I’ve gone to more Question Times then I care to admit. Yet on every occasion, I find myself questioning the purpose of it and what additional layer of substance it provides to Australia’s political affairs. Imagine being given the answers to an exam, then having to sit the exam, and then writing out the pre-written answers whilst your lecturer looms over your shoulder making meaningless remarks the whole time. Welcome to the 70 minutes of Australian Question Time.
It’s a phenomenon that occurs at 2pm of every sitting day. It happens in both houses, although most attention is focused on the House of Representatives as that is where the Prime Minister answers questions first hand. In parliamentary terms, it’s referred to as Questions Without Notice, though if you were to struggle through the whole session, you would realise this doesn’t describe it at all. Questions are asked of the Prime Minister and their Ministers from both sides of the house. Those asked by government backbenchers are usually a means for the government leadership to boast about what they’ve done and accomplished. Meanwhile, questions asked by the opposition or crossbenchers are usually hostile, focus on clashing policies, and receive nothing but a backhanded, dismissive, and somewhat dogmatic responses. In addition, with the exception of morally sensitive issues, the opposition will almost always jeer, interject, and shout comments whilst the government answers the questions put to them.
Question Time is broken. There is barely any wit. The banter is sub-par. It is nothing but an open playground where MPs and Senators unload any excess ego, whilst appearing engaged in the public eye. The information ‘revealed’ has normally been discussed in a press conference or release earlier in the day, and the issues discussed have always been extensively reviewed during tabled debates. And yet, it is broadcasted each and every sitting day, and prominent members of the press gallery, such as Sky News’ David Speers, regularly attend. It’s nothing but an act of showmanship for all involved, and barely contributes any substantive towards the political debate.
If you want to see an entertaining and intellectual Question Time, look no further than the House of Commons in the British parliament. It is fast paced, full of relevant and insightful content, and contains a lot of wit and solid banter. Whilst its format varies slightly to that here in Australia, the British system provides a tête-à-tête of both leaders of the major parties, which openly displays the true personas of the leaders and more specifically, the Prime Minister. It’s time we had a similar system in Australia, or at least, have politicians that use the 70 long minutes already available to have some honest, substantive debate.