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EXCLUSIVE: Tim Fischer – how to fix question time

1 September 2019

5:00 AM

1 September 2019

5:00 AM

Tim Fischer, a Spectator Australia columnist and contributor, submitted this piece shortly before his death.

It was the best parting line in decades, one that had both sides of the House of Representatives in stitches, outgoing Christopher Pyne lamenting that on one occasion he actually had to get his own slice of lemon for his G and T. But in terms of question time in the lower house after some attempt at opening it up, Christopher Pyne leaves to new Leader of Government Business, Christian Porter work to be done – and maybe a bottle of gin.

The truth is both houses are in desperate need of question time revamps if the 46th Parliament is going to build a better reputation than the unlamented 45th. This can be done on a win-win basis for the government of the day, for an opposition that applies itself, more importantly for the regard and interest of the nation in the deliberations of the parliament.

Currently, in both houses all questions without notice have to go through the government ‘centrum’ via the government whips, but most were initiated in the office of Christopher Pyne and handed out to backbenchers. Now the office of Christian Porter in liaison with senior staff and senior ministers will take over, with further liaison across to the Coalition Senate leadership.

Likewise, opposition questions go through their whips to the opposition centrum, the exception being the questions from the independents that are usually truly without notice and sometimes very rambly, such as Bob Katter on the good cause of Hell’s Gate Dam.

The solution harks back to previous more colourful and freewheeling times. think Jim Killen and Mick Young. It involves minor alterations to Standing Orders and a slightly enhanced role for the dedicated Senate President Scott Ryan and equally dedicated reforming Speaker Tony Smith.

Barry Jones recently reminded me that a certain Billy McMahon would ring on a sitting day morning and dictate a question he wanted the Opposition to ask a struggling Coalition Minister. Now, this I do not advocate but if something similar happened today, the backbencher would be flat out getting priority to ask his own question, even if arising from a well-placed hint from the opposite side.

The solution is twofold. In the House of Representatives, Christian Porter should declare that after the first two questions from each side on the usually quieter sitting Wednesday, question time will be ‘open slather’ and backbenchers can jump at will and ask on any subject.

A wise government backbencher might indicate to the minister the topic at least and try to avoid creating a ‘gotcha’ moment but at least a wide set of topics would come forward in a way that Joel Fitzgibbon has correctly argued for since the election, along with some spontaneity.

By the way, this approach would still give the centrums on both sides complete control on the critical first two and final sitting days of each sitting week, to set relevant agenda and so forth. It is certainly worth a trial but given backbenchers have not had to think on their feet in question time for years, some warning of the change would be needed.

In the Senate what can I say, having watched or listened to many Senate questions in recent years? That great Consul and Senator of yesteryear, Cicero, would be horrified at the current supplementary question procedure in the Senate, so taking a leaf from Rome I recommend SPQR: supplementary positive question revamp.

In the Senate, the centrums draft three questions in effect, the original question then the first supplementary from the same senator to the same minister and then the second supplementary from the same Senator to the same minister. Rarely does a new thought or update creep in from the information the minister gave in his first answer.

The solution here is blindingly obvious; provide that the first supplementary goes to a senator from the opposite side to the senator asking the first question. This would be chosen from those jumping by the Senate President and then the second or final supplementary is a tidy up from the original senator asking the question.

Imagine Whacka Williams or his successor, Senator Perrin Davey, asking Finance Minister Mathias Cormann if the Government monitor the actual decisions and performance of the big four banks post the Hayne Royal Commission, then a Doug Cameron or one of his kind asking just how is this being done especially for drought-impacted farmers and then a final tidy up question as the second supplementary from Senator Perrin Davey.

It would great enliven Senate question time and most observers say this is needed and it really is. Further, it would restore some colour, diversity and flexibility into proceedings. Just watch Prime Minister’s Questions from the House of Commons to see how fast-moving this can be although I do not say Australia should adopt that template.

In the changes and solutions put forward here, if adopted post-Christopher Pyne, there would also be an element of competition amongst backbenchers to see who could think fastest and for that matter be most creative on the floor of both Houses, no harm in that surely.

So over to you, Christian Porter. After your great win in Pearce by advancing these reforms you will help ensure the 46th Parliament is a more dynamic place than its immediate predecessor.

Tim Fischer was deputy prime minister from 1996 to 1999, the leader of the National Party from 1990 to 1999, a member of the House of Representatives from 1984 to 2001 and the New South Wales parliament from 1971 to 1984.

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