If there has been a dominant political theme in 2016 it has been the public’s growing disillusionment with the political class. Worldwide our politicians are increasingly coming to be perceived as self serving and unhelpful. The election of Donald Trump and the success of Brexit are just two obvious consequences of a rapidly escalating trend. Around the world the support for traditional parties of government is splintering, voters are turning to new political movements in desperate hope that they will provide the circuit breaker to lift them out of this post GFC malaise.
For these traditional power structures the road to repairing the trust of the people is long and complex. There is no silver bullet solution to this problem that has been generations in the making. And yet our politicians engage in such insouciant behaviour you wonder if they get it at all. Take for example Question Time.
Question Time in the Australian Federal Parliament is a disgrace. For anyone unfamiliar with it: While parliament is in session, an hour per day is set aside for the parliament to ask questions of ministers and the Prime Minister, to scrutinise policy and to hold the government to account. Instead what occurs is a farcical pantomime that demeans the parliament and insults the people it represents.
The affair will begin with a question by the Leader of the Opposition, a long argumentative preamble concluded with something lame like “isn’t it the case that…” followed by a damning summary of the Prime Minister of one of his ministers. Different Prime Ministers would respond in different ways; the current Prime Minister will likely provide a gratuitous critique of the question, lecturing superciliously on how anaemic and insipid these attacks are. Paul Keating was wont to do the same. Tony Abbott tended to wrap himself in the flag, question the patriotism of the Labor Party, impugn their motives, conflate criticism with disloyalty. Julia Gillard -whose animosity towards Tony Abbott was matched only by his to her – would also commence with an unsolicited commentary on the Opposition Leader. She would seek to characterise the Opposition Leader as a dishonest scaremonger, prone to exaggeration and determined to cause chaos and destruction.
Whomever the Prime Minister of the day the routine has remained much the same, a sneering attack on the questioner followed by a speech either extolling the governments virtues or deriding the oppositions shortcomings. The answer will have little to do with the question, a specific question about teachers pay only requires that the Prime Minister speaks about something that is loosely connected to education. A minute or so into his answer an opposition member will “take a point of order.” This can best be compared to a barrister raising an objection in court. The most common objection raised is “relevance”. It is also virtually unenforceable and members know that. The Speaker of the House, who serves as a sort of parliamentary umpire, can only apply the rules as they are written. And it so happens the rules are determined by the parliamentary majority. Imagine if you will a court room where the prosecution gets to choose what powers the judge does and doesn’t have: parliament works a little like that.
But the opposition doesn’t especially mind. They aren’t really trying to get the Prime Minister’s comments ruled out of order, they merely want to inject themselves into the debate. The point of order is a pretext. If they were being used in good faith we would see Members state the relevant objection in a concise, polite way. Instead they just want a land a snarky barb of two before the Speaker sits them back down.
Questions from the opposition almost all continue in a similar fashion. The opposition asks the minister or Prime Minister to endorse their outrageous supposition, the Prime Minister or Minister attacks the questioner then rants about whatever they please for three minutes and the opposition raises a Point of Order to be a smart arse. Rinse and repeat.
Government questions are even worse. A fawning backbencher asks a member of the cabinet if they would explain why they are so wonderful and why the opposition is so awful. The respective minister will begin their answer with gushing praise for the questioners performance as a local member before launching into a rehearsed speech, once again singing their own praises and berating the opposition. All the while members from both sides howl and they scream at each other like bickering schoolchildren. The beleaguered speaker occasionally asks them to stop but the threat isn’t taken seriously.
Once every question time a member of the crossbench gets to ask a question. These are different. The crossbencher will ask a question with real policy detail of the government or perhaps take the opportunity to appeal to them to support a certain initiative or to abolish an unsuccessful policy. The Minister will typically respond in a courteous, reasoned fashion, laying out the government’s position with respect to the specific policy issue and on some occasions undertaking to follow up with the member some time down the track. It is mature, it is dignified and it is all too rare. A minute later it will be the Oppositions turn to ask a question and the farce returns.
It simply is not good enough. Politicians implore us to appreciate the long hours they work and the laborious tasks they perform and I agree we should, but it needs to be a two way street. If they want us to take seriously their commitment to public service they need to demonstrate it. Earlier this week politicians from both sides of the aisle condemned a group of protestors who interrupted Question Time. The allegation was that they had demeaned the parliament, that as Australia’s premier democratic forum it should be respected and held sacred. The hypocrisy was galling. Parliament should indeed be respected but it was not demeaned by protestors whose passion was authentic and whose motives were altruistic. It is demeaned every sitting day by 150 Representatives and 76 Senators who use it as a child’s plaything. During the Howard era with the global economy humming along they might have been able to get away with it, but the electorate is no longer complacent. Voters are deeply anxious about their economic futures and are deeply suspicious of the role of politicians in creating the current situation. They need to know that their politicians are earnestly working for them, instead, on Tuesday, they saw a Senator clucking like a chicken.