Our Mandarin intern attended parliamentary question time from the press gallery yesterday as a first-time observer. Here’s his take on how it all went.
Watching question time from the press gallery for the first time is a bit like going to a music festival.
It’s great to see the big acts play the hits — Bob Katter talking after his mic has been cut; Tanya Plibersek’s withering scoff; the increasingly desperate cries of “Order!” from new speaker, Milton Dick, who is already sounding exhausted on his second day.
But I’m here to see the Albanese Labor government’s greatly anticipated new material — ‘adult’ government’. Over the last term of the Liberal government, there were repeated calls for changes to the standing orders that would prevent MPs from using their phones in the chamber, and asking ‘Dorothy dixers’.
While my minder in the press gallery assured me this was a ‘tame’ question time, It looked like half of the house had missed the rehearsal.
Manager of opposition business Paul Fletcher made it clear he was unimpressed with the Albanese government’s changes to the standing orders in the moments leading up to the beginning of question time.
“Labor’s new and unprecedented gag orders are designed to end parliamentary debate in order to dodge scrutiny and accountability, with ministers given unfettered and unprecedented power to enact a gag by labelling legislation urgent without even the need for justification. The government is clearly aware of how dangerous this is; it only released these late last night. The crossbench complained they only saw the changes this morning,” he said.
As someone not privy to the semantics of house standing orders, I honestly could not tell you how this differs from the last parliament. It’s hard to imagine there being less debate in the house of representatives than there was in the previous parliament.
Labor backbenchers let the dixers fly with the fluency of an incumbent government. Like their predecessors, cabinet ministers blamed the former government for any problems. The opposition spent the majority of its time trying to assert a tentative-seeming link between prime minister Albanese and a grab-bag of unions and criminals.
The big shock was how few backbenchers seemed to be paying attention. Alex Hawke casually meandered around the backbench, talking over his colleagues’ shoulders. Backbenchers on both sides shared private jokes and memes on their tablets, evidently unaware the gallery offers a superb vantage point for reading lips and other people’s screens. I have trouble understanding how someone with their degree of responsibility could be so casual about their responsibilities; I couldn’t look away.
The crossbench was noticeably more disciplined, with their chatter more limited to whispers and all appearing to closely follow proceedings.
New speaker Milton Dick appeared to hit his stride towards the end of the session, slipping into elongated calls for order that both demonstrated his potential and evoked a hint of former UK parliamentary speaker, John Bercow’s iconic intonation.
The view from the gallery also offers a unique view of the tops of politicians’ heads, creating a gradient around the chamber from the grey and pink balding pates of the Coalition through to the blacks and browns of the visibly younger crossbench and Labor party.
Although thrilling to watch, I did wonder what most of the questions added to public debate. There was little information covered that isn’t already in the public sphere. But inertia is a powerful force. There were attempts made at civility but a tendency to revert to type.
“I thank very much the leader of the opposition for the question, and I congratulate him on his election as leader of the Liberal Party. I wish him well as leader of the opposition and I hope he stays there for a very, very long time,” said the prime minister.