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On the abolition of Question Time

IN 2014, EIGHTEEN years after Paul Keating lost the prime ministership, a collection of his prize insults appeared in print. The fact that Black Inc. chose to publish such a book, even as a stocking filler, suggests that I am not the only citizen who misses Keating’s ferocious wit, his partisan intellect and his acerbic yet sophisticated vision. And yet, as an exercise in abuse nostalgia, I find The Book of Paul: The Wit and Wisdom of Paul Keating disquieting. Sure, no politician since Keating has come close to matching the lucidity of his insults – if Keating had been a boxer, he would have danced like a butterfly and stung like a bee. But – to push the boxing metaphor – a violent sport is still violent, no matter how fluid the technique and how luminous the moment when the haymaker connects.

One of Keating’s more memorable performances – and I use the word ‘performance’ deliberately – appears in The Book of Paul under the heading ‘John Hewson’. As Leader of the Opposition, Hewson had presented to the Australian people Fightback!, a 650-page document that proposed a package of economic policies and reforms, including the introduction of a goods and services tax. During Question Time on 15 September 1992, Hewson asked Keating, ‘I refer the Prime Minister to his hopeless attack on Fightback! at the Press Club today… I ask the Prime Minister: if you are so confident about your view of Fightback!, why will you not call an early election?’

Keating answered as follows:

The answer is, mate, because I want to do you slowly. There has to be a bit of sport in this for all of us. In the psychological battle stakes, we are stripped down and ready to go. I want to see those ashen-faced performances; I want more of them. I want to be encouraged. I want to see you squirm out of this load of rubbish over a number of months. You have perpetrated one of the great mischiefs on the Australian public with this thing, trying to rip away our social wage, trying to rip away the Australian values which we built in our society over a century.

It’s precisely the ‘psychological battle stakes’ – including the repetitive allusions to warfare and physical confrontation, with more than a hint of ‘who’s the better man?’ – that I dislike, and which prompts my modest proposal: the abolition of Question Time from the Australian parliament.

 

WHILE TONY ABBOTT won few plaudits during his time as Australia’s prime minister, he garnered – and still garners – widespread praise for being one of Australia’s most effective ever leaders of the Opposition. Abbott’s defining characteristics in this earlier role included naked aggression, hostility, dogmatism and sloganeering, which were some of the same qualities that saw him criticised as prime minister. Following the September 2015 Liberal leadership spill that resulted in Malcolm Turnbull replacing Abbott as prime minister, many commentators, including Abbott himself, worried aloud about Australia’s tendency to run through prime ministers like a packet of FruChocs. And it’s true that in just a few years we’ve had John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Rudd again, Abbott and finally (at least at the time of writing) Turnbull. The most startling ruptures in those years were the party room ousting of Rudd and Abbott as leaders. But in each instance – one Labor, one Liberal – the caucus did what it had to do: fix a mistake. That sounds to me like democracy at work. Perhaps along with asking ‘Why have we had so many prime ministers recently?’, Australians might also ask ‘What are we looking for, and what types of behaviour do we reward, in leaders of the opposition?’ It’s a knotty question, though: while opposition for its own sake is tiresome and often seems false, an opposition that does not hold a government to account is an opposition not doing its duty.

At present, politics seems so much about strategy, posturing, wedging, trolling and the deliberate fostering of mutual antagonism. Question Time typifies this negativity because, yep, there has to be a bit of sport in it for all 23 million of us as we watch a gladiatorial circus that features insults, point-scoring (and point-of-order scoring), raucous equivocation, tedious Dorothy Dixers (questions by the government for the government), and bad (and occasionally good) jokes. Politicians, if they choose to or if they feel they have no choice, can resort anywhere, anytime to belligerence and over-simplification. But Question Time encapsulates and drives this caustic culture, because its purple but purposeless tone privileges and legitimises aggro and deflection.

I don’t suggest that that the abolition of Question Time would flush away all incivility: it was in parliament – but not in Question Time – that Gareth Evans pondered the merits of garrotting Bronwyn Bishop. Nor am I suggesting that everything about Australia’s political culture is broken, or that all politicians are duds, or that every journo is a moth drawn to the light of the 24-hour news cycle, or that all voters scream and scream for political blood because it’s fun to watch the Minister for Whatever flounder while you eat dinner. But I do argue that Question Time is one key cause – not merely a symptom – of our fractured national conversation, including our heightened inability or unwillingness to demand, from ourselves and others, productive, meaningful, respectful disagreement. Question Time gives us all the comfort of false rigour. And I argue that this false rigour echoes through the parliament and through the nation.

 

BUT IS QUESTION Time repairable? Should we glue it up and optimistically push on? Upon replacing Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker of the House of Representatives on 10 August 2015, Tony Smith made these promising remarks: ‘Often people say parliament should not be robust. It should, but it need not be rude and it need not be loud. That is something I would like to see improve. I cannot do that, but together we all can.’ Perhaps Smith was being straightforward and sincere – let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. But his job at that moment was to say, and to be heard to say, the right things about the sanctity of parliament. On a baser political level, he also needed to make clear that he wasn’t Bronwyn Bishop and that he wasn’t addicted to helicopters. But Bishop undertook a similar line-in-the-sand exercise when she became speaker in 2013: ‘I have the ambition to bring dignity back to the chamber. I think this means that you act to ensure decorum, to ensure that the manner in which questions are asked and answered are what the public would expect.’

I accept that the way a Speaker conducts themselves, and the way they choose to interpret and enforce standing orders, and the way they influence the behaviour of other parliamentarians, will influence the quality – the tone and substance – of Question Time. But I’m unconvinced that a more equitable and equable Speaker will magically recalibrate Question Time into something rigorous and real. The cartoonish partisanship of the Abbott government should not blind us to the everyday partisanship that is Question Time’s norm or, indeed, its function.

In his first days as Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull used Question Time, in part, to condemn the Question Time technique of Labor leader Bill Shorten: ‘The heartlessness of the Leader of the Opposition is in full evidence today. He has no compassion, no feeling, for the thousands of people watching Question Time week after week whom he bores and drives to the point of complete frustration with one pointless political claim after another.’ Turnbull set out to show that the government had changed – or to use that awful and fatigued expression, he attempted to change the narrative. Not least, he set out to remind anyone who hadn’t noticed that he wasn’t Tony Abbott. Ironcially, his efforts resembled those Abbott made throughout his prime ministership to show that ‘we are not the Labor Party’. Most especially, Turnbull aimed to demonstrate the perceived shallowness of Labor as a government in waiting. ‘I thank the honourable member for his zinger,’ he replied to Shorten’s question about Turnbull’s stance on climate change. When Mark Butler asked a question about emission-reduction targets that referenced keeping ‘the National Party and the right-wing extremists happy’, Turnbull said, ‘Let me tell the honourable member what the Australian people hate… They hate these sorts of slogans or zingers. They want to have a serious debate’. When Tanya Plibersek asked Turnbull about restoring the foreign aid budget, Turnbull replied, ‘The reality is, as the honourable member knows, that if she wants a serious answer, she should ask a serious question. All she is interested in is making an allegation, making a political argument across the dispatch box. That is fine, but it is a complete waste of Question Time.’

Turnbull’s responses amounted to high-quality, well-groomed and finely calibrated political point-scoring. Turnbull used Question Time for base and pure political ends, no less than Abbott ever did. And why not: the week that Turnbull became Prime Minister, many of Labor’s questions in Question Time were predictable political postures, phrased mainly to further (here we go again) their new narrative that the Turnbull represented a change of mere style rather than substance.

 

ACCORDING TO THE House of Representatives Practice, the 1000-page book on House procedures, ‘It is fundamental in the concept of responsible government that the Executive Government be accountable to the House. The capacity of the House of Representatives to call the Government to account depends, in large measure, on its knowledge and understanding of the Government’s policies and activities. Questions without notice and on notice (questions in writing) play an important part in this quest for information.’ This summary captures elements of Australia’s version of the Westminster system that we should cherish and seek to protect the principle that a government (and an individual minister) should be accountable to parliament.

But it is no longer sufficient to say that we need an imperfect Question Time because the Westminster system is the Westminster system. If accountability and information-gathering are the core functions of Question Time, then Question Time is failing. As political scientist Dean Jaensch pointed out nearly thirty years ago – and it’s just as true today – ‘Ministers cannot be expected to be on top of every aspect of their portfolio. Hence if an Opposition member asks a controversial question, then the purpose can be nothing else but an attempt to embarrass.’ Meanwhile, Dorothy Dixer questions – ‘Will the minister please explain why our policy is best?’, as Jaensch paraphrases them – are no more valid or useful than any other sort of infomercial.

Part of what helps maintain the facade of Question Time is the illusion that ministers will actually make a serious effort to answer questions and that the information squeezed out of them would otherwise remain buried. Much, too, is made of the idea that no politician should mislead parliament, though I struggle – given the tone of the questions, given the orchestrated chaos that erupts, given the sledgehammer obfuscation – to be outraged by anyone who might choose to tell a straightforward lie in response to a facile question.

I’m being flippant, to an extent: while the hectoring, electioneering tone of Question Time deserves contempt, the deliberate misleading of parliament to evade responsibility for wrongdoing, or to avoid detection for personal gain or for personal or party corruption, is no joke. But to what extent is Question Time the appropriate forum for exposing, or acting as a deterrent to, significant misbehaviour or misdemeanours? Would Mal Brough, the subject of a current federal police inquiry, have stood aside as Special Minister of State and Minister for Defence Material and Science in the dead time between Christmas and New Year, if not for Labor’s sustained Question Time attack on him in the last days of the 2015 parliamentary year? Perhaps not, but in such matters I personally have little confidence that Question Time offers the right people the chance to ask the right questions in the right way for the right reasons.

Broadly speaking, if the true point of Question Time is to test the political skills of politicians and to rub policies to see how brightly they shine, then I suggest we are testing for the wrong qualities – not least, the close but amateur observation of facial expressions and body language. If the point is instead to elicit information and to ensure accountability, then I suggest that making more of Questions with Notice – that is, written questions requiring written answers within a defined time – will recalibrate both questions and answers, reducing the extent of partisanship for its own sake. If politicians want to rain abuse down upon and onto the page, days later and without the theatrical trappings, let them do so. But who wants to keep dancing when the music has stopped and the bar is long-closed? And who wants to watch such a dance? Personally, I like the different calibration that placing words upon the page (or the screen) imposes.

The rules of Question Time do not help its cause. Whatever the necessity of points of order to check out-of-bounds questions or answers, they have become another tedious element in the combative shenanigans. Questions themselves should be no more than thirty seconds in length, and answers should be three minutes, which encourages or even compels over-simplified and non-specific answers. In the UK, MPs ask ministers oral questions but must table their questions three days before asking them, while the Prime Minister faces a more spontaneous Question Time. While the Australian parliament might better reform itself based on how its own practices have evolved since 1901, some version of the UK model would offer a partial improvement on Australia’s current arrangements.

In fact, late in 2015 the still-glossy Turnbull government did trial some changes to Question Time, at least for its own members, in the form of the niftily named ‘Constituency Question Time’. As Turnbull put it, ‘after five questions have been asked from the government members in the traditional way, further questions will be addressed to ministers by government backbenchers on matters of interest to their local constituency. Local issues are absolutely the bread and butter of every member's job. This will typically involve five questions from government members on their local constituency. It is entirely up to the opposition whether they want to give their backbenchers a say or not.’ This experiment appears unlikely to do much other than spread the falseness. As journalist Laura Tingle put it, ‘even on its first outing, this innovation looked like a particularly amateur imitation of a bad local council meeting’. In the short term, the changes conform to the new government’s rhetoric about what it is (innovative and rising above rule in/rule out politics) and what the opposition is (politically infantile and opposed to in-depth debates).

Beyond Question Time, there are other ways for politicians to speak or demonstrate their views, if they choose to, inside or outside of parliament, including debating and voting on bills, serving on committees, making or responding to motions, statements by members, private members business, grievance debates, constituency statements, personal explanations, media conferences or interviews, media releases, blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, opening school fetes, entering the Big Brother house, and so on. Among all these possible activities, the ever-expanding committee system is genuinely rigorous, with its capacity for extensive, deep and contextual questions and answers. Sure, committee-inspired reports and recommendations are becoming as common as bottles of shiraz that sport bronze medal-winning stickers. And sure, committees can be partisan enough, as shown by, for example, last year’s hearings and reports stemming from the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee’s inquiry into the Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts.

Nonetheless, even allowing for inevitable factionalism and grandstanding, committees often make at least a decent fist of responding in practical and creative terms to the complexity of putting ideas into action. All things considered, in the current environment, making a decent fist of things, being somewhat useful, is reason for at least a short burst of unambiguous applause. It’s impossible – and undesirable – for committee members to share a common set of beliefs. And if the object of a committee report is to tell the complete and definitive story, it will inevitably fail.

 

THE HOUSE OF Representatives Practice also argues, ‘The importance of Question Time is demonstrated by the fact that at no other time in a normal sitting day is the House so well attended.’ That’s a little like suggesting that cheeseburgers are healthy because so many people eat so many of them. In his glorious and gloriously titled Recollections of a Bleeding Heart (Random House, 2002), author and Paul Keating’s former speechwriter Don Watson writes, ‘It is because of the media – particularly because of the televising of parliament – that Question Time in the House is now seen as a window onto a despised breed. Televising them made politicians performers, as televising court cases does to judges and lawyers. That is why one of parliament’s most celebrated performers, Paul Keating, was opposed to televising proceedings, why later he so often fulminated against Bob Hawke for allowing it.’

Decades on, Keating’s concerns seem validated – and perhaps even magnified – given the prevalence of television, radio, streaming and YouTube, together with social media’s capacity to spread editorialised parliamentary content. And yet, in the ‘we now go live to…’ world we now inhabit, it’s appropriate that parliament should be broadcast in full. In other words, Keating might have been right to worry, and he might have keenly anticipated the quagmire we now endure, but it’s a necessary quagmire.

It’s not just Question Time that is available for live or catch-up viewing. ParlView, available through the Parliament of Australia website, makes broadcasts of the House or Representative and the Senate available, as well as footage of the proceedings of many, though not all, committees (plus other assorted titbits). But like so many content-rich websites, ParlView has become unwieldy due to the creep of ever-more material. It can be a challenge to find specific content, and a nightmare to browse.

We could use innovative and simpler ways to place all parliamentary proceedings before the public in its varied, ragged and detail-laden glory. I say this while recognising the truth of Peter Brent’s point: ‘The things that really matter would need hundreds of tedious hours.’ Offering a user-friendly, Netflix-like service of all parliamentary activities is unlikely to change the viewing habits of a nation (‘Shall we watch I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! or the Senate second reading speeches for the Adelaide Airport Curfew Amendment (Protecting Residents’ Amenity) Bill 2014?’). Nonetheless, the Australian parliament should do everything possible to put before the public the sum of what it does. In other words, it should embrace even more fully the quagmire that Keating predicted, including promoting the rigour, the messiness, the slog and the dryness of day-to-day policymaking and policy delivery.

 

I AGREE WITH Julia Baird, who suggests that the power of words and oratory has become underrated and is therefore rare in contemporary Australia, including in its parliamentarians: ‘Political speech-making in Australia today is almost completely lacking in thunderbolts. Political oratory is a lost art, and we are all poorer for it.’

And yet the effect of political oratory is stunning when it occasionally arises: as Baird and many others have noted, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard provided such an example with her 2012 misogyny speech. Delivered in parliament – but not during Question Time – the potency of Gillard’s speech came, in part, because of the way it expanded like a balloon, capturing so much more about feminism and resistance to feminism than the specific parliamentary motion that provoked her response. Its potency came also because the initial object of the prime minister’s scorn – Tony Abbott, or, as Gillard called him, ‘this man’ – was sitting a few metres away, listening as the balloon grew and grew but didn’t burst. Gillard’s speech did not save her prime ministership, and indeed on one level it reflects the tenuousness of her minority government. But the long view is that it was a defiant and defining moment in Australian political and cultural history. The speech has become a sort of monument to the treatment Gillard herself endured, to the impediments still imposed on women in public life, and on the state of gender equality more generally.

Can Question Time help revive the art of political oratory in Australia? Is that a reason to keep it? On the contrary: decades of tricky-for-tricky’s sake questions and ‘get stuffed’ answers have ossified Question Time, leaving it carrying the burden of its own history. Like too many seasons of the reality television program Big Brother, Question Time has turned into a parody of itself. Each time a politician such as Christopher Pyne sits on his bench pulling faces, each time a politician such as Tony Burke rises to accuse somebody-or-other of some-sin-or-other, it’s as if a chorus of former members of parliament rise too, each of them ready to repeat their past performances. It’s hardly the fault of the current batch of politicians, but they are operating in the context of the history of Australian Question Time. As an exercise in bemusement, I recommend reading Question Time at random: jump from day to day, year to year, decade to decade, and observe the abuse and the point-scoring rendered lame and flat upon the page.

Christopher Pyne has declared his enjoyment of the theatricality of Question Time: ‘It really does test people’s mettle.’ While I can understand Pyne’s genuine enthusiasm, the combativeness of Question Time – all that testing of mettle – fuels a perception that politicians should be, and should be seen to be, warriors. I suggest that parliament, and Canberra more generally, could use a few less warriors. Let’s challenge the widespread Australian assumption (one perpetuated persistently by, among others, the Australian men’s cricket team) that winners are – that they must be – the best sledgers. But it’s a fine line, because we do need passionate arguers in parliament (and outside of it). Sometimes, too, passion is personal: even if it has come to stand for something more, Gillard’s misogyny speech directly targeted Abbott and her perception of Abbott’s behaviour and his views about gender.

Is one appeal of politicians as warriors that they can serve as proxies for the real shedding of blood? Take this defence of Question Time, from a parliamentary fact sheet: ‘The spirited nature of Question Time can be disquieting to some observers but others defend the robust nature of the period as a sign of a healthy democracy where disagreements are vented in debate rather than through more physical confrontations.’ Certainly, the absence of physical violence within the Australian parliament – and towards parliamentarians more broadly – is a notably positive element of Australian political life. But to what extent can we explain this lack of physical violence on the machinations of the parliamentary system – or, alternatively, to what extent should we praise various disgruntled or oppressed individuals and groups for their restraint? Either way, I’m bemused by the idea that institutionalised verbal bullying – even cartoonish bullying – is saving us from physical violence.

 

IN PART, I chose this essay’s title – ‘On the abolition of Question Time’ – in homage to Simone Weil, a French thinker and writer who (along with much else in her short life) supported and then resigned from the Free French government-in-exile led by Charles de Gaulle during World War II. In On the Abolition of All Political Parties, written in 1943 (it first appeared in French in 1950 and in English in 2013), Weil wrote that, ‘Collective passion is an infinitely more powerful compulsion to crime and mendacity than any individual passion.’ According to her translator, Simon Leys, Weil was ‘deeply dismayed by various attempts of French politicians in exile to revive the old and destructive practices of party politics – rivalries and factionalism’.

Weil’s essay has a startlingly urgent tone: ‘The goal of a political party is something vague and unreal. If it were real, it would demand a great effort of attention, for the mind does not easily encompass the concept of the public interest. Conversely, the existence of the party is something concrete and obvious; it is perceived without any effort. Therefore, unavoidably, the party becomes in fact its own end.’ As Weil’s forthright polemic is a call from another time and continent, made in the midst of Nazism and war, I want to resist any temptation to throw it like a blanket over twenty-first century Australia. Nonetheless – and in a tempered way that, I’m happy to concede, runs counter to Weil’s sentiments – I draw inspiration from her observation that the ‘mere fact’ that political parties exist is not reason enough to preserve them. I am not calling for the elimination of Australian political parties (tempting though the idea is). Nonetheless, Question Time sits on a foundation of the adversarial party system, which in turn, as Peter Brent has argued, rests on the foundation of misplaced and excessive internal party unity.

Similar to team-first footy banter, it has become a truism that political disunity is death. Up to a point, that’s fair enough. But unity and loyalty should always be subject to gradations. Question Time’s inability to promote accountability by probing complex issues and policies stems directly from the discipline and unity of members of political parties, including the unified opposition to political opponents. In Australia in 2015, it’s an uncontroversial proposition that the vast majority of members of the House of Representatives are loyal to their party first (if not necessarily to their leader) and to their electorates and the issues second, while Senators are loyal to their party first and to their home state and the issues second. But, speaking personally, I find it disheartening to see intelligent, committed people maintaining such heightened discipline that they do not allow the cracks and inconsistencies in their arguments to show, when in truth all decent arguments contain cracks and, sometimes, chasms. They do it because we judge them harshly if they don’t. Question Time is the most obvious manifestation of this unedifying unity. But more than that, Question Time dictates our collective capacity to judge political success and failure through that narrow prism.

The essence of the defence of Question Time offers a variation on Winston Churchill’s much quoted – and much hidden behind – suggestion that, ‘No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ I personally have some faith in Churchill’s quote – and ‘faith’ is very precisely the word I mean. But his sentiment only holds true if the citizens of a democracy can and do – day in, day out – interrogate the nature and the sturdiness of their domestic democracy, not to mention casting a critical gaze over how well their democracy behaves regionally and globally. Question Time specifically helps us – all of us, not just politicians – avoid such responsibilities. Or to borrow Paul Keating’s quip about Peter Costello, Question Time is all tip and no iceberg.


From Griffith Review Edition 51: Fixing the System © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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