Question Time should be abolished. Its corrosive effect on our democracy was exposed yet again last week – the last sitting week before the long winter break.
Question Time was supposed to increase trust in the institution of Parliament by keeping the executive government accountable. But it has now been reduced to a scripted pantomime.
Oppositions pose questions like a prosecutor at a trial. They are not to elicit information from the person being questioned. They are not posed for the voters or jurors to listen to the answer. Rather they are structured as a narrative as if the questions themselves are the facts for the voters or jurors to accept.
“You stole a gun on 23 June, didn’t you? You used it to rob the XYZ bank on 24 June, didn’t you?”
“The Voice will give Indigenous people say over tax policy, won’t it? It will force the government to take into account Indigenous views on military bases, won’t it?”
And so on – only interspersed by meaningless Dorothy Dix questions from the Government side.
That is what happened last week. That is what happens most weeks.
It has two effects: it engenders distrust for and contempt of Parliament and other political institutions and it causes some voters to fall for the concocted narrative created by the questions.
Dorothy Dix, by the way, was the pen name of a highly paid US syndicated advice columnist who was reputed to craft her own questions and then answer them.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, however, got it exactly the wrong way around when asserting through a question that, if the Voice referendum passed, it would be able to influence where military bases were placed.
It disclosed his ignorance of the law and the Constitution. Let’s take the example of a military base proposed for land over which an Indigenous group of people had native title. Let’s say the Voice had passed. There would be a consultative process and agreement reached.
On the other hand, let’s say the Voice had not passed. Indigenous people would be rightly outraged and utterly uncooperative in any process. They would rightly assert their native title to block the base. The High Court held in the Wik case that native title is a property right and that under the Constitution it could not be taken away except on just terms.
With a rejected Voice can you imagine any other result than a bitter legal wrangle with the Indigenous people rightly seeking to extract maximum compensation by tying the case up in the courts?
The reality is exactly opposite from what Dutton suggests. No Voice equals long, bitter litigation and tying down pubic administration. A Voice equals respectful listening and a negotiated outcome. Anyway, does anyone imagine that Dutton as Prime Minister would allow the Voice to “grind the whole system of government to a halt”, as he suggested last week?
Australians have much more to fear if the Voice is rejected than if the Voice is accepted. With no Voice we will continue with the wasted public administration of the past with expensive top-down policies that do not work.
But what if enough people swallow Dutton’s droppings of deceitful dung? Do we conclude that people are too ignorant or stupid to deserve democracy and the vote? That people get the government they deserve?
I think not. Institutions have failed the people not the other way around.
Dutton spoke of the referendum “going down”. That is the language of gladiatorial sporting contests, not the language of serious constitutional debate. It is a game where the Coalition must have a “win” and Labor must have a “loss” – or Labor must “give in” and stop the referendum as if it were a wrestling match.
But it is not Labor’s referendum and it does not come from the Canberra bubble. It is a call from Indigenous people after extensive consultation coming out of Uluru 2500kms away from Canberra.
In this debate the only things to come out of the Canberra bubble have been the Coalition’s rejection of the Uluru statement; the Liberal party room’s endorsement of No and the Opposition’s concocted questions being put in Parliament, engendering further distrust in political institutions.
It was made worse by Parliament’s housing “debate” last week and the cynical siding by the Greens with the Coalition to block the Government’s housing plan so it could get renters’ votes in inner seats in the quest to take seats from Labor.
The Greens, supposedly the party of the environment, did not mention immigration once in the debate. They only spoke of rent caps and billions of government money going into housing.
Labor’s plan was for a $10 billion fund for 20,000 social houses over five year plus $2 billion to the states now. That might build 5,000 houses in the next year. But the same Labor Government approved (without parliamentary debate) 400,000 people coming to Australia this year.
We do not have a housing crisis in Australia; we have an over-population crisis. It seems so stupid that it must be more than just stupid. The policy must be driven by the selfish profiteering of outside interests.
All three major parties behaved like squabbling kids in a sand box last week positioning themselves for their own selfish childish ends while the nation’s problems remained unaddressed.
Outside Parliament it has been made worse by the Reserve Bank placing burdens on those who cannot afford it while enriching those with interest-bearing savings. Meanwhile, the Government does precious little with fiscal policy to send the money the other way.
And that leaves aside corporate Australia’s contempt for consumers and pursuit of inflated oligopolist profit while wages stagnate.
In all, it leads to more inequality and insecurity and a feeling among many that democracy is not working for them.
It is a dangerous place. Reversing that inequality and insecurity has to begin with Parliament and good first steps would be to get rid of the Question Time pantomime and for us to rise above the point-scoring and to do the fair thing for Indigenous Australians.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 27 June 2023.
Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times and regular columnist.