Question time or a waste of time?

Alan-Ferguson Question time still needs further reform, argues Senator the Hon Alan Ferguson.

During my term as President of the Senate, I set out to try to reform the procedures for the conduct of Question Time in the Senate.  Some naïve souls may assume that ministers will answer the questions without notice given to them at 2pm on any given sitting day.  I am not one of those.  In my experience, direct answers to questions are few and far between.

For many decades, question time was an opportunity to seek information from the government and ministers answered questions knowing that they faced the threat of severe political sanctions if they gave misleading or evasive answers.  The rot did not start with the televising of question time in 1990.  It was already evident in such well-established practices as the provision of “possible parliamentary questions” to ministers by their departments, with additional gloss from their personal offices.  These increasingly voluminous question time briefs fuelled the plague of what we now call “Dorothy Dixers”.  Before long, question time became a choreographed affair which appeared to be conducted largely for the benefit of the press gallery who reduced their commentary to an assessment of which side landed the best blows. 

All sides of politics, and the media, have contributed to the general degradation of what should be a very important instrument of accountability.  In its current degraded form, question time is a major contributor to declining perceptions of parliament and parliamentarians by a community which sees us as scuttlebutt-peddling politicians.  It is, in my view, in its current form, largely a waste of time.

In August 2008 I issued a discussion paper on the revitalisation of question time.  The paper looked at how to make question time more effective and to focus the discussion even further, specific proposals were circulated.  The main features were:

  • all primary questions to be placed on a Question Time Notice Paper by 11 am on the day of answering;
  • up to six supplementary questions following each primary question (including from questioners other than the primary questioner);
  • up to two minutes for an answer to each primary or supplementary question;
  • answers to be directly relevant to each question.

There was wide ranging debate on the proposals and, I have to say, a degree of disagreement with their objectives. I was keen, however, for the new ideas to be at least tried and when the Procedure Committee reported again in November 2008, a majority of the committee recommended the trial of a modified proposal for a more limited change to question time, while acknowledging the intent of the original proposals to enhance the accountability of ministers to Parliament. The modified proposal’s key uptake was that answers were to be required to be directly relevant to the question.

The Senate has trialled the modified proposals since the last two weeks of sitting in 2008.  Most recently, the procedures were reviewed by the Procedure committee in its fourth report at the end of 2009 whereby it recommended the continuation of the new rules with one further modification be trialled: Supplementary questions would be restricted to thirty seconds to encourage conciseness and to provide time for a further one or two more questions.

Although a work in progress, changing the way Question Time operates in the Senate is something I still feel strongly about; it is the most publicly visible activity in parliament – the bit we're likely to see on the television news or hear on the radio and so it helps to shape our view of politicians. It's hardly surprising then that some members of the public hold our elected representatives in fairly low regard, since Question Time remains a farce. It is my hope that in trialling these new rules, we can move towards a Question Time where Members and Senators can hold the government of the day to account for their actions or inactions.

Senator the Hon Alan Ferguson is the Deputy President of the Senate and a Liberal Senator for South Australia.