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How to fix our debased Parliament and its most questionable time

As it has become, question time largely ignores its principal purpose. House of Representatives Practice, the parliamentary bible, states “the aim of questioning and inquiry is to seek information, to bring the government to account for its actions, and to bring into public view possible errors or failings or areas of incompetence or maladministration”.

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Really? Today the strategy in response to questions without notice is to admit or explain little, to minimise accountability while seizing almost every question as an opportunity to “wedge” or discredit opponents. The fundamental goal becomes winning the daily political game.

Question time now sees, on average, about half the number of questions answered than the parliaments of Britain, Canada and New Zealand achieve in less time. Back in 1940, 43 questions were asked in our Parliament in a mere 50 minutes. We are now lucky to see half that number in more time.

The Dorothy Dix question, asked by the government of itself, is a principal weakness. While ostensibly focused on a particular government policy, it becomes a platform for bucketing opponents. There is a strong case for all questions to be from the opposition and independents to the government, with perhaps one day set aside, as in Britain, for all questions to be to the Prime Minister.

Over the years, time limits have been imposed on both questions and answers. The move in 2012 to a three-minute limit on answers was a dramatic improvement on my day, when Paul Keating would sustain his bucket on me for some 12 to 15 minutes. However, three minutes can still be too long, especially as ministers seem compelled to use the full time. Two minutes should be plenty, and I would require ministers to answer without notes. They should know the detail of their portfolios, and there are separate provisions in the standing orders for ministerial statements.

Speaker Tony Smith during question time.

Speaker Tony Smith during question time.
Credit:AAP

It is unfortunate that question time is so heavily strategised and controlled by both sides. Significant time needs to be set aside for constituent questions.

Another weakness is the inability to ask supplementary questions (the Speaker’s discretion was removed in 2013). While it was an improvement to require answers to be “directly relevant”, and to impose limits on points of order, there is still scope for disruption and delay with considerable pressure on the Speaker, who is constrained by the agreed rules. The role of the Speaker is crucial.

However, one thing is clear from past experience: rules don’t guarantee a productive question time. I suggest spontaneity is of much more importance to ensure accountability and the proper pursuit of issues. This places a much greater requirement on the authority, impartiality and independence of the Speaker. While most have attempted a degree of impartiality, there have been a few who were shockingly biased.

The current Speaker, Tony Smith, has demonstrated independence on recent occasions. I was particularly struck by his initial remarks on being elected as Speaker that Parliament should be a “robust place. It is where we battle our view of a better Australia.” However, he said, “it need not be rude and it need not be loud”. He acknowledged that he alone could not achieve that, “but together we all can”.

How about it, Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese?

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

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