businesses may rise above and beyond the modelling produced by the Treasury department when the carbon price legislation was drafted.

The Liberal and National Party Coalition could also ask questions as they have for a long time now in the parliament about the size of the carbon tax as compared with other pollution prices in force in different countries and regions across the world.

With the Oakeshott bill on asylum seeker processing having passed the House of Representatives we could expect a question or a number of questions from the Opposition over the bill, though that could be unlikely given that it will certainly not be passing the Senate tomorrow . The government for its part might try to raise it through government questions through the prism of its perceived importance to stop people smuggling and as a deterrent to asylum seekers risking their lives on dangerous boats.

The ALP will, wanting to be on the defensive and the attack simultaneously over the carbon tax, also likely focus on the carbon price again in parliament during the session. As has been their practice they will continue to use the Dorothy Dixer to attempt to highlight the compensation and tax cuts that will flow to low and middle income earners from the money raised by the price on pollution.

The Labor Government could also continue to raise in Question Time the payments and benefits from the budget, some of which have started and others which will come in the financial year ahead.

Whatever happens tomorrow it’s the last session of Question Time for six weeks so the political jousting is sure to be fierce, full on and full of invective and could result in a wider use of Standing Order 94a than we’ve seen recently. Lucky for some we’ve got more than a month break from the perils of parliamentary debate, but don’t expect much of a let-up because, well, the carbon price.

Question Time Ahead of Time

It’s Tuesday in a two week parliamentary session before parliament rises again for a short break and then sits for another two week period in mid June and the parliamentary tensions have amped up after the speech by Craig Thomson to the parliament disputing the claims against him. The carbon tax commencement date is also nearing and has been a major focus of debate outside the Thomson issue. If the history of this 43rd parliament is any indication then the verbal warring will not let up and could even continue to escalate even further.

The Coalition, despite the Thomson speech to parliament yesterday looks set to continue with their focus, as it has been for  a prolonged period of time now, on the carbon tax which will commence in just over one months time on July 1st. This attack has been central to the campaign strategy for the Abbott-led Opposition and will continue to be the major facet of the political attacks from the Coalition.

The speech by Mr Thomson just 24 hours ago  will continue to take much of the Coalition focus outside of the parliament and a significant focus inside both parliamentary chambers. The scope of that focus is limited now that Craig Thomson is sitting as an Independent (though Labor voting) MP suspended from the Labor Party, thereby limiting the questions that can be asked of the government on the matter.

The Gillard Government, as they have tried to since the budget two weeks ago will focus the use of the Dorothy Dixer on trying to sell elements of the budget which provide payments for low-to-middle income earners including the education payment and family tax benefit increases. The importance of returning to surplus will also almost certainly remain a part of that strategy as it has been used during Question Time.

Parliament looks set to be rowdy with all members in high tension mode and all the action of Question Time begins from 2pm. Will the 94a get a workout? Find out in just a few short hours.

The Weekend Labor Will Wish They Never Had

Normally the weekends are a very quiet affair in terms of politics, whether it be local, state or federal developments. Saturday and Sunday are usually the domain of our newspapers in the realm of politics, debating and discussing the major events of the week, as well as the occasional under-reported event that doesn’t make the headlines on any given day. This weekend, as with a few over the term of the 43rd parliament at the federal level has been the exception to the rule. Couple that with council elections across Queensland and a by-election in the seat of a former Premier and you have all the trimmings for digestion of a full political meal in the 48 hours that are usually relatively free of politics and the political process.

On Saturday night the LNP, fresh from an astonishing win at the March 24 state election, where they won 78 seats of the 89 seat parliament  and Labor just 7, the LNP Lord Mayor Graham Quirk and his team fought a campaign to remain in the mayoralty and to keep a majority of councillors in the City Hall chamber.

Last night Graham Quirk and his LNP Council colleagues did just that, winning both the race for mayor in Brisbane and the contest to maintain a majority of wards won by former Lord Mayor, now Premier Campbell Newman.

The LNP Lord Mayor of Brisbane City in two-party terms has achieved nearly 70% of the votes on offer against just over 30% for ALP mayoral hopeful Ray Smith. This result means approximately a 2.5% swing to the LNP Mayor on top of the previously strong vote for the very popular former Lord Mayor Newman.

In terms of winning wards, the LNP last night won an additional three seats in the council chambers with their victory last night to now control at least 18 of the 26 Brisbane City Council areas, a strong majority.

Elsewhere, the South Brisbane by-election, for the seat occupied by former Premier Anna Bligh was also run last night, but as yet has not been won, or at least not yet conceded. The contest sees Labor’s Jackie Trad ahead at present with just over 52% of the two-party-preferred vote compared with Clem Grehan of the LNP on just under 48% of the vote. The Labor leader in the parliament last night claimed victory for the ALP, but as yet Mr Grehan of the LNP has not conceded defeat.

It appears that the ALP will reclaim the seat, a normally very safe Labor seat, with a margin prior to the March state election of 15%. But it should not provide for much celebration in Labor circles. The LNP have come very close, albeit in a by-election which are notorious for going the other way, to claiming a sensational victory.

But if that was an ordinary night for Labor electorally in Queensland, Sunday for the federal ALP has been extraordinary in the saga that is the Craig Thomson and in the realm of the recently emerged allegations against the Speaker, Peter Slipper.

Today, weary Australians awoke to the news that there would be a press conference where Craig Thomson, the member for Dobell subject to a Fair Work Australia investigation which has now concluded would announce that he would ask the ALP to temporarily suspend his membership of the party and he would move to the crossbench as an Independent MP.

This move came after over 3 years of investigation in the matter and just as much time spent by the Prime Minister and the ALP putting their support behind the MP from NSW.

But just how much will the temporary move, meant to clear some air for the Prime Minister and her party actually mean? The answer frankly is none. The  MP, for as long as he can remain in the parliament will undoubtedly continue to fully support the Gillard Government in every policy and political move it makes and importantly also for the Labor Party, in matters of supply and no confidence motions.

As if that wasn’t enough drama to base an epic political drama on, or comedy as you could just as easily argue, the Prime Minister also indicated that now, after days of saying the opposite, the Speaker, facing criminal and civil allegations should remain out of the chair until all the allegations have been resolved.

This move will see Anna Burke, the Deputy Speaker of the parliament and ALP member sitting in the Speakers seat when parliament resumes on May 8th for the handing down of the budget by Treasurer Wayne Swan

These two moves were just mere political opportunism, a smokescreen, a reactionary decision in the face of what seemed more and more likely to be a permanent loss of the Speaker if the matter went unresolved until parliament resumes on budget day.

Labor federally and in Queensland will certainly be hoping it can all be up from here, but as they have proved, that is far from certain to the extent that it is extremely unlikely.

The Oakeshott Bill is a Stealth Policy Dud

The Independent MP for the electorate of Lyne, Robert Oakeshott has a plan, a plan that he thinks in his infinite wisdom will end the deadlock over the over-hyped asylum seeker issue which plagues our political debate all too much for the scale of the problem that it actually presents in political reality.

Since the Government announced it had reached an agreement with Malaysia over an asylum seeker/refugee swap agreement, parties have been united in opposition against the policy, even the Australian Greens and the Coalition saw eye-to-eye on this since the first time in, well a long time frankly.

Not only this, but the High Court saw fit to decry Malaysia and offshore processing as inconsistent with Australian law and our international obligations, throwing all offshore processing policy into legal doubt.

The Member for Lyne has now decided to enter the asylum seeker debate with this bill which amounts to nothing more than the “Malaysian Solution” in both theory and practice.

The bill put forward by Mr Oakeshott would allow for the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen to form an agreement with any nation that is a member of the Bali Process, any one or more of 50 nations in the region. Surprise, surprise guess which country is a member of the Bali Process? It starts with “M” and it ends in “a”. Any further hints needed.

As if any further clarification was needed that this bill would lead to the implementation of the Malaysia deal then they only need to refer to the words of the Immigration Minister who confirmed that he would ask the Labor caucus to support the bill when it comes to a vote.

Did Mr Oakeshott really think that it wouldn’t take all of a first glimpse to work out that he was doing the bidding of the Gillard Government’s Malaysian asylum seeker swap policy? That simply surrounding it with other options would lead to the Government not picking Malaysia?

Coming from a man who wasted 17 minutes of our valuable time just to tell us what we already knew, we have another waste of time in a policy which has already been roundly defeated without even the need for a vote to confirm just how disliked the policy was. This time though there is far more time than 17 minutes to be wasted on a stealth policy dud from someone who would like to think he is a canny political operator.

It’s All Toxic For Labor, the Question is How Much Time Can be Bought

The toxicity of the Labor Party thanks largely to the leadership looks set to continue, even if some form of action is taken, whether it be a successful spill for Gillard or Rudd followed by a sacking, a pure sacking of Rudd, no action taken or if an election were called by the Prime Minister to end the pain. However, it is also worth noting it is not just the leadership and the problems are just as much about policy and promise-breaking.

The leadership tension has clearly mounted, particularly in the last two or so weeks with Ministers warning the Rudd camp and even a back-bencher, Darren Cheeseman calling for the Prime Minister to fall on her sword. A video was leaked of a sweary Kevin Rudd, doing nothing to harm his prospects of returning to the top job.

It is likely that some form of action will be taken in the near future. This will either take the form of a spill, forced by Gillard supporters, not by those who support Kevin Rudd, or the Prime Minister stoking up the courage, with an extra seat buffer, to sack Rudd and send him not to the back-bench, but back to south Brisbane for a holiday.

What is seeming less and less likely as the days go by is for Kevin Rudd to continue in his portfolio of Foreign Affairs. In my view Rudd doesn’t have the numbers to be successful, at least in the event of an initial spill, but almost certainly would have enough support to continue the terminal pain, with possibly a third or slightly more of the caucus supporting him in that event.

But the Labor Party is in a toxic position and no course of action would likely save them from electoral oblivion.

A successful spill by either Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd on its own, with the failed candidate going to the back bench is one option would provide the most longevity for the Labor Government. However, this option would also prove more toxic in the long-term with the deposed candidate, at this stage likely to be Kevin Rudd, sent to the back bench and even more free to take shots at the leadership, de-stabilising the ALP even further electorally for the next one and a bit years.

Were Rudd to be successful it is also entirely possible that there would be ructions caused by Gillard supporters which would also have the same long-term impact as allowing Kevin Rudd to stay in the parliament.

No action, it should be noted, would have the same impact on the future election prospects of the Labor Party, with Kevin Rudd and his supporters able to continue the same distractions that have plagued the Government since he lost the Prime Ministership. They would last until the next election, if a challenge were not eventually mounted, but suffer badly.

So then there is the option of sacking Kevin Rudd, not just from the Cabinet and Foreign ministry, but also from the parliament. This would provide the Gillard Government some clear with the only clear alternative to Julia Gillard not even in the room anymore.

But this action is fraught with its own danger in that it would return the Government to the position they were in last year before Peter Slipper left the Liberal Party upon becoming Speaker. Then, any small mishap or misadventure could see Labor lose office, though that seems fairly unlikely at this point.

Further, were the Government to sack Rudd from the parliament, he may then choose to leave the parliament altogether, in a final act of vengeance toward the party that cut him down in his early days. This would trigger a by-election in which it is entirely possible a Liberal Party candidate could win. In that event, the Gillard backers would have to make damn sure that Mr Rudd would remain in the parliament as an Independent MP.

The final action is for the Prime Minister to call an election and this may end up being better for the ALP in the long-term even though they would face a very heavy loss at an imminent election.

The other downside of this is that a general election would likely leave the two antagonists in the fold, with a general election unlikely to throw either of them out. The current Prime Minister would almost certainly leave the parliament after an election loss, possibly leaving it open for Rudd to take the post of Opposition Leader.

Another possible outcome would be that another member of caucus, possibly a Shorten or a Combet, less likely a Crean or a Smith would take the leadership, hopefully learning from recent history. In that case Kevin Rudd would certainly leave the parliament, triggering a by-election, again leading to a possible Liberal victory in the seat of Griffith.

It is clear to me that the least toxic option would be for a fresh election which would most likely result in either one or both of the protagonists leaving the parliament, allowing for fresh, relatively untainted leadership. There are options for longevity in a Rudd or Gillard Government with no action taken but they both are likely capped at around 12-18 months. The middle ground is to sack Rudd and at least get rid of the leadership tensions, still leaving the policy and believeability factors and returning to the very tenuous parliamentary circumstances of just a few short months ago.

The ALP have a lot to mull over in the coming days, at most weeks before deciding on a course of action. The outcome will be interesting and for them must be the good of the party over the want of the egos behind the party. I am not too sure it will end that way.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Parliament resumes today for the second parliamentary sitting week of the year and the same areas of debate are set to continue but other policy areas will be added to the the mix. As well as the economy, Craig Thomson and Fair Work Australia (FWA), the carbon tax and Minerals Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) you can expect the Private Health Insurance Rebate means testing and the introduction of two bills on gay marriage will spark debate.

The Opposition will certainly continue to focus on the FWA investigation into Craig Thomson which has taken too much time to conclude. The Abbott led Coalition will also likely focus questions around the Private Health Insurance Rebate means testing, the carbon tax and the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, the latter two in the prism of an economy which could be in strife were Europe to collapse again this year.

The Government will again focus the deployment of the Dorothy Dixer to prosecute what they view as their strong-point, the economy. These questions will undoubtedly focus on policy measures which have provided or will provide in the near future for the electorate rather than on the budgetary situation itself, unless in comparison to the world.

Marriage equality is not likely to result in a question from the Opposition or the Government, with both sides not fully behind the idea, but we may see an Independent MP, likely Andrew Wilkie or the Greens MP Adam Bandt if they are allocated one of the questions for Independent MPs in Question Time today. This comes on the back of two different bills being put to the House today on marriage equality, one from Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie and the other a Private Members Bill from ALP MP Stephen Jones.

The unknown factor is, as always whether there will be any ejections during Question Time, especially since the warning has been removed by the Speaker, Peter Slipper, though if last week is an indication, there will not be a large number warming  the parliamentary cafeteria seats early.

The one thing we do know is, like always Question Time will be loud and even though there isn’t supposed to be, likely also debate. We will look to about 3pm AEDT to see if the Abbott censure motion creeps in just in time for the end of Question Time. That is also a distinct possibility.

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