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.