Oct 302006

My current job allows me to tele-commute, which is to say, due to technology and a compliant employer, I get to work from home.

Part of my daily ‘commute’ involves having the radio on alongside me, tuned to either Radio National if Parliament’s not sitting, or NewsRadio when it is. Today…..in fact this week, Parliament is sitting so I get to indulge in what has somewhat strangely become my favourite of all pass-times. Working and arguing back with the pollies. You can’t do that in the average workplace because people either don’t want to know or think you’re a nutbag. Probably more often than not – both!

I’ve developed a love / hate of Question Time (QT). That period of the Parliamentary day when 2:00pm rolls around and the Speaker, or President if the Senate is being broadcast, asks “Questions…..are there any questions?” QT, or what used to be known as ‘Questions Without Notice’, is an integral part of our Westminster Parliamentary system, whereby the Government of the day can be subjected to scrutiny of its conduct of the mandate given to it by the people. QT in the Federal Parliament these days has become pretty much of a farce, due almost entirely to the governments position of holding a majority of seats in both upper and lower houses. There is more than a little arrogance crept into the Howardian House of Reps benches since the balance of power in both houses passed to the coalition in July 2005. You see, each side of the floor takes turn-about to pose questions of ministerial office holders in the interests of their constituents. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. QT these days has degenerated into the Opposition asking  the same set of questions of the same individual, who then uses the opportunity to stray from the question context and deride the opposition with impunity while the Speaker looks on benevolently. Government bench questions of Ministers have become what is known in colloquial parlance as ‘Dorothy Dixers’. A pat question which opens a door for the Minister concerned to stand and crow about his office’s performance on the subject query, usually intermixed with a barbed jibe at the Opposition for the fun of it.

Mind you, the Labor/minor party opposition is anything but aggressive and conclusive in their questioning, in the main. Take today for example. If Kim Beazley and Wayne Swan asked one question centred on interest rates and inflationary trends of Howard, they must have asked 10 or 15. Each one a subtle re-wording of the one before it. I’m probably exaggerating, but you get my drift. With each question, Howard’s response was so predictably the same. He harkens back to the Keating era and the ‘recession we had to have’. Never directly addresses the question, but replies from a tangent which attempts to scorn the opposition on the basis of an unrelated historically economic position. That’s fine & dandy if he’s allowed to get away with it, and he is. This is my point. The Speaker of the House – David Hawker – is most definitely and overtly partisan. A quality, although he comes from the government benches, which is not supposed to be evident in the interests of fair play and proper Westminster protocols. Hawker doesn’t have a very good reputation in the job, going back practically to the day he was appointed.

It’s not a behaviour which is unique to Federal Parliament, but is apparently common in Queensland where the governing party has been in power perhaps just a little too long. Queensland, according to the Courier Mail, appears to be just the same as the Federal sphere. In fact, the Courier’s article exactly mirrors the behaviour I listen to from Canberra. There are days when I wonder why we bother with a mirror of Britain’s Westminster system of government, in particular QT. It proves nothing. I’ve not yet heard the Opposition land a telling blow on the Government through an artfully crafted and well directed question. Equally, I’ve never yet heard a properly pointed query from a government backbencher to a Minister which wasn’t an open invitation to blow the government’s horn and deride the Opposition at the same time, while the Speaker sits mute.

Maybe someone can tell me sometime why we bother with QT. To my mind, it’s as out-moded and futile as the scrum is in Rugby League. What’s the point in asking questions of the Government, if they’re not going to be answered in the context of the question?

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