Schoolchildren are told democracy, especially Australian parliamentary democracy, is a great and glorious thing. Question Time, in which our elected representatives ask questions of the government of the day, is meant to be emblematic of all that is best in that democracy.
Australian parliamentary democracy is a form of the Westminster system, and one of the key features of that system is that parliament keeps the government of the day accountable by scrutinising its actions.
In a democracy, the people have a right to know just how well the government is performing. Question Time is meant to be central to ensuring government accountability.
That, of course, is the ideal. The reality is somewhat different. Question Time is now often seen as something of an embarrassment, in which government and opposition members manoeuvre for political advantage. The tone and the outcome are often less than edifying.
Governments too often spend their time avoiding answering questions asked by the opposition and using the questions asked by their own supporters (known as “Dorothy Dixers”) to paint a rosy picture of their performance.
It would not be so bad if Question Time was, like so much parliament does, largely outside of public view. Instead, it is the primary means through which parliament displays itself to the public, so it becomes the public face of parliament.
So instead of an advertisement for the virtues of Australian parliamentary democracy, Question Time is instead a running sore that oozes many unsavoury aspects of parliamentary behaviour into the wider public sphere.
In light of this, a parliamentary committee has released a report on ways of improving question time. The aim is to make it, as committee chair Ross Vasta puts it in his foreword,
offer greater opportunities for scrutiny, and show parliamentarians as better role models.
There are two issues here: one is that Question Time does not enable proper scrutiny of the government. The other is enhancing the public profile of parliamentarians.
To this end, the recommendations have much to commend themselves. They seek to:
restrict the use of Dorothy Dixers by preventing ministers attacking opposition policies as part of their answers
allow a non-government member to ask a supplementary question, a follow-on question for clarification
allow at least ten questions from opposition MPs
increase the number of constituency questions from government members
reduce the time limit for all questions to 30 seconds and all answers to two minutes.
Regarding the “role model” issue, the report recommends that the Speaker should tell an MP who behaves in an unbecoming matter to leave the chamber for one or three hours.
It also recommends a trial of “very limited use of mobile phones” by MPs during Question Time. From an image perspective, a parliamentarian sitting and fiddling with his or her phone during a televised Question Time is not desirable.
The real issue is whether these reforms will actually create greater scrutiny and a better image of parliament. There is no doubt the authors of this report genuinely want both of these things. However, one wonders whether this goal could be achieved by what is essentially “tinkering” with procedural mechanisms. As with any institution, parliament is much more than the rules and regulations its members follow.
It also has an animating culture that influences how people deal with those rules and regulations. As with all Westminster systems, the Australian parliament is adversarial in nature. It relies on a certain amount of conflict between the government of the day and the opposition. For quite some time, the focus of that conflict has been Question Time.
Question Time is where the prime minister establishes his or her credentials as leader, and where the opposition leader seeks to dent the reputation of the prime minister and establish his or her credentials as a better alternative. It is a crucial arena in the ongoing battle of politics.
Question Time is caught between the high-minded civic conception of politics and the reality of the struggle for dominance in our adversarial system of politics.
It is difficult to measure such things, but one could argue that Australian politics has become more adversarial over the past 25 years. Politics, as exemplified by such things as conflict between those seeking to become prime minister, has become quite brutal at times.
Given recent debates about the treatment of women in Parliament House, one wonders if the real issue may be the desirability of an adversarial culture underpinning the conduct of politics in Australia.
Perhaps, rather than seeking to reform such institutions as Question Time, we should be looking more closely at the values that animate our political life. At the moment, it would seem to be the case that winning the political battle and establishing dominance are far more important than developing policies that benefit the public, and which can be scrutinised in a calm and rational fashion.