September 23, 2019

Horse 2599 - Magically Rehabilitating Question Time

"I think that Question Time is inherently broken. If you think that you can magically rehabilitate it, I would like to hear how you think that it's possible."
- Jeffrey Banana SC¹

Listening to Question Time in the House Of Representatives is one of my favourite amusements at work. I must have some weird schadenfreude reward centre in my brain because instead of listening to people who want to viciously argue with us on the telephone, I get to hear Members of Parliament viciously argue with each other on the radio. An argument which happens in the nebulous region of 'out there' is far more preferable to an argument which is happening directly in my face. It also helps to cover up the sounds of musicals and Disney soundtracks which come up through the floor from the hairdressers' shop below us.

Mr Banana SC heard the sounds of the Treasurer in the background while I was on the phone to him and my boss was in his own little space trying not to be distracted (hence why the radio was on and why I was fielding telephone calls). Mr Banana SC remarked that he thought that Question Time was all one giant farce and that it isn't necessary; I said that I can see the purpose and that I can improve it.
Being a Senior Counsel (which is exactly equivalent to a Queen's Counsel except that those titles were handed out in a more republican atmosphere) he said that he would entertain my opinion but only if I could lay out a convincing enough argument. So then, here we are.


On the face of it, 151 people in a room yelling at each other is nonsensical. Multiply that by a factor of slightly over four and what you have is the House of Commons at Westminster, from which we derive the model for how Parliament works; including the idea that you have a bunch of people in a small room yelling at each other. This in turn was likely derived from the old Scandinavian idea of the 'Thing' where you have a bunch of people on a hillside yelling at each other.
I think that in principle, having people settle arguments on matters of legislation by having them yell at each other is preferable to them settling arguments with pillows, flaming torches, clubs and swords, armies, and chopping people's heads off (see Cromwell). When you have contests for the exercise of political power, I would expect nothing less than the contestation happening with very heated words and language. Sticks and stones which break one's bones, is a worse outcome for all involved than words, which will still hurt people.
What is being objected to here I think, is the manner in which that contestation happens; which is why Mr Banana SC has voiced the very valid opinion that it descends into farce.

Question Time as it has developed, is a performative space. The Speaker of the House does have some control over how that performance is conducted but Question Time in essence is a piece of political theatre. I don't know if I'd actually want to change the character of that theatre because the alternative is what you get on the floor of the United States House of Representatives which is very dead in character.
The volume of the House of Commons in the UK, which has 4⅓ times the number of the people in the chamber, must invariably have a significantly higher volume. This is why John Bercow has become famous for his quips and liberal usage of the word 'ORDER!'; while the Speaker of our own House of Representatives is more or less anonymous to the general public at large here.
The root question which needs to be addressed is if Question Time is inherently broken, is it worth rehabilitating or just worth rolling up like a scroll and being burned in a fire? I think that the performative aspect of Question Time is valuable in a democracy where you have vastly differing opinions. Again I compare Westminster Systems to Washington but because we have political antagonists squaring off against each other in the chamber, the arguments which are necessary for functional democracy happen on the public record. The United States House of Representatives and the Senate are both austere in the heat of the debate on the floor and what that means by default is that the arguments do not happen within the chamber. In America they happen in the court of public opinion and that's terrible. The two big political parties in the United States refuse to compromise on anything at the moment and I think that part of the reason for that is because they neither talk to or argue with each other properly in the Congress; which used to happen a lot more.
Question Time in Westminster Parliaments is an invention so that those arguments can happen and while they might often be very ugly, they are happening.

The next problem then is if Question Time actually is necessary but inherently broken, then how do you fix it? Again, I think that the answer is not particularly difficult to implement.

Part of the façade of representative democracy is that everyone gets a say. In practice the people actually having their say on the floor of the House of Representatives and the Senate are the same cast of characters. It is like watching Comedie D'elle Arte, where Harlequin, Punchinello, Cymbeline... take on diffeeebf the roles in various stories but are essentially the same characters. The obvious solution in giving everyone a say, is to give everyone a say.

Having a set order in which people get to ask questions at Question Time sounds like an obvious idea but I rather like the more random idea of having people put their questions into a bag on the back of the Speaker's chair and drawing those questions out, blind. This would mean that there is less of an opportunity to present Dorothy Dixers² beforehand because there'd be no guarantee that they would be drawn unless you were very near the end of the cycle. It might be subject to gaming in that one side might only submit a few questions with the expectation that they would be drawn out but I'm sure that that's not a lot different to what occurs now.
I would have everyone who wanted to, put their question in the bag at the back of the Speaker's chair and once the member's question had been answered, they would no longer appear on the list of eligible question askers until the whole chamber had had a turn. I am guessing that over the course of the term of a parliament, that every MP would questions answered at least twice in the cycle.

I realise that this is still subject to the system being gamed, with Dorothy Dixers being placed into the mouths of backbenchers and people wanting to move up through the ranks of the party, and it is also open to abuse with relevant ministers not actually addressing the Opposition's questions or simply burning them with whatever the opposite of a filibuster is (an antifilibuster?) but it would at least go part of the way to fixing the problems of Question Time.
I also realise that this always gives more questions to the members who form the Government but that currently is already the case. There is the side argument to be made that members of the parliament are selected to represent their constituencies and just because they happen to be members of one party or another is actually an irrelevant thing.

There is a reasonable objection to the whole notion of Dorothy Dixer questions being allowed to be asked at all and Government ministers refusing to answer reasonable questions from the opposition but I have things to say about that.
If your member of parliament is so bereft of imagination that they ask Dorothy Dixers, then presumably the people in your electorate either like that and agree with them, or they will be removed from office at the next election. Even if your sitting member has been the Prime Minister, if the people decide that that person's services are no longer required, then that person will not last in that seat for long.
Secondly, the Government should have a platform to announce on the record what their policies are. Most of the sitting work of the parliament is about doing the work of passing legislation. That is already a stayed and mostly reverential space. If your entire experience of the parliament only extends as far as Question Time, then you probably need to be a more involved citizen in the democratic process. If your objection I purely about the tone of parliament, then you need to listen to more of the record than just hit singles.

¹Not his real name.
²Dorothy Dix was an American journalist and columnist who wrote an advice column in the New York Evening Journal and had a practice of making up her own questions to allow her to publish more interesting answers, allegedly³. 
³ "I should point out that allegedly is no defence at all in libel . I perpetrated this myth for years hoping some judge would believe me." - Ian Hislop
⁴ I should point out that it is actually impossible at law to libel the dead.

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