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.