Despite the disproportionate amount of attention often given to Question Time in the federal parliament, I have long felt that it is not only an absurd parody of an accountability mechanism, it can also distort the direction and content of political debate.
So I was pleased to see last week that outgoing Senate President, long-serving Liberal Senator Alan Ferguson (now in the role of Senate Deputy President), gave his view that Question Time is a farce. His view was fairly widely reported. As far as I know, no political commentator questioned the validity of Ferguson’s assertion at all.
I have never used this blog to ‘out’ individuals who have expressed views to me in a private context, but I know for sure that Senator Ferguson is far from the only MP in Parliament to hold this view. For what it’s worth, I think his ideas for reforming Question Time are worthwhile, although I don’t think they’d fix things entirely.
In any case, not only will Question Time continue to operate in its fairly futile way for the foreseeable future, but in regards to the House of Representatives at least, it will remain the central focus of attention as far as Parliamentary proceedings are concerned.
Unlike debates on legislation and Committee inquiries, Question Time is one of the few areas where what occurs in the Senate is of less significance than what occurs in the House of Representatives. The Senate’s Question Time is a pale imitation of the daily leadership cock fight that occurs in the House of Reps, which also serves to test the validity of the major parties’ competing propaganda lines in the eyes of the parliamentary Press Gallery.
While pieces of worthwhile information are occasionally sighted in amongst the theatrics of Question Time, this is the exception rather than the rule. It is the vaudeville which brings the crowds – whether it be the media or the general public – and thus the evaluation of a party or a politician is based more around a theatre critic model than an assessment of policy merits.
This piece by Christian Kerr of The Australian is a classic example of how bizarre this process can be. In this case, Costello is described as “pouncing” when he interjects on an ‘answer of Kevin Rudd’s by yelling out “blame game”. His Opposition colleagues apparently all thought this sufficiently clever and incisive that they began parroting “blame game” every time a Labor Minister was ‘answering’ a question. This was sufficient for Costello to get the referee’s verdict that “question time was his” and “the day belonged to Costello”.
So many of the seemingly endless stories written by people in the Parliamentary Press Gallery about Peter Costello and the Liberal Party leadership over the past few months are on the same level. The most frequently stated reason why Mr Costello is seen as being the potential saviour for the Liberals is his apparent ability to shine during Question Time.
The fact that such a shallow factor can be critical in determining the pundits’ assessments of who are the highest quality politicians is not meant to be condemning the Press Gallery. Rather it shows that when so little else of substance occurs, there’s not much else to base assessments on rather than the atmospherics of the occasion.
Obviously, if a senior MP’s statements in Parliament show they don’t understand what they are talking about, it will seriously damage their credibility (at least I still like to think that’s the case). But I remain to be convinced that being the best performer at ‘throwing the switch to vaudeville’ does much on its own to attract public support.
Kevin Rudd didn’t defeat John Howard because he had a lot of witty putdowns in parliament. Nor did John Howard win against Paul Keating in 1996 for this reason. Indeed, one could argue that this fixation with Keating’s apparently unchallenged ability to dominate the arena during Question Time was a key reason why so many commentators argued he still had a chance of winning in 1996, well after the electorate had already decided they’d had enough.
UPDATE: Another report, noting the Opposition wanting to put in place rules for Question Time that they ingored when they were in government, while the government refuses to put in place improvements they advocated when in Oppostion.