Simon Crean Pursues His Proposed Parliamentary Reforms

Opposition Leader Simon Crean has continued to press for his proposed parliamentary reforms to be adopted.

Speaking at a doorstop interview in Sydney today, Crean said that “the behaviour issue in Parliament is the fault of both sides”. He reiterated his call for an independent Speaker, a proposal that would require the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to agree on the appointment of a Speaker for the next two terms of Parliament.

Transcript of doorstop interview by Federal Opposition Leader Simon Crean.

CREAN:

Today I’ve written to the Prime Minister proposing some important changes that will improve the behaviour in Parliament. I think that the people are sick to death of the confrontational nature of Parliament and these proposals seek to modernise the way in which Parliament operates so we can make it more relevant to the Australian people.

I think the behaviour issue in Parliament is the fault of both sides of the Parliament. This is not about apportioning blame and I’ve got to admit I’m one of those that has contributed to it but I think it is time that we moved on, made the Parliament more relevant and made it better controlled. The nature of the initiatives that I am proposing today, firstly, go to the question of trying to ensure that we get a more independent Speaker and what I’m proposing in this regard is that the Prime Minister agree that the Leader of the Government and the Leader of the Opposition reach agreement upon who the Speaker should be and that Speaker should hold the position for the next two terms.

At the same time as agreement is reached on that position, agreement also be reached on the Deputy Speaker’s position that would come from the other party. Again, the position to last for two terms. As a demonstration of our good faith, I ‘m indicating today that the Labor Party would, when we meet next week, be prepared to support Speaker Andrew, holding that position for the next two terms. And what we would want is agreement with the Prime Minister about the appropriate Deputy Speaker for the next two terms coming from the Opposition Party.

It’s not just enough though to try and make the Speaker more independent. The Speaker also has to be equipped with the rules and Standing Orders that enable him to enforce the discipline and require Ministers to answer questions fully. What we’re proposing is that Standing Orders be changed such that questions be limited to one minute in their duration, answers to those questions to four minutes. Similar to the Senate procedures. There’d be the capacity for supplementary questions, but there also be a requirement for the Speaker to insist upon the question being fully answered.

People are sick to death of the points scoring that goes on in Question Time without real answers being given to the question. We need to clean that up. We also need to have a procedure where by Ministers don’t abuse question time by using it to announce policy statements. There are procedures in the House for statements by the Ministers on policy and we want those procedures to be utilised for that purpose. That of course gives the opportunity for the Opposition to respond to the particular policy area.

We’re also saying that Questions on Notice, which are being ignored by Ministers presently, be required to be answered in a shorter time frame. Thirty days instead of sixty and for the Speaker to make a declaration that a Minister, if they refuse to answer the questions, is in breach of the Standing Orders.

We also want to see the opportunity in the Parliament for the taking of note of answers to Minister’s questions. This too is a procedure, a useful flexibility in terms of getting more and greater information in the Parliament. We wouldn’t see this taking up additional time in the Parliament. It would be, when used, take the place of the Matter of Public Importance.

Now, this is a comprehensive suite of initiatives. We’ve been working on this over the Christmas break. I genuinely believe we have to improve the standing of the Parliament. If we’re to build confidence back in the institution of Parliament, we’ve got to show the leadership that demonstrates that we’re serious. I’m prepared to turn over the new leaf. I hope the Government responds and I look forward to a positive response from the Prime Minister.

JOURNALIST:

How soon do you think these reforms could be put into place?

CREAN:

The reform in terms of the Speaker could be put in place on Tuesday, when we meet to determine the Speaker. As for the other reforms they could be put in place very quickly if there was agreement from the other side, because that would simply require a change to the Standing Orders. What I am trying to get is agreement to these procedures because I think if we get agreement to the procedures and a common ownership of them, then there is much more likelihood of them being followed.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Crean when’s an occasion when you’ve been out of order do you think in Parliament? What comes to mind?

CREAN:

Well there’s many come to mind. But I think that what people need to understand is that when the Government’s not fully answering a question and this is a frustration that we’ve had over the last five years, you have to resort to other forms in the Parliament to try and make your point. If the Government of the day is treating the Parliament with contempt, it invites the response that’s out of order, to prove the point. What I think we’ve go to get back to is the realisation that the Parliament is an important forum for debate, information and discussion. And the Australian people are entitled to that institution performing to the best of its ability, not the worst of its ability. So I think that if we can get the changes as well as build true independence into the role of the Speaker, I think we’ll significantly improve the standing of the Parliament and I think it is everyone’s interest, the public’s interest that we do so.

JOURNALIST:

So are we going to see a change in time from you and your front bench so the classic images of yourself and other people standing at the dispatch box yelling, belting away. Those sort, is that what can get changed just as well as things being answered. We going to stop screaming?

CREAN:

Yes, but we don’t do it all the time. I mean this is an important point to understand. The image of Parliament that you see most often is simply what’s reflected in Question Time. And that’s where the unseemly brawls can often happen. They happen as a result of the frustration at the fact that either pressure is being put on the Speaker from the Government, or that questions are not being answered. If we can get the procedures right, you will see the end to that. And I hope that we can see the end to it. I think it’s important that we do see the end to it.

Transcript of an interview with the Federal Opposition Leader, Simon Crean, on Radio 2UE. The interviewer is Mike Carlton.

CARLTON:

Bad behaviour in Federal Parliament. What we see on television is not all that happens in Federal Parliament by any means. We get all the clash and thunder and lightening of Question Time with the Opposition and Government MPs shouting at each other across the bench. Often the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader are in a furious argument and the Speaker, sometimes vainly, trying to keep the whole show on the road and bring things to order. That’s what we see. But a lot of Parliament, in fact, is sedate and well behaved which we don’t see all that. But there are concerns that the behaviour of MPs in Parliament and what we do get to see on the nightly news is detracting from the authority of the place, bringing politicians of all sides into increasing public contempt.

This issue emerges again because the new Parliament, when it sits, will have to vote for a Speaker to control proceedings. And there are calls now for a change in the way the Speakership operates. Simon Crean, the Opposition Leader, has put forward some proposals which he thinks will improve behaviour in Federal Parliament and I thought it worth discussing. He is on the line. Good afternoon.

CREAN:

Hi Mike. How are you?

CARLTON:

Well thank you. Thanks for your time. We do, I suppose, get a somewhat slanted picture of Parliament with all the cut and thrust of Question Time, don’t we?

CREAN:

We do but the trouble is it’s the perception about it and we have got to address that perception if we are to build confidence again in the institution. Part of the difficulty though, Mike, is the adversarial way in which Question Time, in particular, operates and that comes through a frustration either that the Government is putting pressure on the Speaker to discipline us or because the Government won’t answer questions. Now what I’m proposing today is a series of measures, the first of which is to make the Speaker much more independent and we are prepared to back the current Speaker for the next two terms.

CARLTON:

That’s Neil Andrew?

CREAN:

Neil Andrew who I understand is the Prime Minister’s choice. But take it away from the Party room determining it, let the Prime Minister and me move a joint motion in the Parliament putting him in and we will guarantee him the next two terms. On the basis that the position rotates, alternates to our choice after that.

CARLTON:

What from Government to Opposition, to Government to Opposition?

CREAN:

Yes.

CARLTON:

Right.

CREAN:

And what we should do at the same time is allow us to nominate the Deputy Speaker now for the same conditions, the next two terms.

CARLTON:

So there would be a Government, a Liberal Party Speaker drawn from the Government ranks and the Deputy Speaker drawn from the Opposition ranks?

CREAN:

Right. And they would have, they would not be contested for the next two terms in the House, they would obviously have to contest their seats but they wouldn’t be contested in the House.

CARLTON:

This would be more like the British system where the Speaker of the House of Commons is above Party politics, doesn’t attend Party room meetings all that sort of thing. Is that your idea?

CREAN:

That’s right. That’s what we would be aiming for to have the Speaker truly preside over the place, build confidence in his ability to be fair and impartial and not at the beck and call of the government of the day with the numbers and to bring some order back into the place.

CARLTON:

I have got to say to you Oppositions always say this and Prime Ministers never do it. Keating didn’t do it any more than John Howard is going to.

CREAN:

Well, OK. What I am saying is that we want this done now and this could be done on Tuesday if the Prime Minister agreed. If they don’t pick up this initiative then I would implement it on the occasion of me forming a government.

CARLTON:

All right. Now you also want some changes to Question Time, that ministers must be fully required to answer questions and so on. You aren’t going to get that are you?

CREAN:

Well, look I think we can. If in fact there can be stricter guidelines about limitations on questions why shouldn’t it apply equally to the answers? And if you have got a Speaker who’s more independent and you change the Standing Orders to require him to insist that the question be fully answered, I think we can get back to a position where government members have to give the answers. If they give us the answers we don’t express the same amount of frustration that leads to the unruly behaviour.

CARLTON:

But often Oppositions, I’m not saying your Opposition, but often Oppositions will use unruly behaviour as a Parliamentary tactic to disrupt debate, to cause as much havoc as they can, won’t they?

CREAN:

Not to disrupt debate. It will be to get an answer or to prove a point which we would hope should come if the government is required to answer the question. You see, the point is, if they keep avoiding the issue you have got to resort to other tactics to draw attention to it. And what we hope is that with the new authority of the Speaker plus the change to Standing Orders we can get some better discipline. The other thing is that ministers ramble on forever, we put a time limit on the answers to their questions and the other thing that we do is to give ourselves a new procedure where the Parliament can take note of answers to ministers questions so at the end of Question Time you can have a debate around some of those issues. Give ourselves the flexibility, at the moment there can be what’s called a Matter of Public Importance. The government of the day doesn’t even bother to turn up. But if you are actually having a debate about an answer a minister has given of course he has to stay in there and defend his position.

CARLTON:

All right.

CREAN:

This is about making the place not only better behaved but more accountable and I think that restores faith in our democratic institution.

CARLTON:

Good to talk to you. Thanks very much.

CREAN:

Thanks Mike.

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