— The Leader of the Opposition on a point of order?

— Yes, relevance. It was a very simple, direct question. This answer is not related —

— The Leader of the Opposition will resume his seat. The minister has just begun his answer and he is relevant.

— On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Just because the Leader of the Opposition wants a yes or no answer does not mean that he can demand that from the minister. Ministers are…

— The Leader of the House is debating the issue. Does the Leader of the House have a point of order?

— My point of order is that disorderly points of order are being regularly taken by the Leader of the Opposition —

— The Leader of the House will resume his seat.

– Mr Speaker, I raise a point of order. With respect, this is the fourth time we have asked this question. It requires a simple answer, and the Deputy Prime Minister is making a mockery…

– That is not a point of order. There is no point of order and if the member for Griffith continues to take that type of point of order I will deal with him.

The “member for Griffith” gives it away — that’s an exchange not from last week but from three and a half years ago when Kevin Rudd was trying to get Mark Vaile to answer a question about AWB’s bribery of Saddam Hussein.

I’ve been watching or listening to Parliament since the early Hawke years and I can never recall Question Time not being made a mockery of. An experienced Gallery hand who has been here in various roles since the Hawke years couldn’t either. I’d be willing to bet Government Ministers have always been annoyed at frivolous points of order and Opposition MPs eternally frustrated at the unwillingness of Ministers to answer questions, although Alan Ramsey told me last year he thought Fraser’s blocking of Supply and the Dismissal permanently soured the ALP on the idea of being fair in Parliament.

What’s missing, everyone agrees, is the wit and spontaneity of yesteryear, although that primarily seems confined to the Whitlam era, when Gough and Jim Killen would amuse themselves bantering and playing sometimes elaborate jokes. It may be that MPs on both sides today are less witty than their forebears, but it’s also the case that given Question Time is now broadcast, and the stakes for anyone making a mistake are much higher, both sides now try to keep it as scripted as possible.

Since cameras were allowed in, Question Time has become a key element in shaping the television networks’ political reporting when Parliament is sitting, making control of it crucial. The purpose of Question Time is now to (a) avoid embarrassment and (b) to get a crucial grab on the evening news.

This involves a vast commitment of public resources, by the way. Every morning during sitting weeks, perhaps a quarter of the entire Canberra-based public service is busy checking the media, ringing around for advice, taking instructions from ministerial advisers and furiously writing, editing, emailing, collating and clearing Question Time Briefs or Possible Parliamentary Question Briefs to ensure Ministers have an answer for every possible question and talking points for a Dorothy Dixer. The vast bulk of those briefs are never opened in anger.

It’s a hideously expensive charade of accountability.

If the Coalition is serious about improving Question Time — and that’s a big if — here’s some suggestions:

  • Get a cleanskin, like Jamie Briggs or Alex Hawke, to run the issue. Christopher Pyne and every other former Howard-era Minister is automatically disqualified from the debate. But new MPs don’t have the problem of flagrant hypocrisy.
  • Commit to introducing changes if elected. Don’t just vaguely commit to “better Parliamentary standards” like everyone since Edmund Barton has done. Make specific promises about reforms you’ll carry out if elected to government.
  • Don’t adopt the Senate system. Have you ever listened to Senate Question Time? It’s even more scripted and ritualistic than the Reps. Ministers get a Dixer, blather on for their allotted time, are sat down by the President, immediately get asked a supplementary dixer, repeat the dose, get sat down again, then get a further supplementary dixer with which to punish anyone foolish enough to tune in.
  • Scrap questions from Government MPs. Good Ministers can still get their message across answering Opposition questions. Have one hour of Opposition and independent questions.
  • Switch the cameras off for Question Time. This may not make Ministers answer questions any better, but it will stop them being so focussed on what might appear on the evening news. Alternatively, move Question Time to earlier in the day so it occupies a less prominent place in the media cycle.
  • Grow up. Half-baked walk-outs, Tony Abbott hovering in shot, Wilson Tuckey, Bronwyn Bishop — none of them do your case any good.

In the end, though, the days of Question Time actually being about accountability are long gone. Strengthening the Parliamentary committee system and FOI, and insisting on more prompt replies to written Parliamentary questions, will do far more to strengthen executive accountability than anything happening in the daily pantomime at 2 o’clock.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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