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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

The end of the parliamentary week is upon us and hasn’t it been an extraordinary one? The hostilities have persisted throughout the week, not letting up even in the days after the speech to parliament by the Member for Dobell, Craig Thomson in relation to allegations of misuse of union funds. Indeed the week in Canberra is far from over though only a matter of hours remain in probably the biggest, most acrimonious week Australian politics has seen in a long while.

One more day of parliament for the week means another testy hour or so of Question Time ahead from 2pm this afternoon, perhaps even less if the now regular feature, the suspension of Standing Orders gets another run, which you’d have to say on the balance of probabilities is almost a sure bet.

The Coalition will almost certainly continue with their two-topic attack which has tended to be the way forward in Question Time for the Opposition for a very long time indeed. This strategy will see the Abb0tt-led Coalition almost certainly proceed full-steam ahead with questions surrounding the carbon price which with each day that passes nears its commencement date of July 1 this year.

The Coalition will also, despite moves this week to quell the matter, including allowing the referral of Craig Thomson to the Privileges Committee be likely to pose a not insubstantial number of Craig Thomson related questions to the Gillard Government. It is also incredibly likely that despite the Thomson matter being referred to the Privileges Committee that a further suspension of Standing Orders related to the matter (and it has been the subject of a few) will occur.

The ALP Government’s Question Time strategy is completely predictable too and has been regularly based around the same broad topic, albeit in different guises also over a significant period of time.

The overwhelming focus of the Gillard Government in Question Time has been the state of the economy, both in domestic and internationally comparative terms and that has been outlined and worked on over many months.

The current specific focus in relation to the economy is all about the budget and the spending associated with it that Labor says will assist low to middle income earners  and their families particularly with the cost of education through the taxes reaped from the mining boom.

The government in also prosecuting a projected return to surplus of the budget that Wayne Swan handed down just over two short weeks ago amid what almost equated to  acceptance that the government had already returned the budget to surplus when it has not in fact done so and will not in fact do so until the end of fiscal year 2012-13 on June 30 next year and we may not know for sure until even later than that.

There is also a very real possibility, with unforeseen spending requirements and further revenue write-downs among other factors that the idea of a $1.5 billion surplus a bit of a struggle.

Question Time as always begins at 2pm and promises to be a heated contest that will offer no respite until about 3:10pm when the Prime Minister will ask that “further questions be placed on the notice paper”, unless of course the suspension of Standing Orders has brought questions to an earlier close.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Today marks the last sitting day of the parliamentary week and the last day of parliament before the budget is announced in Canberra on Tuesday May 8 by Treasurer Wayne Swan. Consequently economics will continue to be the focus of the day in Question Time and the energy of our politicians will be at an almost anxious high as they try to get attention on their programs for Australia and the Opposition throw everything at the Gillard Government in trying to hold them to account.

The focus of the Opposition will continue to be on the two or three key areas that the Coalition have pursued for some time now  in their Question Time and broader political strategy. The two main focal points of the Abbott-led Opposition questions today will continue to be both the carbon tax and the mining tax which have had varying degrees of focus since both have been announced. They have both now been passed by the government and the Coalition will continue to pursue them as they come into force and for any negative impacts they have.

The Coalition also may ask some questions of the ALP Government about Fair Work Australia and its investigation into Craig Thomson, a long-running affair which has provided much political and parliamentary material for the Liberal and National Party Coalition.

The Opposition is likely to also ask questions of the government about the deal announced today to keep Holden producing cars in Australia for the next 10 years at least.

The government, as has been its strategy all parliamentary year will be to focus on their big programs, at the moment the Minerals Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) and how the revenue from it is projected to benefit the community, including low income individuals and small and big business. Some Dorothy Dixer’s, as has been the case this week may be devoted to other topical or even less discussed policies, like the Murray-Darling Basin Plan which received questions in the House of Representatives yesterday.

The Gillard Government will certainly use some Dorothy Dixer’s to ask ministers associated with the car industry about the deal with Holden to keep car production in Australia for at least 10 years and to highlight the benefits of this for the local and national economy.

The usage of the motion to suspend Standing Orders is another eventuality that cannot be discounted, particularly as we head toward a grand total of 50 of them for this the 43rd parliament of Australia. The motion however is less likely to occur as the topics discussed have been the focus of the motion in the past.What may work in favour of a suspension of Standing Orders is another topical issue presenting itself before Question Time today, likely not the Holden issue, or the fact that it is the last session of Question Time until the parliamentary week beginning the 8th of May.

Look for fireworks and restless pollies slanging remarks across the chamber today in the Lower and Upper House. Expect to see a high number of ejections from both sides and even Ministers sat down by the Speaker for not being “directly relevant” to questions asked by the Coalition and even their own side as they attempt to use Dixer’s for having a go at Coalition policy rather than explaining their own. Get your last fix for over a month from 2pm AEDT today

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