August 25

Westminster returns to Canberra?

With all the gloom and hysteria about a hung parliament, this election is providing one clear benefit.

It will probably break the authoritarian control a majority government can exercise in the House of Representatives. This has been a flaw in the Australian adaption of the Westminster model, and thus in our constitutional system.

I cannot recall the House of Commons ever being degraded to the supine assembly that the House of Representatives too often became in recent years.

With its powers removed and its members made impotent, the chamber too substituted infantile abuse for serious and robust debate. Question time would often be an embarrassing charade.

School children are sometimes brought to Canberra to see the Parliament. Would they have seen the behaviour and the obvious lies in question time as the way to behave?

…appalling question time…

The practice of a government member asking – often reading – questions which he or she  claims untruthfully to be  without notice brings contempt on Parliament.

So is the practice of a minister of the Crown reciting the time wasting formula:  “‘ I thank the honourable member for his /her question,”  followed by reading a far too long  political campaign answer.

The Standing Orders should require members  not to read their questions, answers or speeches and that any paper they are referring to be available to be tabled if any member calls for this.

One of the worst practices on both sides is the control by the whips as to which members may ask a question. That any member actually submits himself or herself to this control casts doubt on his or her independence.

If a minority government achieves anything it will make the House a genuine part of the legislature, not a rubber stamp of the executive which as we know from recent experience can be as small as a four person politburo.

…proposals for reform…

[ To continue reading this column, click on "Read more" below ]

Now Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, has made proposals for reform to the independents. It is in the nature of politics that Ms. Gillard will have to make a similar or better offer.

 According to Christian Kerr in The Australian (25/8) she did propose a major package of reforms to question time as manager of opposition business in 2006. This was not adopted when Labor took government in 2007.

According to Mr. Kerr, Tony Abbott has written to the independent MP’s. The  letter has been obtained exclusively by The Australian.In it  the Opposition Leader has promised to consider a tighter question time with shorter answers, more time for private members' bills and a dedicated backbench question time with greater scope for detail.

“He has further promised revamped systems of committees and the creation of an independent parliamentary budget office.”


[ Honourable members…behave yoursleves ]

 “Mr Abbott wants to limit questions to one minute and responses to four and tighten the definition of the relevance of answers in the standing orders.”

“He has offered support for a backbench question time that would allow MPs to question ministers on matters concerning their electorate. Ministers would be provided with questions in advance to allow more detailed and relevant responses and a supplementary question without notice permitted at the Speaker's discretion.” 

“The Opposition Leader has signalled his support for the introduction of estimates hearings into the house committee system to provide greater scrutiny of government budget matters and to give MPs the opportunity to question public servants and officials in the presence of ministers.”

These are all reforms which will improve the working of the Westminster system, and the standards of transparency and accountability essential in our democracy.



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