From the archives: reforming question time

There’s a nice piece by Brett Evans this week at Inside Story about the degeneration of question time. He details a particular incident from June in the House of Representatives and remarks that “it was just an average slice of an average question time: witless, rancorous and uninformative.”

Evans goes on to make a number of suggestions for possible reform, and expresses the hope that some substantial change may emerge from an enquiry into question time currently being conducted by the House’s procedure committee.

This motivated me to hunt down a memo that I wrote back in February 1995, when I was working as a ministerial adviser in the Victorian government. Addressed to the office of the Leader of the House, it explains the problem with question time and argues for reform – an argument that, as I fully expected, was ignored.

Here it is:


There are two elements to the proposed reform. Although they are logically independent, they fit together neatly as a package, and could be marketed together with other reforms to Parliamentary procedure which the Government has made or may make in future.

(1) Enforcement of “Relevance” Rule. Standing orders require that an answer should be relevant to the question. Over time, however, this requirement has been watered down to no more than a charade. Hostile questions are routinely treated as opportunities to make speeches and score points, not to address the issue raised. Oppositions equally routinely complain about this practice, but (so far) fail to do anything about it when returned to government.

What is needed is a strict enforcement of the relevance rule, to confine Ministers to the question asked. This does not mean that an answer need convey all the information that the opposition wants, or even all that the Minister possesses, but that it must address the question, not some other hypothetical question that the Minister would have preferred.

The result will be shorter answers and more respect for the proceedings of Parliament. It will also remove much of the sting from opposition criticism of the Government’s arrogance.

(2) Abolition of “Dorothy Dix” Questions. The Dorothy Dixer, or pre-arranged “friendly” question, has a long history, but it is only recently that it has come to absorb the whole of the government’s share of question time. The result is that government backbenchers are effectively shut out entirely from the opportunity to question Ministers, getting only ready-made questions along the lines of “Will the Minister please tell the House the good news about . . .”

It is within the Government’s power to reform this situation very easily, and it should do so by dropping the practice of arranging questions in advance. To avoid the situation where Ministers do the same thing surreptitiously, it may be best to adopt a new standing order which would prohibit the asking of any question which has been arranged with or shown to the relevant Minister beforehand.

A genuine question need not, of course, be a hostile one; even with the proposed reform, no backbencher with an eye on promotion will consistently ask hostile questions. However, the opportunity to seek genuine information will do much to alleviate backbench discontent.

It is certainly true, as you said, that no other government in Australia has made these reforms. However, the same could be said about many other things that this Government has done or is planning. We pride ourselves on being a reform Government, and question time is an opportunity to prove to a sceptical public that this boast is not a hollow one. Although not many people ever listen to question time, those that do are disproportionately likely to be swinging voters or opinion leaders. Without reform, these people increasingly blame the Government for reducing question time to a farce.

The facts that “every other government does it as well”, or that “things were just as bad under Labor”, are not reasons against reform, but reasons in favor: they mean that we can embark on change without making any admission of wrongdoing. Abuse of question time is not something that we invented and would therefore have to back down on; it is something we inherited, like so many other abuses, and should now reform.

Moreover, in the long run the reforms are likely to be forced on us anyway. The need for reform is so plain that, despite the perceived political drawbacks, some Australian government is bound to try it eventually. Once one does, the others will be forced to follow suit: the public pressure, especially from the media, will be irresistible. It will be like the abolition of death duties. This time, we should take the credit by getting in first.


Twenty-five years later, my prediction that some government would try the experiment of reform has not yet been borne out. But some, at least, still live in hope.

 

4 thoughts on “From the archives: reforming question time

  1. I concluded some years ago that, barring the occasional lucky Tony Smith (or Jim Cope), Speakers are always going to be too dependent on the governing party/ coalition. We need to change their incentives to get better behaviour. Other Commonwealth and common-law parliaments allow Speakers from outside the House (eg, Malta); Ireland permits legislation to enable a Speaker to be deemed re-elected unopposed (so, eg, if the Ceann Comhairle nominates as a candidate for a 5-seat Dail Eireann constituency, the actual count is for four seats only. of course with multi-seat PR this does not disenfranchise those voters completely, or deny them a choice of party as the UK Commons practice does).
    I would advocate that a Speaker can be deemed re-elected automatically to the next Parliament (without needing to be elected, or even to formally nominate for a division as in Ireland) BUT only by a 75% resolution passed in the (say) 28 days before the House expires or is dissolved. If the Speaker does not achieve this wide cross-party support, they can still be re-elected (to the House and to the Chair) in the traditional manner. But this way, a Bronwyn Bishop would need to care what Labor MHRs thought of her rulings, because (unlike at present) they would have the votes to make her life harder, even from opposition.
    Of course this would require a constitutional amendment, meaning a referendum, which would give us a very accurate snapshot of how many Australians are angry about the economy and the various News Ltd culture wars…

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  2. I cannot see any worthwhile answer to these problems other than a proportional representation voting system that ensures that major parties are kept in check by the need to keep smaller parties on side in coalitions. Both Labor and Liberal have proven unfit for the responsibility of majority government with a minority of the vote.

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  3. I understand frustration with Question Time as it is, but what benefits would you expect from a reformed Question Time? What goals would it contribute to achieving?

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    1. As a method for showing that the incumbent Cabinet and its Ministers have lost the plot, QT can – used properly – be a powerful force for accountability (or at least for harassing the executive, which may not always map exactly). The Opposition in 1975 pursued the Whitlam Govt over the Loans Affair, as it deserved to be pursued (not necessarily “summarily dismissed and forced to face a sudden election from opposition and with some indeterminate but probably large percentage of the pundits on the Bondi tram construing the deadlock-breaking as a sin-binning by the ref for substantive transgressions). Premiers like Carmen Lawrence and Kristina Kenneally were strongly criticised, not just by their opponents, for proroguing Parliament to forcibly adjourn ongoing inquiries.

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