Could Question Time Be More Than Just a Bunfight?

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Question time could be an important part of democracy, writes Christopher Pyne. But it isn't right now.

Everyone is a critic these days. Everyone is a journalist, everyone is a commentator. You just need an internet connection. There are pages and pages of internet sites that allow feedback, commentary and discussion about every imaginable topic. And for better or for worse, you can remain virtually anonymous.

If the mainstream media isn't interested you can make a video, post it on YouTube, link it to Twitter, Facebook, MySpace - and who knows, it might go Viral'. A recent speech by Daniel Hannan, a UK Conservative Member of the European Parliament, was forwarded to me via email a couple of months ago, entitled the 'Devalued Prime Minister of a Devalued Government'. It currently has had more than 2.7 million views. Not bad for a back-bench politician.

It seems many Australians are engaging in political commentary, contributing to the debate online, but it does beg the question: Why does parliamentary question time lag behind?

Current figures show that the household viewing audience for the 2 p.m. screening of question time is currently just 0.3 per cent of the population.

Admittedly question time does have some tough competition. Ready Steady Cook and Days of Our Lives, both in the same time slot offer something that question time can never compete with. Pvecipes and story lines where heiresses are regularly kidnapped and buried alive are more compelling.

So has question time become irrelevant? In the Australian federal parliamentary system, question time remains the only opportunity in the House of Pvepresentatives for members to directly ask questions of the Prime Minister and government frontbench where the government is compelled to answer. The problem is relevance of a particular answer is widely defined.

If I were to ask a question to the Deputy Prime Minister about a specific school being forced to accept a new school hall, when it already has a perfectly serviceable school hall, Ms Gillard would speak widely on the government education programs, this being considered of relevance to the question asked. This makes for a tedious and frustrating question time.

So why would viewers tune in? To see government held to account for its policies? To witness democracy in action?

The government has the numbers in the House of Representatives to defeat any motion. The standing orders favour ministers who are able to make long speeches without rebuttal.

In 2008 the figures indicate that the government spent only 3 1 per cent of question time answering questions from the opposition and independent members. In fact the average time the government takes to answer opposition questions is two minutes and thirty-eight seconds. The average time the government takes to answer their own questions is five minutes and ten seconds.

The reality is that in today's 24-hour media cycle, a withering remark or put down is most likely to make the evening news, but insults are never relevant to questions asked and are always outside the standing orders.

Most sitting days deliver a stream of feedback by email or phone messages from the people who watch parliament. More than any other criticism about question time, people consistently say the government has settled into a holding pattern where they ignore opposition questions, and use Government questions to deliver long dull set-piece speeches sometimes with a smattering of pre-planned gags, prerehearsed flourishes and silly props.

The former government unquestionably also used government questions (nicknamed 'dorothy dixers after an American agony aunt who allegedly made up the questions she answered in print) to push a policy into the spotlight or question an opposition position on an issue (as did the government before that) but this government has taken question time proceedings to a new low. …