For even the most masochistic of political tragics, parliamentary question time can be wearing. A constant screaming match of ever more virulent abuse and insult, it sounds (and sometimes looks) less like a part of the democratic legislative process and more like the final of the big swinging dicks competition, open to all members regardless of allegiance or even gender.
And in the last fortnight it became too much even for the mild-mannered speaker, Tony Smith, who dared to chide ministers for irrelevancy and even sat a couple of them down.
Smith has also pleaded for the end of pointless and pugnacious epithets attached to every mention of an opponent: out of touch, arrogant, shifty, two-faced, and dishonest to name but a few. And he would like to see less antagonism and more civility and decorum within the chamber. Well, good luck with that.
Party politics – any form of politics, actually – is inherently antagonistic; the aim is to win the battle of hearts and minds, certainly, but it is ultimately to gain power, and in these febrile times securing even the slightest and most temporary advantage counts as a victory.
In the old days – the very old days – questions without notice were frequently genuine requests for information; at times opposition members would even warn ministers in advance of their concerns, so that the answers could be as full and factual as possible. But like so many good ideas, question time became a vehicle for rorting the system.
Opposition questions became almost invariably aggressive, hoping (without real expectation) for a “gotcha” moment. Government backbenchers were reduced to reading the form letter devised by the leadership group: “will the minister update the house on how the coalition is making absolutely everything wonderful while the Labor Party just sucks?” The reply is along the lines: “I thank the member for her question and can inform her of the unrivalled depravity of the Leader of the Opposition, especially his disgusting treatment of domestic animals …. “
When there was an attempt to get a few of the backbenchers to occasionally mention local issues, the simple insertion of the phrase ”including in my electorate of Silvertail” was considered to have done the job – no other editing was required. Even four decades ago the situation was completely dysfunctional: one despairing member of the parliamentary library wrote a paper suggesting that “Questions without notice” should be renamed “Questions without answers.”
Now it has become far worse and there is no real prospect of reprieve. Tony Smith, like a former Liberal Billy Snedden and a Labor stalwart Harry Jenkins is not one of the worst speakers (Bronwyn Bishop wins the undisputed title) but he remains a member of the government party – he relies on the continuing goodwill of those on whom he is supposed to sit in judgment.
Unlike the House of Commons, where the presiding officer is genuinely independent, the House of Representatives turns the umpire into a participant and vice versa. So in practice Smith can do no more than gently reprimand his front bench colleagues: if he goes too far they can and will dump him, and he knows it. Gough Whitlam’s first speaker, the amiable amateur Jim Cope, was ordered to resign when he tried to name a minister and was publicly repudiated by his own party.
That was nearly 50 years ago, but the lesson stuck. Question Time may be an utterly unedifying shit fight, but that’s the way it was designed. And it must be said that the politicians show absolutely no inclination to change it.