Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP supports motion to improve integrity of question time

7 September 2023

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the member for Melbourne for bringing on this suspension of standing orders so that we can address this question. It has been a problem for some time I think, what is the value to taxpayers of question time? Is what this question really goes to. The origin of question time was established to ensure that there was an opportunity to ask questions of the government of the day. For, ultimately, the benefit of the Australian people. There was a time where, in fact, government also used question time to actually make announcements, policy announcements that really would benefit again the Australian people.

Unfortunately, we have moved to question time now being this sort of parody process. It's a farce ultimately. Where we don't really have a response to questions. There might be a peripheral address to the topic or to a word. And section 104 of the standing orders sets out that an answer must be directly relevant to the question. Unfortunately, that has been interpreted as direct relevance - 'Direct relevance' has been interpreted that as long as a Minister's answer responds in a peripheral way to any word that might have been used in the question or in any preamble that that can still constitute a directly relevant answer. I'd have to say that is not what the Australian people expect. I think it is not the kind of standard and answer that the Australian people would like to hear. I appreciate that sometimes the questions are hard to answer and there shouldn't be a problem with a Minister actually identifying, 'I will take that question on notice and I will come back with an answer on that.' It's not just this idea of gotcha moments of question time. If it's not possible to answer the question genuinely and honestly, and directly, then there is the opportunity to take it on notice and come back at a later date. Instead, what we get is three minutes of diversion and talking about everything and anything but the actual question.

So, I think this amendment makes a great start in trying to acquire and amend the standing orders that we actually have a direct answer to the substantive question, not just a broad relevance. So I welcome this opportunity. I hope the government will and take this on and consider this because whilst in opposition they found that incredibly frustrating, the lack of direct answers by Ministers, and so now, in government, there is that opportunity to set a new standard, to improve the quality of the debate in this place, to give taxpayers value for question time, to give the children in the gallery that come and watch question time and the people that come in the public gallery to have that opportunity to see real accountability, real debate occur. I must say coming from the legal profession as a barrister, where debating and asking questions is incredibly important in court proceedings, I have found it quite disconcerting, the process of question time. And in particular the fact that the questions are often just, the answers are often so far from the mark but also the repetitive nature of the gotcha questions that often come from the opposition. It's really looking at question time as a performative opportunity to do the adversarial, to perform for the cameras as opposed to genuinely giving something of value to the Australian people. I would urge all the members in this place, but in particular the government and the Leader of the House, who's here to hear this debate, to think carefully about where can we take question time? How can we improve and progress this system? And actually give some benefit and value to the Australian people.