The view from Billinudgel

Question Time: an utterly unedifying spectacle
Has this central democratic process devolved beyond dysfunction?

Question Time in the House of Representatives. Souce

For even the most masochistic of political tragics, parliamentary Question Time can be wearing.

A constant screaming match of ever more virulent abuse and insult, it sounds (and sometimes looks) less like a part of the democratic process and more like the finale of the big swinging dicks competition, open to all members regardless of allegiance or even gender.

In the past fortnight it became too much even for the mild-mannered speaker, Tony Smith, who chided ministers for irrelevancy and even sat a couple of them down.

Smith has also pleaded for the end of pointless and pugnacious epithets attached to every mention of an opponent: “out of touch”, “arrogant”, “shifty”, “two-faced” and “dishonest”, to name but a few. And he would like to see less antagonism and more civility and decorum within the chamber. Well, good luck with that.

Party politics – any form of politics, actually – is inherently antagonistic; the aim is to win the battle of hearts and minds, certainly, but it is ultimately to gain power, and in these febrile times securing even the slightest and most temporary advantage counts as a victory.

In the old days – the very old days – questions without notice were frequently genuine requests for information; at times, Opposition members would even warn ministers in advance of their concerns, so that the answers could be as full and factual as possible.

But over time, Opposition questions became almost invariably aggressive, hoping (without real expectation) for a “gotcha” moment. Government backbenchers were reduced to reading the form letter devised by the leadership group, along the lines of: “Will the minister update the house on how the Coalition is making absolutely everything wonderful while the Labor Party just sucks?” The reply to which would invariably go something like: “I thank the member for her question and can inform her of the unrivalled depravity of the leader of the Opposition …”

When there was an attempt to get a few of the backbenchers to occasionally mention local issues, the simple insertion of the phrase “including in my electorate of Silvertail” was considered to have done the job – no other editing was required. Even four decades ago the situation was completely dysfunctional: one despairing member of the parliamentary library wrote a paper suggesting that “Questions without notice” should be renamed “Questions without answers”.

Now it has become far worse, and there is no real prospect of reprieve. Tony Smith, like former speakers Liberal Billy Snedden and Labor Harry Jenkins, is not one of the worst speakers (Bronwyn Bishop wins that title), but he remains a member of the government party – he relies on the continuing goodwill of those on whom he is supposed to sit in judgement.

Unlike the House of Commons in the United Kingdom, where the presiding officer is genuinely independent, the Australian House of Representatives turns a participant into the umpire. So in practice, Smith can do no more than gently reprimand his front bench colleagues: if he goes too far, they can and will dump him, and he knows it. Gough Whitlam’s first speaker, the amiable amateur Jim Cope, was ordered to resign when he “named” a minister for disrespect to the chair (which would normally result in the suspension of said minister) and was publicly repudiated by his own party.

That was almost 50 years ago, but the lesson stuck. Question Time may be an utterly unedifying shit fight, but that’s the way it was designed. And it must be said that the politicians show absolutely no inclination to change it.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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