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Question Time: Time To Retire The Rhetoric

An editorial in the Canberra Times has called for a major reform of Question Time in the Federal Parliament.

The newspaper argues that the accountability function of the Parliament is being undermined by government and opposition alike: “Over the years, successive governments have abused their position more and more – but oppositions, and the style of questions they ask, are also responsible.”

The British system of questions is supported by the paper as a suitable alternative.

Text of the Canberra Times editorial on November 21, 2004.

Question time – once one of the glories of Westminster accountability and responsibility – has become a joke in the Federal Parliament, so far as the capacity of legislators to hold the executive government to account.

It is fashionable to blame governments for this – and, over the years, successive governments have abused their position more and more – but oppositions, and the style of questions they ask, are also responsible.

If questions are not really seeking information but merely seeking to make a rhetorical point, can anyone be surprised that able ministers take the opportunity to deal with the issue rather than the question?

A typical question these days might be like this: Did the Treasurer hear the speech of the Governor of the Reserve Bank in which he implicitly questioned the wisdom of the Government’s profligate election give-aways? When will the Treasurer do the decent thing and resign?

And a typical answer might be: “I am amazed at the gall of the shadow minister asking me such a question given the appalling record of Labor in 1995-96 in building up debt, spending money it didn’t have and lying to and misleading the population about it. Why, in our time we have achieved economic prosperity, lower taxes and reduced government debt.”

No information given, none received. This style of question and answer has become all too common, and the worst offenders tend to be senior frontbenchers – particularly the “shadow” treasurer, Wayne Swan, and successive leaders of the opposition. The effect is the more appalling because these people hog Question Time. Not only hog it, in fact, but insist that even questions from backbenchers are questions cleared, or “suggested”, by the so-called tactics committee.

The rhetorical sneer is invariably of little effect, even within parliament. Outside the chamber it almost invariably is a complete squib. Apart from the loaded preamble, the actual question asked is usually lame and does not ask for information. If oppositions gave the public any credit for intelligence, they might assume that they would understand the implications of a question. They might also recognise that Speakers would be under far greater pressure to make ministers address the actual question if it were a request for information rather than an invitation to speak generally on a particular subject.

A very good model might be the Question Time in the British House of Commons. Not only do questions ask for information, but ministers generally accept it as such and give the information. Naturally aware that some of the information extracted has the capacity to embarrass them, they might add something – including some spin. But they generally act with courtesy and do the questioner the honour of assuming that the question has been asked for some proper purpose. And oppositions score much more often than in Australia.

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