The house standing committee on procedure has published a report on Question Time that suggests the prime minister must address a question before deferring to another minister, extra disciplinary powers for the speaker of the house, a minimum of questions to 21 per session, and new time limits for questions and answers.
Question Time is one of the most theatrical opportunities for political performances in parliament and an important part of ensuring decisions of the executive are open to democratic scrutiny. It can also be one of the more combative public displays of parliamentary rumbling.
A new report, A window into the house, published on Thursday has recommended 11 key procedural changes to keep the colour of Question Time more focused and to ensure answers to questions stay relevant.
“The inquiry looked not just at the rules for questions and answers but also at the culture of Question Time,” committee deputy chair Milton Dick said.
Some of the proposed new rules include preventing the prime minister from referring a question to another minister until they first speak to the matter of the question themselves, and a change to allow the Speaker to sin bin disorderly politicians and instruct misbehaved members to leave the chamber for a period of either one or three hours.
“Throughout the inquiry, the committee has been conscious of the difficult role played by the Speaker, who needs to make decisions based on complex rules in a fast-paced and highly charged environment. For this reason, the committee has recommended an additional option to assist the chair to manage disorderly conduct during Question Time,” committee chair Ross Vasta said in the report.
As a matter of procedure, the report recommended banning questions about alternative approaches, and new time limits for questions (30 seconds) and replies (two minutes). The committee further recommends that no points of order regarding relevance should be allowed in the first 30 seconds of an answer.
The report suggests limiting Question Time to a minimum of 21 daily questions with at least 10 questions from opposition members, five questions from government members, five constituency questions from government members and one question from a non-aligned member.
“In the committee’s view, this package of changes would assist the pursuit of executive accountability, encourage answers to be more relevant and improve the relevance of Question Time to constituents.
“At the same time, changes to what can be included in questions, when points of order can be taken and who answers questions would encourage more relevance and improved flow of questions and answers,” Vasta said.
It was also worth considering, the committee suggested, the option of making ‘statements on indulgence’ or moving motions of condolence after prayers.
The report also recommends a short trial of mobile phone use during question time to decide whether to restrict members’ use of phones on an ongoing basis.
“The committee heard over the course of the inquiry that many members of the public view Question Time in the house negatively, some to the extent that they reported they were disillusioned with the parliament more generally as a result.”
“The committee sees implementing changes […] as an opportunity to build and maintain trust in the institution of parliament, both through enhancing the role Question Time plays in the democratic process and through improving conduct in the house at the most visible time of the day, so that it is a more representative reflection of how business is carried out at other times,” Vasta added.
Whether the changes will be adopted is a matter for the House. Vasta acknowledged that many of the informal practices explored in the report were at the discretion of political parties and individual politicians.
“[These] members have a key role in establishing the norms of the House and therefore have an opportunity to make improvements beyond what can be achieved through changes to standing orders alone,” he said.