Last year as I was out buying groceries I learnt of an amazing event unfolding in Canberra which seemed to take even the most seasoned political commentators by surprise. This was the resignation of much loved Speaker Harry Jenkins and the subsequent installation of Peter Slipper as Speaker. This event left the Coalition by surprise and many as it did many of their supporters and the general public. It also caused widespread anger from those in the same quarters. Anger at the decision and defection aside, no matter what party it is aimed at, the debate has now moved on to the actions of the new Speaker at the end of the first parliamentary sitting week of 2012.
I must say that I held very low hopes for a fair and balanced Question Time after the events of the last parliamentary sitting day in 2011. Notwithstanding the fact that the events would have caused the loud anger that ensued, it appeared that Coalition MPs would become the subject of a brutal political vendetta.
This seems to have changed this year and my expectations of the Slipper Speakership have subsequently become favourable to the Speakership. I say this as there have only been two ejections of Coalition MPs under the much loved Standing Order 94a during the 3 days of Question Time this week.
The new Speaker has also embarked upon instituting some parliamentary reforms of Question Time which I view with a reasonable level of favourability.
To further shorten the length of both questions and answers, further than those under the agreement beginning the “new paradigm” is a very positive development. This has seen the length of time allowed for answering a question in Question Time down to 30 seconds, 15 seconds shorter than under the previous agreement reached between the Government, Opposition and the rural Independents. Further, answers have been reduced by one whole minute, down to 3 minutes.
Now, those who know me and what I stand for in relation to this area will know that I do not find this ideal, it is true, I think it could be reduced even further to cut down some of the rubbish which can all too often invade questions and answers. However, it must be said this is a positive development and not at all one I expected.
A further change under Peter Slipper as Speaker is the removal of a warning before the booting of an MP being too loud or un-parliamentary. This is neither here nor there. There are some circumstances where I believe more leeway should be granted, such as if a member is plainly being loud on one or a small number of occasions. There are plenty of times under any Speaker where some being loud are caught and others not so it is a bit unfair to them. On the other hand for more serious infractions such as language deemed inappropriate or for defying the Speaker then an automatic ejection is an entirely sensible outcome.
On renaming of the Main Committee, to the Federation Chamber, I see it as just a name change to part of our parliamentary democracy. It is if anything an homage to federation we are and in that way somewhat of a tribute to the founding fathers of our nation Australia.
There is no doubt the new Speaker is growing on me, in the performance of his new role anyway…
Compared to the noise of the MP’s he was tasked to keep in order, Harry Jenkins is and was as Speaker a relatively softly spoken umpire who had the ability to bite and bite back and be assertive as his tough role required.
His, at least in his second term as Speaker, was a job made even more difficult by natural party allegiances which in this ‘new paradigm’ had to be cast aside swiftly to fit into the new role and definition of an independent Speaker of the House.
As much as some of those on the right will hate to admit, ‘our Harry’ was one of the best of them all, giving a ‘long leash’ when required and ‘cracking the whip’ when the situation dictated it a necessity. I cannot speak for all of us unfortunately, but I wish you luck in your renewed career as an MP. I look forward to the possibility of the new Speaker calling you to order for interjections across the chamber and hope you are not the victim of too many 94a’s.
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.