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Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Page: 212

Mr PYNE (SturtManager of Opposition Business) (10:06): I will not delay the House at great length as there is agreement between the government and the opposition on this matter. I note that the Leader of the House seemed to spend a great deal of time talking about a lot of subjects that are not matters before the House today. I will not do that. What is before the House is the changes to standing orders with respect to the changing of the name of the Main Committee to the Federation Chamber, which the opposition supports. I have always believed that Main Committee was a poor name for the second chamber. In fact, when I was the chairman of the Procedure Committee I recommended that the name be changed from Main Committee to Second Chamber. But we are comfortable with Federation Chamber, because obviously Main Committee is a confusing name for everyone concerned. Also, I think it detracts from the importance of that chamber and the role it plays. So we support that change.

Another one of the changes we are making to the standing orders today—which will apply from today, I understand—is a change in the time limits for questions and answers. I believe that question time can sometimes become tedious and bogged down, particularly with respect to the answers given by the government to the dorothy dixers they ask themselves. I think reducing the time limit from four minutes to three minutes will mean that the clock ticks over faster. It is more efficient for question time. I think we will get more information as a consequence of this change to the time limits. In fact, three minutes was the time limit we suggested in the negotiations for a better parliament with the crossbenchers and the government. It now seems like only yesterday but it was in fact 15 months ago.

Mr Albanese: And we're still here!

Mr PYNE: Yes, you are still there. We will see how long Julia is still there too in a few weeks time.

The SPEAKER: I think that is unnecessary, I will point that out to the Manager of Opposition Business.

Mr PYNE: I am being interjected upon, Mr Speaker.

The SPEAKER: We should focus on the motion before the chair.

Mr PYNE: Hear, hear! And I was doing so in a perfectly reasonable way until I was rudely interrupted by the Leader of the House—again, dare I say it.

So the opposition obviously do support a three-minute time limit for the answers in question time. Obviously there has to be a bit of give and take in a hung parliament. The government would not have agreed to reducing the time limit if the opposition were not prepared to agree to a reduction in our questions. I would point out that the vast majority of questions we have asked in this parliament have been 30 seconds or less. We very rarely ask a question that goes for longer than 30 seconds. I think a short, pithy, factual question is the better question. I have supported that view since I was elected in 1993. Therefore, the opposition have no difficulties at all with having a shorter time limit for questions.

I would say, on a slightly discordant note, that if there is one rule for the opposition there should be one rule for everyone in the chamber. I understand that the member for Kennedy has made a name for himself by asking longer questions. I think there should be tolerance where tolerance is justified, but I do not think that means a green light for everybody who is not in the opposition to ask a question that goes for longer than 30 seconds. For example, while we will not object to the member for Kennedy perhaps asking a longer question, we do expect that the Speaker, who upholds the standing orders, will intervene if the other members of the crossbenches think that is a green light for them to ask longer questions. We certainly will take objection to that.

Regarding other matters that are not before the chamber today and that you already flagged in a statement to the House last night—which you added to this morning—the opposition does welcome more supplementary questions being asked by all sides of the parliament. I believe very much in the need for spontaneity in question time. I think one of the criticisms of question time has been the slightly structured system that we have developed over the last 110 years. Dorothy dixers are a very good example of the paucity of real ideas on the government side and of real questioning of ministers. We believe spontaneity would be a welcome introduction to question time, for the government particularly.

I will also say that when you are considering other changes to the standing orders down the track, Mr Speaker, I also would welcome interventions in this chamber, which are allowed in the Main Committee. Thus, a member would be able—with the permission of the Speaker—to interrupt a person who is delivering a presentation in this place, except in the case of ministers' second reading speeches. I think that would also lead to more spontaneity in this place. I am sure those are matters you will also consider over the course of the next period in which you are Speaker in the House.

The opposition support these changes to the standing orders. We understand that this is a trial for the supplementaries over this session. We will see how that works, but I can only imagine that these changes will improve question time. The only other thing I would add is that the time for ending question time has apparently been changed from 3.30 pm to 3.10 pm; I think I am right in saying that. That takes into account the shorter time for answers to questions and the shorter time for questions. If that proves to truncate the opposition's or even the government's ability to ask 20 questions in the total period of question time, the Leader of the House and I, who have discussed this matter, will revisit it. But I see no reason that would be the case, as long as there are not constant interruptions.

The other point I would make is that what we saw yesterday, with the indulgences granted at the beginning of question time—for good reasons, those being the death of Sir Zelman Cowen, the Queen's diamond jubilee and the death of Peter Veness—are not usual occurrences. But, given that question time has been reduced so that it finishes at 3.10 pm, the opposition would take objection if they were to become usual occurrences. Obviously on the first day back after an eight- or nine-week break there are matters that need to be dealt with. That is the process of this parliament. But we do not want to see a habit develop whereby the government uses the generosity that is sometimes too easily given to it to avoid scrutiny in question time. We will obviously be taking up objection with you, as the Speaker, if that does become a pattern—if the government decides to use that as a tool in order to deny the opposition its share of questions.