The opposition yesterday accused the Howard government of trying “to stomp on any democratic debate and to stomp on accountability”. Independent MP Tony Windsor chipped in as well, saying the government wanted “to shut down any dissent and non-opposition view within the parliament.”

So what is it this time? The occasion was a government plan to reduce from two hours to one the maximum time for debate on matters of public importance in the House of Representatives.

The support of just eight MPs is enough to get a matter of public importance discussed (standing order 46), and they are generally scheduled on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.

Most people, sensibly enough, never listen to parliamentary proceedings, so they may be surprised at the idea that the opposition gets two hours on most sitting days to drone on about whatever it feels like.

In reality, as House of Representatives Practice explains:

Although a maximum of two hours is provided for the discussion, the accepted practice is that by arrangement between the parties, two Members from each side are listed to speak and the discussion lasts for about 50 minutes.

So reducing the maximum to one hour should make no real difference. In any case, the government can cut short the discussion at any time by a simple motion.

That’s not to say this government doesn’t treat parliament with disdain. It does. The Senate sometimes provides a spark of interest, but the prime minister looks on the lower house simply as an extension of the executive.

But that hardly represents a break with precedent. Paul Keating had much the same attitude, and he was only continuing a trend that began before he was born.

The decline in parliamentary scrutiny is hard to measure, since it tends to be qualitative rather than quantitative. For example, a paper last year from the Democratic Audit project ound that Question Time is now “neither a forum inwhich the government provides much in the way of information nor an effective means of holding the government accountable for its actions.”

It would be fair to say that “the prestige, authority and usefulness of parliament have so greatly declined that we have now reached a stage where only an ageing handful of members has ever seen a parliament work as it should.” But that was actually said by Joe Gullett, one of Menzies’s MPs, back in 1958.

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

Peter Fray

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