At 2pm today, our federal politicians will file in for the rowdy, high-stakes game of question time, when reputations are forged and lost, and the future of governments can hang in the balance. A Bond University / Crikey analysis has found the pollies’ favourite topic so far this term has been carbon pricing, followed by the economy at number two. One issue they weren’t interested in? Indigenous affairs.

The carbon price, a key issue leading into the 2010 election, has been the major issue debated in the 43rd Parliament of Australia, featuring in 15% of questions asked during question time.

The issue was a strong focus for both major parties. The Coalition asked 60% of questions (or 280 questions) on the issue, and the Australian Labor Party asked 27% (or 130 questions). But interest is fading. Just 16% of those questions were asked after the commencement of the carbon price on July 1 last year.

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The data we’ve sourced represents the actions of 150 MPs on about 150 sitting days, from the first sitting of the current Parliament (September 28, 2010) to the day the election date was named on January 30, 2013.

Dr Sharon Beder, a professor at the School of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong, says Australian pollies are asking the wrong questions. “The opposition has chosen to characterise this as a taxation issue rather than an environmental issue and to exaggerate the impact it will have on household incomes,” said Beder. “Therefore the debate about what to do about global warming has been distorted and trivialised.”

The opposition has vowed to scrap the carbon price if elected, but it seems voters are not as interested in the issue as their representatives in Canberra. In a recent survey, 56% of those polled said they did not care about the carbon tax one way or the other.

Pollies were also very interested in the economy — although Labor more so than the Coalition. Fourteen per cent of questions in question time covered the economy (the Coalition asked 39% of those questions, the ALP 53%).

Greg Jericho, a political commentator for The Drum, says that is not surprising. “The economy is always going to be the main area of focus,” he said. “What is different at present is how ‘the economy’ is discussed. I found when I did my research that many questions that were given the subject of ‘the economy’, of ‘the budget’ or ‘industry’ were really about the carbon tax.”

Two key issues leading into the 2010 election, immigration and asylum seekers, represented a combined 8% of the questions asked. But Mary Crock, professor of public law at the University of Sydney, says that does not mean the questions were productive. “I do think that both are playing politics rather than really trying to find a solution to the rather modest problem we have here,” she told Crikey.

A survey by Essential Vision showed voters agree, with 39% saying Prime Minister Julia Gillard was “just playing politics” over the issue. Some 42% said the same about Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

Senior lecturer Matt McDonald at the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland says asylum seekers will be a prominent issue in the 2013 federal election but it will continue to be a “race to the bottom” between the major parties.

“The Coalition will be looking to emphasise the government’s ‘loss of control of our borders’ and press an apparent political advantage they have in terms of public opinion associated with those asylum seekers arriving by boat,” he told Crikey.

Indigenous affairs were represented the least in question time, with just 0.3% of questions on the subject, with none of these from the Coalition.

Then there’s the question of who is doing the asking. Parliament is notorious for “Dorothy Dixers” — planned, scripted questions asked by a government MP to their own side, to highlight the government’s record or attack the opposition. They take their name from Dorothy Dix, a journalist who used her column to draft and answer her own questions. Just under half the questions in question time (47%) are from Labor pollies.

Former Speaker Peter Slipper opined during a motion to amend standing orders that Dorothy Dixers were an entrenched part of question time:

“I suspect that Dorothy Dix questions have been asked by private members of governments on both sides almost forever.”

Jericho says question time is largely divorced from what Australians actually care about. “Most people have never watched [question time] other than 30-second snippets during the 6pm news,” he said. “I doubt many would come away from watching a full week of question time without thinking it a complete waste of time.”

* This story was researched and written by Campbell Gellie, Paris Faint, Scott Ready, Emma Willemsen, Celene Kubala, Robert Millard, Edward Fleetwood and Liana Hanley. Bond University journalism students and Crikey have teamed up on the data-mining project, Order in the House, looking into who has done what in the federal House of Representatives so far this parliamentary term.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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