The Parliamentary reforms agreed by the (current) Government and Opposition and the independents will, indeed, revolutionise Question Time. For the tiny segment of the population who actually pay attention to Question Time, that is perhaps a good thing. Or perhaps not. If you’ve ever watched Senate Question Time, you’ll be aware of the profound limits of tedium that can be reached within a tightly-constrained format of question-and-answer in which most of the questions are political and most of the answers are read from talking points rushed through as quickly as humanly possible.
It will be amusing, however, to watch the operation of the new rule requiring questions and answers to use “best endeavours not to use notes.”
“The preference is no notes,” the agreement points out, although the requirement will be reviewed after a limited period. Given the entire structure of Question Time from a government point of view is for ministers to rely heavily on pre-prepared talking points for both their own and Opposition questions, there may be some fine sport to be had as Ministers have to fake their way through an answer sans QTB or PPQ.
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The leader of the opposition will get a cricket-type “power play” option to ask a supplementary question, a development that can only spice up life for those of us who are desperate enough to cover QT on Twitter.
But otherwise the reforms have taken most of the poorer aspects of Senate practice – greater power for committees; the focus on pretty much everything but the business the executive wants to transact — and none of the better aspects, like a rigorous estimates committee process. There was scope for an overhaul of the whole Estimates process in this, eliminating the pointless one-week sessions the Senate conducts for additional Budget estimates late in the year and expanding Additional Estimates sessions to two weeks, and establishing a two-weeks Reps estimates session in-between.
But there has been a worthwhile reduction in the number of issue-based committees from 12 to 9, with some subject areas combined, and governments will be required to actually respond to committee reports — hitherto it’s occasionally been deemed convenient for governments of both types to never quite get around to finalising a response on some issues.
The establishment of the Parliamentary Budget Office, which Labor has previously agreed with the Greens and Andrew Wilkie, will now definitely go ahead, albeit ensconced in the Parliamentary Library and its funding uncertain, but hopefully more than the pittance the Coalition promised for it in their costings (watch whether an Abbott Government sticks to its $2m PBO funding, which would ensure it was virtually stillborn, or provides decent funding for it).
There will also be a Parliamentary Integrity Commission, responsible not just for ethical issues relating to MPs, but the Lobbyists Register, which is currently in the hands of the executive, via Prime Minister and Cabinet. “Enhancements” to the Lobbyists’ Register will also be considered — although the one serious enhancement on which the exercise will be judged will be the inclusion in the register of in-house lobbyists and those working for large accounting and legal firms, who currently escape all scrutiny.
Optimistically, the agreement proposes that “further steps to improve Government” will be considered during the course of the Parliamentary term. Don’t count on it: this is as good as the independents will get. It’s a big step in direction of better governance, and may well be the best thing to emerge from this unusual period in which the two major parties are equally powerless to resist demands for reform.