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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.

Slipper Could be Removed to Help Keep the Tenuous Government Foothold

Peter Slipper, the Speaker of the House of Representatives stands accused of both civil and criminal wrongdoing, with claims of sexual harassment of a staffer being aired, coupled with accusations of rorting Cabcharge vouchers. The Gillard Government has moved from trouble to trouble during its short tenure from mid 2010 to the present day but the ALP minority government has rarely looked like it would be allowed to crumble, either by their own actions or by those MPs who have agreed to support it for a full three year term in parliament.

The Prime Minister and her government in the time shortly after the accusations were levelled at the scandal-prone refused to withdraw support for Peter Slipper to continue in the Speaker’s chair in the Lower House. The tenuous situation of the 43rd parliament made it necessary for political survival, whether right or wrong to stand by the man that both sides of politics knew could drag them into trouble.

Shortly after returning from a trip, Mr Slipper did the right thing offered to stand aside while the criminal allegations are investigated by police although he did not extend the self-suspension to also cover the prosecution of the civil proceedings against him by a staffer who alleges sexual misconduct on the part of Peter Slipper. 

After the Speaker stood aside, the Prime Minister on behalf of her party admitted after the fact that Slipper standing aside was the right and honest thing to do, a strange change of heart.

Thanks in large part to the strong support of the two rural Independent MPs, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, Prime Minister Gillard and the ALP have been able to maintain a fairly stable government regardless of the very tight numbers on the floor of the House of Representatives.

However, in recent days, it would appear to the naked eye that cracks in that support are appearing, with Mr Oakeshott, the MP for the electorate of Lyne leaving the door ajar at least for the possibility of a no confidence motion on the floor of the Lower House chamber.

Also trailing closely behind Mr Oakeshott in his thoughts on the matter, Mr Windsor, the Independent MP for the seat of New England has today indicated that he would like Speaker Slipper to stand aside until both the criminal and civil proceedings have been investigated and prosecuted to an exhaustive end.

The distinct possibility of a no confidence motion appears to be growing, hour by hour, day by day in this dramatic period in the history of parliament in Australia with the New England MP appearing to suggest that the besieged Mr Slipper stand aside until both matters are concluded or he would potentially face a vote on the floor of the parliament.

The Labor Government, under a new Speaker, likely Anna Burke, would stare in the face an even more unstable majority of just 1 vote in the House of Representatives chamber.

Theoretically, a vote against Mr Slipper could be used by the government and its supporters, particularly Mr Windsor and Mr Oakeshott to take some of the focus off the government which is slowly drowning as stagnant polls, hovering around the same numbers for some time seem to show.

A vote of no confidence in the Speaker could be brought by the government or any of those MPs it relies on for support to remove some of the stench that lingers around the Labor caucus, a middle ground of sorts to show to the naked eye, the untrained political eye, that Gillard and her party are willing to take on some of the rot eating away at the parliamentary party.

But alas, the rural Independents are not the great illusionists that they think themselves to be. Any “compromise” move would be as obvious as having a brick strike you in the head.

But it would ameliorate some of the dead-weight that is slowly but surely pulling the government, strapped to its numbers so firmly.

The Opposition obviously, as an other would be in this situation want the government down and out and removed and will put as much pressure on the government as they can, on any issue of contention, to try and make this happen. That’s the reality of politics and the ALP would certainly be reacting to crises in the same way were they in the position the Coalition is.

All the while, the government, by removing Slipper will have deflected some of the attention away from the other major distraction they face, the allegations against Craig Thomson, the former HSU official and now Member for the seat of Dobell. Gillard and her government have continued to support their own MP to the fullest while the allegations have been investigated.

By no means will acting on the Slipper allegations fix the electoral mortality of the Labor Government, but to perform some feat of illusion will serve to nullify one point of contention and in the process keep the Gillard Government on track to go full term, unless and it is entirely plausible, another allegation of wrongdoing or some other unforeseen mishap or misadventure decides to rear its head.

A ‘New Paradigm’, But a Better Question Time?

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.

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