Saturday, January 29, 2011


This was published originally as a guest post by John Davidson on Larvatus Prodeo (4 Nov 2010):
Barry Cohen had a depressing article on the decline of question time in yesterday’s Australian. His line is that question time should return to being “the forum for a backbencher to make a reputation” instead of allowing QT to be the private domain of of both government and opposition executives. He provides some interesting statistics to support his argument:

In 1970, during my first term, the leader of the opposition, Gough Whitlam, would generally ask two questions a day, his deputy Lance Barnard one. With an average of 17 questions, that left roughly 14 to be shared among the other 100 MPs.
Shadow ministers received no special privileges and no one received a second question until all had had their first. As a result each member asked about seven questions a year.
Here is the breakdown for 1970: Whitlam 119 (18.8 per cent), Barnard 65 (10.4 per cent), shadow ministers 94 (14.8 per cent), backbenchers 354 (56 per cent).
By contrast in 2007-10:
With three Coalition leadership changes (Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott) and subsequent shadow ministerial reshuffles it is difficult to be precise about the numbers but the following is close: Abbott 531 (33.8 per cent), deputy leader Julie Bishop 136 (8.6 per cent), Nationals leader Warren Truss 66 (4.2 per cent), shadow treasurer Joe Hockey 153 (9.8 per cent), other shadow ministers 431 (27.5 per cent), Coalition backbenchers 184 (11.7 per cent), independents 63 (4.4 per cent).
The Coalition leadership and shadow ministry asked 83.9 per cent of all questions while 38 backbenchers and four independents had 16.1 per cent.
Barry also said that modern Labor was not much different when it was in opposition during the Howard era. He also comments that:
if backbenchers are told not to think or act for themselves that is what they will do.
Most have lost interest in digging around for questions to ask if they get on to an important issue and they see it taken over by a shadow minister.
The saddest bit was this final quote:
I was alerted to this emasculation of QT years ago when discussing a particular issue with a Labor backbencher.
“Ask a question,” I suggested.
“They won’t let me,” was his response.
“Excuse me?”
“The tactics committee meet every morning on sitting days to decide what questions will be asked and who will ask them.”
“You are joking!”
He looked at me as if I were the one who was mad.
Perhaps the sickness in both the major parties would be helped if they followed something like the Whitlam practice. It is certainly not helped by the new Clayton’s question time of 45-second questions and four-minute answers.

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