“Your instinct is to just get up and leave. It’s almost like fight or flight,” she says. “I don’t feel bothered by it now. I’m just used to it and I think that’s what happens to all of us. But do we really want our politicians to get used to that?”
The House of Representatives’ procedure committee is currently running an inquiry into “how question time runs and how this could be improved”. Suggestions so far include shortening the hour-plus sessions, ditching the staged “Dorothy Dixers”, banning mobile phones and better use of microphones to pick up hecklers.
Ms O’Neil said that while not all question times feature the extreme level of aggression, she believes the set up is so toxic, more fundamental change is needed.
“I honestly think they should scrap the whole thing and start again,” Labor’s innovation and technology spokesperson said. “In any normal work environment, people would never treat each other this way.”
Ms O’Neil believes that apart from being “tedious” and “embarrassing”, the level of conflict in question times makes it impossible for MPs to build functional working relationships across Parliament.
“You’ve got people standing up in question time and saying: ‘Labor doesn’t care about child abuse.’ And then I’m expected to go into a meeting and sit down and work collaboratively with the person that said that, it’s just not possible,” she said.
“Question time is driving this horrible division between politicians who probably have actually quite a bit in common.”
Ms O’Neil suggests that instead of question time, ministers could be grilled about their portfolios by a smaller group of MPs every fortnight. It is a concept explored in her 2015 book, Two Futures, co-written with Labor colleague Tim Watts.
Ms O’Neil acknowledges that she also heckles during question time, arguing it is impossible not to.
“I just go in there every day, it’s part of my job. I don’t hurl insults at people, but I have to make some noise,” she said.