The importance of the speaker in Australian Parliament is wildly overstated, because the stakes of parliamentary Question Time are wildly overstated.
It is a sign of how far the Abbott Government has lost control of the agenda that the appointment of what is normally a minor administrative position became the centre of Canberra politics.
By now the entitlement saga has spiralled out of control, enveloping every side of politics.
But recall that Labor was delighted when the Bishop helicopter photos emerged. It seemed like a perfect encapsulation of the charge they’d levied at Bishop ever since her appointment. Bishop was hopelessly partisan. Indulgent. Shameless. Here was Bishop’s performance as speaker converted into metaphor and given corporeal form.
That delight was really because Labor’s constant complaints about her speakership weren’t exactly resonating with the public. There’s nothing more inside beltway than complaining about how many people Bishop threw out of the chamber during Question Time.
Of course, you can understand why parliamentarians think the conduct of Question Time is important.
It’s a big part of their parliamentary week. For many of them, Question Time is a theatre where they can try to rise above the undifferentiated mass of other representatives. The person who held the record for being thrown out under Bronwyn Bishop was Nick Champion. Champion is the member for Wakefield and shadow parliamentary secretary for health, hardly a high-profile day job.
Labor types have been tweeting all weekend about the need for a new speaker to uphold standards and restore respect to Parliament. But never mind whether the speaker is biased. What are all these parliamentarians doing yelling and heckling from the back seats, and then blaming the speaker for Parliament’s low reputation? It’s like criminals blaming the police for failing to prevent their crimes.
Back in 2011, Katharine Murphy described the Gillard-era Question Time as the worst “grinding and time-wasting ritual” in federal politics. Murphy wrote that we should “make it matter once again”.
If anything this is too optimistic. Commentators often lament the lack of presence in the current Parliament. They are nostalgic for the great performers of previous generations. We used to have politicians who looked like they owned the room, and by extension, commanded the country. Question Time favours the fast-witted, the biting, and the aggressive. Peter Costello is acknowledged as a great Question Time performer. Paul Keating is known as the master.
But to what end? YouTube helpfully has Keating’s most famous performance: the “I want to do you slowly” response to John Hewson’s question about an early election. It’s great fun, sure. On the other hand, strip it back and Keating was just hurling a barrage of insults. Nothing wrong with that, but we shouldn’t pretend that it was a great democratic contribution.
Even at its most legendary – even in its most memorable, brightest moment – Question Time was just entertainment. Entertainment for an infinitesimally small portion of the population.
More commonly, Question Time is just the forgettable recitations of the lines of the day – short term Capital Circle obsessions intoned as if they were matters of great Shakespearian substance.
It’s true that there was a previous era in which Question Time was not the farce it is today. As this guide to parliamentary practice notes, Question Time evolved out of the ad hoc custom of asking ministers questions without notice. The earliest Commonwealth parliaments would only feature a few such impromptu questions. Questions would be asked when there were questions to be asked.
Have a look at this “question time” from July 1915. The questions were simple and unadorned. The answers were direct (“I shall make inquiries into the matter” was the sum total of one response by the Assistant Minister of Defence.) There’s little of the modern preening and bluster.
The standing orders that govern questions without notice have changed many times in the last century. Many proposals to reform Question Time focus on these standing orders. But the problem isn’t with the rules. Nor is it with the speaker. No doubt Tony Smith will be a great improvement on his predecessor. But Bronwyn Bishop didn’t wreck Question Time.
Question Time is farcical because it is an empty ritual. It adds nothing. It distracts the press gallery. It distracts our politicians. It undermines the more serious work that goes on in Parliament. It is divorced from the actual business of government, the actual business of legislation, and the practical needs of democratic accountability.
Let’s be honest, Question Time makes everyone involved look stupid.
Bronwyn Bishop’s accidental contribution has been to illustrate just how ridiculous this feature of Australian politics truly is.