Not long after the new Senate was sworn in back in August, there was a brief flurry of coverage about the possibility of some significant reforms being made to Question Time, with a few people finally having the honesty to acknowledge it was basically a waste of time as an accountability or information gathering mechanism. Instead, it served mainly as platform to provide entertainment for press gallery journalists. In the Senate, where Question Time is routinely ignored even by the press gallery, it doesn’t even serve that purpose.

The Senate’s Procedure Committee has since been examining some possible changes, and yesterday it brought down a report recommending a two week trial of a few modest reforms.  It is a fair way short of the New Zealand style approach which had been floated previously, but at least it’s a genuine effort to make Question Time “a more effective mechanism for seeking the accountability of the executive government to the Parliament.”

The proposed change, which would apply for the final two weeks of sitting for the eat, starting 24 November, is as follows:

  • no notice to be given of questions, as at present
  • primary questions to be limited to one minute and the answers to them to two minutes  (currently four minutes)
  • two supplementary questions to be allowed to the questioner (instead of the current one)
  • supplementary questions and the answers to them to be limited to one minute each
  • answers to be required to be directly relevant to each question.

In effect, it requires a shorter initial answer and allows one extra supplementary question.

I am not sure how much difference that will make.  The big challenge will be the interpretation of when an answer is or isn’t “directly relevant to the question”.  The main failure of Question Time is the refusal of Ministers to actually answer the question (which is why it’s called Question Time, not Answer Time).  Requiring the answer to be “directly relevant” is presumably intended to address this, but it will be hard work for the Senate President (Qld Labor’s John Hogg) to force Ministers to give real answers when they don’t want to.

Ironically, reducing their answer time to 2 minutes will make it easier for Ministers to dodge the question – literally twice as easy, as they will only have to waffle or go on tangents for half as long.

Still, it’s good they’re having a go at reform. If it’s approached in the right spirit and a genuine effort made by all to make it work, it might even make Senate Question Time into something of value (although that doesn’t make it any more likely that the press gallery will pay any more attention to it than they do now – there’s far too much theatre in the House of Reps to drag them away purely because there’s some information to be found).

The Senate will decide today on whether to adopt this brief trial, although given it’s a unanimous recommendation from the Procedure Committee, it is fairly likely they will.

UPDATE: The proposal was adopted by the Senate without dissent. It will operate for the final two sitting weeks of the year, starting November 24th.

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