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Sessional Orders Amendment

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Tags: Democracy, Standing Orders, Dorothy Dixer

Limiting time spent on questions and answers in Parliament: Full Debate, 24 September, 2019


Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Speaker, as Mr Ferguson indicated, we will be proposing a further amendment to the Sessional Orders over and above what is presented to us here today.

It is galling to have the Leader of Government Business tell us that we should be grateful for being called what we are, which is Greens members, in this place. The 'other members' clause in the Sessional Orders was put in there in 2014 to 'other us', to make us 'an other' in this place and to deny the fact that we are a political party with a strong and growing membership which, of course, in a time of climate emergency is going to continue to grow.

We support the change that rightfully describes Dr Woodruff and me, and any Greens member who comes into this place after us, as Greens members. We agree that the new independent member for Clark, Ms Ogilvie - and welcome, Ms Ogilvie - is entitled to a question each question time but hanging this threat over our heads of taking a question away from us is cheap and nasty.

Mr Ferguson - It is not a threat.

Ms O'CONNOR - It was a persistent threat during these negotiations. The fact is we have to endure in this place each day four Dorothy Dix questions from a government that has only three backbenchers and one one of them is solely dedicated to the backbench - well, in fact none of them are when I think on it. We have Mr Tucker, Mrs Petrusma and Mrs Rylah on the backbench and yet the Government awards themselves four Dorothy Dix questions and we are supposed to be grateful for our two. It galls me that we are supposed to be grateful for our right in this place to ask you questions and knowing, unfortunately, that we very rarely get answers.

Madam Speaker, I move -

That the motion be amended by inserting after clause 2 the following new clause:

(3) The following new sessional order is inserted after sessional order 48(a) -

48(b) maximum time for questions and answers. Notwithstanding the provisions of standing order 48, the Speaker shall ensure the time taken to ask a question does not exceed one minute and the time taken to answer a question does not exceed four minutes.

Madam Speaker, in the last sitting, in response to a question that went something like, 'Can the Treasurer tell us what a great job he is doing of pretending that we are in a golden age and is he aware of any other alternatives?', Mr Gutwein's answer to that Dorothy Dix question ran for seven and a half minutes. We had a Dorothy Dix question today to the Minister for Primary Industries and Water that ran for four and a half minutes. Ms Archer was up on a Dorothy Dix question today and spoke for six and a half minutes. Mr Gutwein, today, in response to another question to ask him to tell us how terrific he is, spoke for five minutes and 20 seconds. In each question time four Dorothy Dix questions are asked and none of them have answers less than four minutes long and many of them nudge six and a half to seven minutes. That is somewhere between 20 and 25 minutes of every taxpayer-funded question time being devoted to the Government telling itself how terrific it is.

That is not the purpose of question time, Madam Speaker. Question time is an important principle of the Westminster system. It is there for transparency and accountability. That is why we are moving this amendment.

I spent last week in Canberra for a series of meetings and went into Senate question time during the sitting. Apart from the depressing spectacle of watching the two major parties in that place denigrate Greens questions about the need for climate action, the need to respond to young people who are distressed about the climate, and the need to take action to protect the reef, apart from the appalling and depressing spectacle of Labor and Liberal members groaning or turning to their phones when the Greens rose to ask this question again and again, what we see in the Senate is an appropriate framework for making sure that questions are tight and contained, are one minute long and the answers are two minutes long. You can see the clock in the Senate - it ticks down and as soon as that one minute is up the mic goes off. As soon as the two minutes are up on the minister's answer, the mic goes off or the President shuts down the minister. They allow for two supplementary questions which have to be asked within 30 seconds, from memory, and then the minister has another minute to answer those supplementary questions. It is a more dynamic approach to question time and much more in the spirit of what question time should be about.

In saying this and moving this amendment, Madam Speaker, I note that you have the authority and the power to sit ministers down when they have talked for too long. I simply make that comment and observation and I hope we see more of that.

Mr Ferguson interjecting.

Ms O'CONNOR - Why do you scoff?

Mr Ferguson - It happens already.

Madam SPEAKER - Through the Chair, please.

Ms O'CONNOR - The seven-and-a-half-minute answer to another inane self-congratulatory question from the Government to itself demonstrated that there is a problem in this place with Government members and ministers having respect for the Westminster tradition of question time and for the public's right to know and the fact that we are all here on the public purse.

This is not about us wanting ministers to talk for a shorter amount of time so that we have more questions, although that would be excellent. It is that question time is about questions and answers. It is not about self-congratulation. The Government has many tools at its disposal to tell itself, and any Tasmanian who is bored enough to listen, how terrific it is. It can have a ministerial statement. It could, for example, for the more trite Dorothy Dixers that we get in this place, issue a media release. It could step outside, call a press conference and wave its arms around.

Any minister can do that and will probably get covered but no, in this little place where we have this precious allocation of questions, what we get every single question time is these banal, insulting questions from the Government to itself and the abuse of the forms of this House to 'answer' questions at great length. For the purposes of Hansard, it is important to also note that often those answers are scripted and have been prepared either by the department or in the minister's office. When the minister reads through the scripted answer, almost without exception what we get is the flip on a dime and an attack on the other side of the House. It devolves into politics. At least half of the Dorothy Dix answers that we get in this place are spent attacking the other side of the House, reaching into the recesses of history to accuse members on the other side of all manner of heinous acts while in government.

We strongly believe there should be time limits on questions, whether they be Dorothy Dixers or questions that have been asked by opposition or cross-bench members. If you cannot tell a story and answer a question in a complete fashion in under four minutes you have a communication problem. So much of what I read when I go through the uncorrected proofs is tedious repetition, waffle, inane, insulting and highly political, and there should not be a place for it in question time. It is a lack of respect for the Westminster system and question time and the public's right to know that leads to four Dorothy Dix questions and these bloated, self-congratulatory, inane, political answers every day that consume about one-third of our question time.

The Government obviously will not be supporting this, because it likes to take up as much of the question time allocation talking about itself in response to its own questions so it does not have to face scrutiny. We understand that Labor will also not be supporting our amendment because they have an eye on that day in the how-far-distant future I do not know when it will be back in government again, and it wants the capacity to ask itself questions and spend half of the Dorothy Dix answers attacking the other side of the House.

In terms of public perception, the sniff test, the way question time is conducted here with this Government is insulting to the public. Most members of the public, should they know that the Government asks itself four questions each question time and then spends a third of question time talking about how terrific it is in response to its own questions, would find that offensive and a waste of time. It does fail the sniff test. What is happening here is that Government members rely on the fact that most people do not watch question time, because they are too sane to do that. If they did they would be revolted. I believe they would be revolted by what they see coming out of the Government side of this House each and every day, because it insults them, it insults their intelligence and it insults the Westminster system.