Monday, 2 December 2019
On behalf of the Standing Committee on Procedure I wish to make a statement concerning the committee's inquiry into the practices and procedures relating to question time. The role of our committee is to inquire into and report on the practices and procedures of the House. In other words it's our role to make recommendations about possible changes, but then it is up to the House whether or not to adopt them. This means that we need to be considered and clear about what we might recommend and why. In August the committee began its inquiry to look at how question time in the House runs and whether it can be improved. A survey was launched, and this survey is a valuable first step in understanding some of the key issues that the public see as important.
While the submissions have given us additional insights, our next step is equally important—that is, to consider the responses to that survey. The public survey received more than 3,400 responses. The survey was a mixture of closed and open ended questions, and the committee was struck by the number of people who took the time to provide detailed comments. The committee also received over 40 submissions. The committee is also grateful to the speakers of the state legislatures, who have taken the time to write to us about their practices relating to question time, and we will look carefully at these in considering what might be appropriate in the federal context. As a result, the committee now has more than 500 pages of survey results to analyse and consider. We've begun to analyse the results, and there are some themes emerging. While there are some clear areas that the public would like us to explore, there was a wide range of responses to many of the questions which the committee will now need to work through to explore the nuances in the results.
The key themes that emerged from the survey are the format of questions and question time, and strengthening the rules on relevance. Some respondents reiterated the role of question time in holding the government of the day to account, whilst others saw that there could be increased opportunities for questions relating to constituency issues. There were also many other suggestions, ranging from permitting supplementary questions to introducing alternative models for allocating questions between members.
We will now take all of this feedback into account in considering the report in greater detail. At this stage, I would like to thank the work of the committee, and I note the deputy chair, the member for Oxley, is also going to make some comments in relation to this. I would also like to thank the secretariat in Natalie Cooke, Kate Roggeveen, Josephine Moa and Penny Branson for work they've done to bring the committee to this point in the inquiry.
I also want to rise briefly to reflect on the work of the Procedure Committee and in particular the work of the inquiry into the practices and procedures relating to question time. I think it's fair to say that normally the Procedure Committee flies under the radar, but when the committee announced this inquiry by the first chair, Mr Vasta, the member for Bonner, and ably led by the current chair, Mr van Manen, the member for Forde, the place lit up. I don't think there is any other issue that probably unites the community more than views on question time, and I think that's why we received more than 3,000 submissions, feedback and bits of information. Whilst question time is an important part of the day, reading through the submissions it's pretty clear that the majority of respondents to our surveys and the feedback on Twitter and Facebook would like the tone of question time raised.
Our job, as the member for Forde said, is to look in detail at all the comments and suggestions that we've received. We also want to look into the areas identified, and I really want to see some concrete recommendations that would improve question time.
Question time was not in practice until about 1950. It was an informal arrangement, and I think in about 1962 it entered into Votes and Proceedings and developed along the way. While it's a feature of our parliament, it's a relatively new element of our parliament and I think there are areas for improvement. I want to thank the member for Forde for his constructive and bipartisan way of handling this issue as well as Mr Vasta. I think this is best tackled when we work together.
I want to note some of the submissions, particularly from our side of the chamber. The Manager of Opposition Business, in his submission, clearly focused on a new element of the Dorothy Dixer that has emerged into question time, which is alternative approaches. This is a common theme of our question time, and I think that's where some of the anger comes from. The Speaker of our parliament can only use the rules in his, or her, toolbox. Mr Speaker, I want to commend you, as our current Speaker, for doing an excellent job—and I've said that before. When you look at the 45th and 46th parliaments, the phrase 'alternative approaches' was used 460 times; in the past sitting fortnight, it was used around 25 times. So there is a pattern there, and I think that is one element that we can probably develop with some concrete outcomes.
I'm not in the camp that is looking to abolish question time. I do not sit in that category. I do believe that question time is an appropriate forum for the government of the day to highlight the work that they are doing for the Australian people. However, equally, and determinedly so, it is the role of whoever sits on this side of the chamber to use question time to hold the government of the day to account. With a full media, live on television and with a packed gallery, we should be able to ask questions of the government of the day. As one local student said, when I was running one of my parliamentary school programs, 'Why isn't it called "answer time"?' I thought that was a really good suggestion. When you ask questions, you expect answers. I've got my own feedback from a number of my schools and I'm looking forward to the committee continuing to engage with and listen to the wider community, particularly young people.
I want to thank committee members—the member for Lalor and Mr Gorman, the member for Perth, on this side of the chamber, for their constructive and bipartisan approach, and also, of course, other members of the committee from the government side. Whilst we are not there yet, I'm confident that we will come up with some concrete changes to make question time more informative, more accurate and, more importantly, involving the Australian people more.