Prominent British political blogger Iain Dale is visiting our country at the moment, and he’s had a piece published on the BBC’s website about our national Parliament’s Question Time.
Dale notes that Question Time here is a much rowdier affair than Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons. He thinks that this runs the risk of bringing the Parliament into disrepute. He implies that the Speaker Harry Jenkins is a little bit out of his depth, and that parliamentarians show little respect for his rulings. He questions the Opposition’s Question Time tactics, and claims they’re inconsistent with the Parliament’s function of holding the Government to account.
Mostly, his criticisms come down to issues of tone. There may be something in what he says, but my overriding impression is that he’s seen some differences between our parliament and his own and has turned them into the basis of a normative distinction.
He’s offered very little context in his piece. This is a very unusual set of circumstances in Australian political history. Neither major party has a majority, and each vote (including censure motions) is incredibly tight. We saw our Speaker come close to resigning the other day because two independents were absent and another behaved cluelessly. Naturally, under these circumstances parliamentary tactics have assumed greater importance. We’re in a phase where it’s not inconceivable that deft parliamentary tactics could change the government.
Further, on a range of key issues, this Parliament is characterised by sharp ideological antipathies. Debates about the NBN and carbon-pricing are also debates about the future of the country for decades to come. The Government and the Opposition are diametrically opposed on these issues, and there is visceral feeling on both issues on both sides.
Larger historical factors also play a part in making our parliament more robust. Parliamentary discipline among the major parties is far tighter than in the UK, which leads to more sharply adversarial debates. Depending on your point of view, the ALP’s binding Caucus is the secret of its success or a blight on representative democracy, but gradually the Liberals have adapted by putting a much tighter rein on their MPs, too.
There’s more to say on why Australia is different, but for now I’ll just say that it’s a bit rich seeing hand-wringing from an Englishman about the possibility that Australia’s parliament might bring itself into disrepute. After the mind-blowing expenses scandal involving MPs from all parties in the British Parliament, I don’t think it’s possible that the British parliament could be held in higher esteem by its voters than ours is.
Politics and democracy involve conflict. Parliamentary politics is about managing that conflict, and if there are heated words, that’s because big things are often at stake. If the clubbiness of PM’s questions conceals that, so much the worse for Westminster. It could be that Australian democracy is more robust because it’s more democratic. For example, we elect an upper house rather than populating it with clerics, aristocrats and superannuated politicians.
The biggest problem with Dale’s analysis, though, is in misreading the function of forums like Question Time in modern parliamentary politics. Contemporary mediated democracies may have enlightenment trappings, but in the Twenty-first century Question Time is essentially a media event. Especially if you’re, say, helping to turn it into a collective viewing experience on the #qt stream, there’s not much point complaining about that.
Dale seems concerned that it’s not a rational process directed at accountability. I don’t really see PM’s questions as promoting that either. Both are rituals, as much about political affect as rational scrutiny. Our ritual is different, and most of that comes down to intensity.
He probably doesn’t like the way we play cricket either.