February 01, 2013

Horse 1434 - Any Questions?

If a Liberal-National coalition is elected with Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, he has promised substantial reforms to the way that Question Time is conducted. The way that I heard this being described on ABC Local Radio this morning is a specific allowance for backbenchers to "grill" the Prime Minister of the day with unscripted questions. I think that everyone knows that even if the wallpaper is changed, most of the operation of Question Time would remain identical.

Provisions currently exist for "questions without notice", that is, questions on the floor of the house which either haven't been placed on an official agenda or run sheet for that particular session.
The thing is though, any change affecting the operations on the floor of the house, can not extend beyond even the doors of that same house. Rules which affect the goings in inside, have no bearing at all outside and what goes on outside is completely unregulated.

If I was a strategist for any political party, I'd have a planning meeting before every single sitting of parliament. In this meeting, even if questions were supposed to be without notice and without prompting, I'd still have all of the questions written in advance and if the local rules suggested that a greater proportion of questions come from backbenchers, I'd have the required number of backbenchers primed beforehand to ask the questions.
The only real difference would be that in government, the relevant Ministers and the Prime Minister would be primed beforehand and those questions would still be known in advance but questions coming from the Opposition would not be known in advance; so presumably the strategists in the Government would also try to guess those questions and perhaps prepare possible answers.
Really the only difference that I can see is that questions are taken off the official agendas and distributed privately by party runners and party whips, outside the doors of the floor of the parliament.

Since the narrative of politics is reasonably predictable in a week, party strategists would gradually learn the skills necessary to preemptively answer questions. You'd assume that most of the questions would revolve around the immediate pieces of legislation and policies already in debate before the parliament, since that is what the business of the parliament is about.
So whilst Mr Abbott's idea is both an excellent one and probably would be in the best interests of the nation, the existing party machines are such that it simply wouldn't work out as intended.

The bottom line is that politics shares a lot in common with a very competitive sport like Formula One racing. You still have engineers and strategists who'd look at whatever rules were in play and then try to design an outcome within those rules which best leads to victory (though unlike Formula One where victory is obvious, in politics it amounts to no more than political point-scoring most of the time) . If the rules do not specifically mention something, then you can assume it's allowable and unless they expressly forbid something you can rest assured that people looking at the rules will examine them for any advantage possible.
Questions without notice would not be like changing the mechanics which make the thing move but changing the electronic management with drives them and then placing the whole thing under a shiny new slick cover.
Even Mr Abbott would concede that his own party would be complicit to such a thing. Maybe that's why he's even suggested it, to give the veneer of democratic process whilst applying more grease to the machinery undernearth.

The other major problem these days is that politicians are trained in and are highly skilled in the art of saying nothing. Even if a completely unknowable question somehow made its way through the doors and onto the floor of the parliament, there is still precisely zero guarantee that it would be answered as the questioner intended. Quite apart from the fact that most questions are either nothing more than prompts in order for the relevant minister to spruik policy, or snidey barbs designed to make the answerer look foolish, I just don't think that any difficult to answer question would be properly dealt with.
The chance for genuine curiosity about legislation or open questions to do with (forbid it) improving the course of review of legislation, would be stifled under the weight of spin.

Perhaps the all-time master of Question Time in a Westminster parliament was Nigel Lawson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer under Ms Thatcher. He often answered questions without notice with: "that's an interesting question but the real question is" before answering his own question. He probably helped to inspire the character of Jim Hacker and in a strange way life imitates art more often than is quite frankly necessary.
I can see a lot of this kind of thing going on under the proposed rule changes to Question Time as MPs struggle to stay "on message". In this age of pocket computers and instant fact checking, the old art of waffle, parliamentary theatre and outright admission that you don't know the answer simply doesn't fly in the 21st century.
It's a pity really. I'd like to see more admission that MPs don't immediately know the answer and that they'd be prepared to go out, do some research and then come back with their findings. That would mean that questions might actually be answered properly and real information might be conveyed on the floor of the parliament. What crazy; halcyon days those would be.

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