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Federal

Mar 20, 2012

This is why question time must be suspended

The opposition could do us all a favour and simply junk question time altogether.

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“This is urgent. It should take priority over all other matters before this House.”

That was Tony Abbott, rising to ask to suspend standing orders to discuss western Sydney gun crime last Wednesday at 2.52pm.

Peculiarly, he only had to wait half an hour, because “all other matters before this House” included a matter of public importance debate after question time on … western Sydney gun crime.  Still, evidently it was of serious concern to the opposition, and an issue so important would have been followed up by more questions the following day. But funnily enough, the issue hasn’t been mentioned since then. The only question about gun control has come from the government itself, to Jason Clare.

Perhaps that’s because on Thursday, Peter Costello’s dummy spit about not being appointed to the Future Fund chairmanship took precedence over gun crime in western Sydney. In high dudgeon, Tony Abbott rose to insist:

“Standing orders must be suspended because, when it comes to the appointment of the Future Fund chairman, this government has been incompetent in managing it and dishonest in explaining it.”

By Friday evening, particularly after David Murray stated there’d been no recommendation from David Gonski, and Costello’s self-indulgent and childish performance on 7.30 the night before, the issue vanished from the media cycle, except for a few fatuous commentators mumbling about “debacle” and “process”.

So it was understandable, thus, that yesterday the opposition had moved on to another subject for a suspension motion. This time it was a reheat of the Health Services Union investigation, despite the lack of any new information coming to light beyond the hitherto-unknown but intriguing fact that Christopher Pyne and Warren Entsch are bowel specialists. We were told:

“And the reason this motion should be given precedence over all other business is painfully transparent to the Australian public and to everybody other than the members of the Australian Labor Party.”

Perhaps it was indeed so transparent that Peter Slipper decided he’d heard enough and sat Pyne down only a minute or two into his contribution.

Part of the ritual of these suspension orders is that the debate must be confined to why standing orders must be suspended, not the substance of the issue. This appears to be honoured more in the breach than the observance, but participants on all sides employ the fig leaf of reflexively saying, about every fourth sentence, “This is why standing orders must be suspended.” Abbott said it 10 times in his spiel on gun crime.

Pyne isn’t so good at that. Yesterday he went quite a few sentences without uttering the magic phrase. Perhaps that was why he was sat down.

Or maybe Slipper, like the rest of us, is annoyed that the few vestiges of accountability that were left in question time have now been entirely abandoned by the opposition in favour of ever sillier suspensions.

The Coalition claims in its defence that government ministers never answer questions anyway.

Maybe what’s being revealed is the pointlessness of the idea of parliamentary scrutiny. No one watches this rubbish anyway except political tragics, journalists and bureaucrats. In which case, the opposition could do us all a favour and move a suspension at 2pm, then let Parliament, and the rest of us, get on with some actual work.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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