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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

Day 3 of federal parliament is upon us and will bring with it another rambunctious hour and a half of Question Time from the House of Representatives. We know what the issues will be but not from what angle they will be approached by either side, but the lines are drawn and both sides firmly mired in their respective positions of attack.

The Opposition will again focus on the economy in their attacks of the Government, as they have in the two sessions previous, basing their interrogation around perceived impacts of the carbon tax and the Minerals Resource Rent Tax (MRRT), to not do so would work against much of the poll gains made.

It is also likely that events surrounding the Member for Dobell, Craig Thomson will be brought into question, again, as they have this week, not so much attacking the man, but attacking the glacial pace of the Fair Work Australia (FWA) investigation. It does so because FWA is the Prime Minister’s baby where under Kevin Rudd Prime Minister, workplace relations was in her portfolio, beginning the post WorkChoices era.

The Government will again focus on the economy from their viewpoint of comparative strength to other economies in relation to jobs, debt and deficit. The overwhelming percentage of Dorothy Dixer’s will focus on these areas from one angle or another.

The Government is also likely to take the opportunity through the Dorothy Dixer to talk about either the perceived benefits of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax and the NBN, perhaps even both as they try to establish credibility in delivery, albeit expensive action.

The new shorter questions, shorter answers, shorter Question Time has now been delivered thanks to Speaker Peter Slipper coming to the chair with his own thoughts on the way Question Time and the House of Representatives procedure more broadly should run. The much shorter questions and shorter answers are a good start but could be strengthened further as they have appeared to have little difference on the quality of Question Time, except to herd it into a slightly shorter package.

The final factor to keep an eye on for the final Question Time of the week will be the ever-present spectre of the censure motion being brought to bear by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott or perhaps Manager of Opposition Business, Christopher Pyne. With the almost routine manner  in which we have seen the motion appear it would be remiss of me to not include the eventuality, especially with the Gillard Government failing in so many areas.

Be listening or watching at 2pm AEDT to see what plays out in the theatre that is Question Time. Who will take the upper hand at the end of the first parliamentary sitting week, hoping to convert it into ongoing momentum for the political year?

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