There have been many comments made about how badly Question Time in the Australian Parliament looks in comparison to the Question Time in the UK House of Commons recently shown on local television. This piece by Katherine Murphy in The Age is a good example. Its opening paragraphs state that “there is no more grinding and time-wasting ritual in federal politics” than the “pathetic”, “banal and pointless spectacle” of Question Time – a perfectly valid assessment in my view.
It is nothing new to bemoan the abysmal nature of Question Time in Australia, but I still find it mildly ironic to see so many in the media deride it so stridently, when they play such a key role in encouraging it to be the way it is – although to be fair Katherine Murphy acknowledges that political reporters have to “share culpability”. The only part of the Parlimaentary sitting day where the media turn up in numbers to watch proceedings is Question Time. If they truly believed it is as big a waste of time as they say it is – (and as I believe it is) – why on earth do they keep showing up? Not only that, the media tend to assess the capability of various Ministers and shadow ministers at least in part on how well they ‘perform’ during Question Time – and ‘performance’ is rarely measured on the basis of whether someone answers a question or not. Mind you, one could say the same about the general public, as Question Time is also the period when the public galleries tend to be full. I often wonder if it is a bit like a car crash, where people know they shouldn’t gawk and that it will be an ugly sight, but can’t stop themselves looking anyway.
David Marr gave one of the best descriptions I’ve read of the farcical sound and fury which is Question Time in the House of Representatives:
It’s a bit like an RSPCA pound: never free of the spectre of being put down, the dogs bark and howl to attract attention.
I wrote about this specific issue on this blog over 3 years ago, prompted by some scathing comments by the outgoing Senate President, Senator Alan Ferguson. He made some noble efforts to improve the process, but I think it’s fair to say he didn’t succeed. Indeed, his final speech to the Senate just last month acknowledged as much, when he described Question Time as “a total waste of time” and “if it were up to me, I would abolish question time as it is currently structured.”
So if experienced MPs objectively recognise Question Time is a waste of time, and the media believe it is a waste of time (or worse), how is it that it continues to be such a train wreck and a discredit to parliament and democracy? Perhaps it’s the same reason that people like Barnaby Joyce gets far more media coverage than other Coalition spokespeople whose comments are far more coherent and far more likely to be based on some semblence of facts. Political coverage is more about entertainment and conflict than it is about facts and issues, and in general this is probably because most people tend to find that more interesting.
It is easy to just blame the media or politicians, but in part we get the democracy we deserve. I expect that if the politicians all behaved politely and respectfully towards each other, while the media just wrote fact-drenched dissertations, the level of interest in what was happening in politics would drop even further (as would the ratings or sales of those media outlets).
Still, the British Parliament manages it much better than we do. And while the worst of the British media is certainly more salascious and biased than Australia’s, they also have some quality press which do a reasonable job at providing rational, reality based perspectives. Is it our political, media or societal cultures, or is it the structures which the Parliament and the media operate within? Or perhaps things have just evolved over time until things have ended up in this turgid, intellectually bereft and fetid swamp that passes for parliamentary and political ‘debate’, and we’re now so firmly stuck in the muck no one knows how to get out of it.
It obviously needs a culture shift, but that can only happen through very strong leadership. I think it’s very clear we’re not likely to get such leadership from the leaders of the two larger parties at the moment – and I doubt a major shift could be driven at this level unless it was genuinely bi-partisan. In the context of Question Time, the best I can come up with at present is an agreement between the parties that (a) they have a genuinely free vote for Speaker of the House of Representatives (and President of the Senate), which will hopefully encourage people vote for the person they think would genuinely be best in the role, and (b) once a person is in the role, they can only be removed by a two-thirds vote. With amendments to Standing Orders to give the Speaker some greater power to requires answers to be relevant to the question, and to sit people down or suspend those who breaching thse standing orders, it might create enough of a shock to the system to get a change in culture. But given the aggression and sloganeering of Question Time basically mirrors the nature of political ‘debate’ between the parties outside the Parliament, it is difficult to see how one would change without the other.
Still, if it somehow did all change for the better, I bet it would quickly be followed by laments about how boring and tame Question Time had become compared to the ‘good old days’.