Feb 092007

PM warns states against playing water games. 09/02/2007. ABC News OnlineThe Prime Minister has implored the state and territory leaders to take up the Commonwealth’s plan for the Murray-Darling Basin for the good of the nation. – ABC News Online

Alas, Little Johnny Howler’s tactic of attempting to play statesman while employing yet another wedge on the Labor states and territories seems to have come a cropper.

If there’s anyone playing games with water, it’s that sniveling pint-sized prefect, Little Johnny Howler. Not prepared to answer a Question yesterday from the Leader of the Opposition in regard to costings and allocations for his touted $10 billion water plan for the Murray-Darling basin, Howard glibly responded in terms of a letter he’d previously sent to Rudd’s office, then went off tangentially, on a deliberate political ploy to place emphasis on economic management, not on water. The relevant portions of Hansard follow:

Mr RUDD (2.07 pm)-My question is to the Prime Minister and follows on from his answer to the previous question about the importance of taking politics out of water. Given the national water crisis requires that we all work together, and given the premiers are about to arrive in Canberra, will the Prime Minister now agree to provide me with a full briefing from his officials on the details and costing of the national water plan, as I requested in this letter one week ago, particularly, Prime Minister, as those details have been challenged not by us but by officials from the Murray-Darling Basin Commission?
Mr HOWARD-The Leader of the Opposition did write to me. I wrote back to him, thanked him for his letter and drew his attention to the fact that we would be having a meeting this afternoon. I said that, following that meeting, I am willing to provide additional briefings on the outcomes of the meeting. I said that the essential information is already on the public record. I attached a copy of my speech, the detailed explanatory material and copies of my letters to the premiers and the chief ministers. Crucially, in the last paragraph I said, ‘In the meantime, should you seek additional information, please contact my office.’ I would have thought a prudent Leader of the Opposition or a prudent shadow Treasurer or finance spokesman or water spokesman, in picking up that Murray-Darling Basin Commission document this morning and seeing an allegation of a $900 million hole, might have said: ‘Hang on, this mightn’t be right. Maybe the sensible thing to do is to ring up Howard’s office.’ But, oh no! They fell over themselves. They raced to the doors and said: ‘Aha! We have a black hole.’ They know a lot about black holes. The reality is that the opposition has played politics on this issue, despite the fact that the Leader of the Opposition pretended when I first made my announcement. I conclude by making the observation that the reason the Commonwealth is able to offer $10 billion in an historic effort to resolve this issue is that we have run a strong economy. If our budget had been in deficit, if we had not got rid of Labor’s debt and if we had not run a strong economy, this nation would not be able to afford to fix the Murray-Darling Basin. So the starting point for all of these things is prudent economic management in the hands of experienced economic managers such as the Treasurer, my colleague and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party. It is through the quality of his management, above all else, that we have been able to steer this country into a situation where we can afford to fix these issues. All the Leader of the Opposition and his cohorts can do is play politics with the water crisis facing Australia.
Rudd then asked the same question of the Treasurer, Peter Costello, specifying that as Howard had declined to have his office brief the Opposition on the costings of his $10 billion water saviour program, perhaps the Treasurer would. Costello then proceeded to break off tangentially into yet another tirade on economic management, which in no way answered the question posed to him. Then followed the ’Brutopia’ Donald Duck comic references, which provided fodder for Tony Abbott some 15 minutes later in order to waste more of Question Time. Shortly thereafter came the cruncher. Rudd asked of Howard:

Mr RUDD (3.07 pm)-My question is to the Prime Minister and relates to the statement he tabled earlier today from Wendy Craik of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission responding to this official report from the officials of the commission which comments extensively on the content of the government’s proposal. Given that Ms Craik’s statement responds only to section 3.1 of the officials’ nine-page critique, will the Prime Minister inform the House which of the other 12 sections of the report are also incorrect.
Mr HOWARD-I intend this afternoon to deal with a lot of the issues that are raised in that report with the premiers, and, given that they are the partners in the Murray-Darling Basin Commission and given that they are your party colleagues, I think I owe them the courtesy of informing them first.

This, along with most of the governments performance during Question Time, with an able assist from the Speaker and conservative party yes-man, David Hawker, is in direct contravention of the House of Representatives Practice and Standing Orders governing questions. Anthony Albanese, Manager of Opposition Business brought this flagrant arrogance and disregard for Standing Orders and Practice to Hawkers attention, only to be rebuffed, as expected:

Mr ALBANESE (3.12 pm)-I refer to page 527 of the House of Representatives Practice, which states that it is fundamental in the concept of responsible government that the executive government be accountable to the House. I refer to the answer from the Prime Minister to the Leader of the Opposition’s last question in which the Prime Minister’s answer amounted to him suggesting that he would not answer the question to this parliament because he would give the answer first to the executive representatives from other parliaments in this nation. Will the Speaker draw this act of constitutional arrogance to the Prime Minister’s attention?
The SPEAKER-I thank the Manager of Opposition Business for his question. As he would be well aware, it is not for the Speaker to tell the Prime Minister how to answer the question. If the member wishes to take it further, there are other forums of the House.
Mr ALBANESE-But, Mr Speaker, House of Representatives Practice is very clear. It says on page 527 that the accountability of the government is demonstrated most clearly and publicly at Question Time when for a period on most sitting days questions without notice are put to ministers. If we have a situation whereby we ask questions and the response of the executive is to say, ‘We’re not going to tell you; we are going to tell someone else,’ that is against the whole basis of the House of Representatives Practice and standing orders, and the basis of Question Time where we gather every day.
The SPEAKER-I again say to the Manager of Opposition Business that, as he would be well aware, standing order 104 says that the only standing order that applies to answers to questions is that an answer shall be relevant to the question. As I said before to the Manager of Opposition Business, if he wishes to pursue the points he is raising, there are other forums of the House.

Both are quite correct in their statements. Albanese in calling Hawkers attention to House Practice and Standing Orders, and Hawker in his statement regarding Standing Order 104, which says:

Replies to questions

104 Answers

An answer must be relevant to the question.

However, Hawker ignored the implications of Standing Order 98, which states:

98 Questions to Ministers

  1. A Member may ask a question in writing of a Minister (but not a Parliamentary Secretary), to be placed on the Notice Paper for written reply.
  2. During Question Time, a Member may orally ask a question of a Minister (but not a Parliamentary Secretary), without notice and for immediate response.
  3. A Minister can only be questioned on the following matters, for which he or she is responsible or officially connected:
    1. public affairs;
    2. administration; or
    3. proceedings pending in the House.
  4. Questioners must not ask Ministers:
    1. for an expression of opinion, including a legal opinion; or
    2. to announce government policy, but may seek an explanation about the policy and its application, and may ask the Prime Minister whether a Minister’s statement in the House represents government policy.

By flatly refusing to answer Rudd’s question, Howard has transgressed on House Practice and Standing orders. The Speaker, David Hawker, multiplies the sin by operating hand in glove with the government. In fact, one need only listen to the average Question Time, or read Hansard after the fact to realise that Question Time is not what the Westminster Parliamentary style decrees it ought to be.

How does one spell ’hubris’? Perhaps though, it might be more fitting to have Ian Healey in the visitors gallery next week, when Howard’s Grand-water-Stand falls flat on it’s face. An air-violin re-enactment just might be acceptable under those circumstances.

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