Federal Politics


A few informal rules of engagement will spruce up QT

So, November's here in all its moustache-ridden, ''still actually quite cold at times'' glory.

Despite these shortcomings, it's nice to know that we've reached that point in the year's slippery dip where all we have to do is climb a few more steps until we can slide all the way down to Christmas (there, I've said it. CHRISTMAS).

Goodness knows we could all do with a break. There has been concern among Coalition ranks this week that the super-fit ''One Trick Tony'' is running out of puff. The polls are tightening up and he's starting to recycle the businesses he visits to complain about the carbon tax (he went to the same truss factory this week that he visited last September).

Kevin Rudd is also supposedly on his last legs. After another conscientious year of running prime ministerial interference, Julia Gillard and Labor are doing a modest approximation of hanging in there. Even Rudd's biographer has written a public letter, advising Rudd to give up the ghost.

As for Gillard … wouldn't you need a holiday after the year she's had?

But for all this, I reckon it is question time that really has its droop on.


They call 'em ''questions without notice'' and yet, in practice, they are questions we have noticed many, many times before.

As Abbott asked Gillard on Monday: ''Can [you] confirm that the whole point of the carbon tax is to put up electricity prices?'' Or as Gillard was dixered on Thursday: ''Prime Minister, how is the government getting on with the job of setting out a clear plan for Australia's future?''

There are four more question times scheduled for 2012. While it is possible QT will stage a late recovery, there is still next year to think of. So, I'm voting for an emergency intervention, based on a 10-point plan such as this:

1. Ban overused catchphrases. If some words in the house are banned because they are offensive (ie. ''liar''), then other words should be struck out because they are plain repetitive. This would include: ''reckless/relentless negativity,'' ''bad tax based on a lie,'' ''everybody on this side of the house,'' ''how can we believe anything you say'' and ''claw-back'' (yes, Jenny Macklin, we are looking at you).

2. Give Anna a rest. Get a buzzer. If someone breaks the rules - and say, accuses Abbott of more relentless negativity - Burke should have access to a loud buzzer to drown them out, similar to that used on Family Feud for wrong answers. This would be very hard to argue against.

3. Ban dixers*. Under the new regime, dixers could not be used to rehash government press releases and lecture the house about what Labor did during the global financial crisis. This will effectively prevent Gillard, Swan and David Bradbury from answering dixers ever again. *However, if - like Greg Combet or Craig Emerson - people use their dixer to a) prosecute something approaching an argument; or b) try to entertain, then it will be permitted. Burke can still buzz people off if their answers become non-compliant.

4. Give backbenchers a crack. Question time is about holding ministers to account, but the government is more than its frontbench. MPs great and small should be able answer questions, not just ask them. This will broaden the appeal of the Q&A sesh and mean that backbenchers can't just sit there checking their BlackBerrys and heckling the other side. Or their own.

5. Speaking of heckling, let's mic the joint. Much of what makes question time great are the heckles. Yet, a lot of the quips can't be heard in the galleries or on TV. They either get lost in the rabble or are meant as cheeky asides to one's neighbours. Despite their complaints about abuse, it is impossible to hear what Gillard and Abbott are saying to each other over the table. Increasing and improving upon the microphones is a question of accountability. Stand by your heckle.

6. More cameras in the chamber. They do it for live sport, so why not for live politics? We need to see MPs with action cams on their noggins and desks. It would be the closest thing to being there.

7. (Cold) snacks in the public and press galleries. Because it's very hard to concentrate and fully enjoy something if you are peckish.

8. Limit the number of points of order. A bit like in basketball, you can only call ''time out'' so many times. A fast game's a good one. It might also force people to be more strategic with their strategy.

9. An editor for Bob Katter. Someone needs to edit his questions so that they make the 30-second time limit. And so they make sense.

10. More Harry. Harry Jenkins should be brought back as speaker, once a week. Guest stars always improve the ratings. That and something tells me he'd be a dab hand with that buzzer.

Judith Ireland is a Canberra Times journalist.