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Say Goodbye to Question Time Ahead of Time

‘Question Time Ahead of Time’ has appeared on this blog for some months now. It was written as a way to inform the public about the issues of the day that were more than likely going to be the subject of questions from both the Opposition and the government. It was written in a way as a public service, so that you, the faithful readers did not have to go through the excruciating pain of parliament if you chose not to, but still wanted to keep abreast of the parliamentary discourse.

Sadly, this has become too predictable, too transparent. This does not apply to one side more than the other. Both sides of politics have been relentlessly consistent about the areas of policy and politics that they have chosen to prosecute during this, the 43rd parliament of Australia.

On the Opposition side, we’ve had, the carbon price, the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, asylum seekers and the Thomson and Slipper matters be the big focuses of Questions Without Notice since this particular preview piece started. We’ve also had in recent times, the new spending priorities of the  Labor Government given significant attention during parliamentary sessions.

On the government side there has been a number of different issues canvassed, but they too have been regularly canvassed. These areas of policy have included the comparative strength of the economy, education reform, health, infrastructure, workplace relations, business and the environment.

Let this be a warning to our politicians that repetition is grating and plainly, just f-cking annoying. There has to be a better way and that has to involve variety. But this is just as much a fault of the 24-hour news cycle as it is about our politicians, where even in 24 hours of news there is generally less than a handful of issues covered in any real depth.

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.

The Sunday Sandwich (That’s a Wrap)

The hostilities in the battle that is Australian politics have ceased for the week as our politicians rest and recuperate for the last sitting week until the May budget begins next week. It was a frantic week in Australian politics with plenty of vigorous and often over the top debate. Parliament this week welcomed (well mostly), Senator Bob Carr, the new Gillard Government Minister for Foreign Affairs, a former NSW Premier and more recently private citizen who brought some public commentary baggage to the role and created controversy with comments this week on Papua New Guinea. Our politicians, particularly Coalition, ALP and the Greens were engaged in fierce debate over tax cuts to big and small business related to the Minerals Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) before the Senate. There was also debate over the appointment of a new Future Fund chairperson and for a time, debate on customs and border protection.

Sadly, Saturday saw the passing of Margaret Whitlam, wife of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at the age of 92 not long after a fall which saw her hospitalised. Gough and Margaret Whitlam shared an enduring partnership, a testament to their undying love for each other which lasted almost 70 years.

Parliament House in Canberra saw the arrival of a person who Labor seem to be resting an amount of their hopes on, Senator and new Foreign Minister, Bob Carr. The Senator sat on the back-bench for his first day of parliament after being officially welcomed as a member of the Senate on the first sitting day of the week. Later that day Senator Carr was sworn in by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce as a minister and member of the Executive Council.

It didn’t take long for the newly sworn minister to create controversy with comments threatening to impose sanctions on the PNG Government if their political woes are not resolved. This quickly drew rebuke from the government in Papua New Guinea and just as swiftly led to a political backdown of sorts with the Senator saying his comments were taken out of context.

The Minerals Resource Rent Tax, or MRRT for short again took a central role in the political debate of the nation, a part that it has played since the Gillard Government re-negotiated and re-framed. The MRRT, before the Senate has caused the Greens and the Coalition, according to the Labor Party at least agree that higher taxes for big business are the go, even though the Coalition have clearly stated that they oppose the tax and therefore the tax cuts associated with the package. The tax will go to a Senate vote next week.

The Future Fund has received a big focus this week through the Gillard Government selection for the role, businessman and recent education review chief David Gonski getting the gong. A government nomination for a public board is usually a political appointment so there is nothing new from this angle on the appointment of Mr Gonski.

What is different though about this is the utterly shambolic process entered into by the government and the fact that the ALP Government did not listen to the recommendation of the board. David Gonski was appointed to search for a replacement to the outgoing head of the Future Fund and to  consult with other members of the board for their thoughts. The board wanted current member, Peter Costello, the former Treasurer and creator of the fund and the government then went ahead this week and announced that the man who was to search for the replacement, Mr Gonski himself would be appointed to the role, ruffling feathers.

Customs and border security earned a place in Question Time and political debate in Canberra this week and in the NSW Parliament after an Australia Post licensee in the Sydney suburb of Sylvania Waters was charged with importing and selling 150 Glock firearms since August 23 last year police allege. Both Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell linked this crime to customs and border security.

Parliament returns again next week for the final sitting week before the budget is handed down by Treasurer Wayne Swan in May and looks set to continue to be a fiery affair. The Minerals Resource Rent Tax will face a vote this coming week in the Senate and looks set to be the focus of most debate in both chambers for the week and undoubtedly outside of the parliament. The Fair Work Investigation into Craig Thomson will surely share some of the focus at least as fair as the Coalition strategy goes. The only question remaining is what unknown issues will take up the remaining attention of our parliamentarians as they race toward the major fiscal announcement in May?

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