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Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Page: 1495

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (4:20 PM) —I think this is a serious debate and I think that we have to break from the 14 years that I have been in the Senate in which the government has taken advantage of (a) having a President in the chair and (b) flouting the standing orders. The opposition has also taken the opportunity to flout the standing orders to get into debate and sees question time as an opportunity for scoring points rather than for gaining information.

This was all on display yesterday. Yes, ministers routinely fail to answer questions. But I draw your attention to the first supplementary question from the opposition in the Senate yesterday, as against the rules for questions in standing order 73—which I drew to the President’s attention and which he referred to in his statement today—which rule out questions containing arguments, inferences, imputations, epithets, ironical expressions or hypothetical matter. Here is that question from Senator Fifield, leading for the opposition, yesterday:

I am surprised that the Leader of the Government in the Senate could take such a casual interest in the agenda of the parliament and his government, but I do thank him for again confirming that the opposition to VSU is the most pressing issue facing this parliament and nation. Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Given the fact that the Senate ran out of government business yesterday, is this not further evidence that the government has no agenda, no plans and no direction and has lost its way?

That is an entirely vacuous question which is really a political point-scoring submission to the Senate dressed up as a question.

What I submit from the crossbench and from the Greens is that, if the government and opposition want a genuine question time in here, the opportunity is coming. It is and always has been the position of the Greens that question time should be for eliciting information in the public interest. We, during the last period of government, entertained with honourable members of the opposition the prospect of notice being given for questions, as in the New Zealand parliament, so that ministers were forewarned, were able to seek information and were able to come in here and deliver information to the chamber. For some reason that has not manifested itself. Maybe the government, the Labor Party, did not want that particular arrangement, but it would seem good sense to me. If you want information out of government ministers, who are just human beings who do not carry all that information in their heads, then you give some warning on the day that the question is going to be asked and you expect to get the best information available. It means the minister has got time not just to speak to his or her office staff but to go to the bureaucracy and elicit the information that is required. That is pure common sense, but we have had no agreement on that. On the other hand, when the opposition ask questions, they should be short, succinct, to the point—

Senator Fifield —Like yours?

Senator BOB BROWN —Yes, exactly. If you look at them you will see a better plan of action than yours, Senator Fifield—and I listened with respect to your colleague’s submission and I expect that you will do the same. The opportunity exists here for the Greens and the opposition, together with the government, to get better outcomes, if that is what you really want. I put it to the opposition now to approach me and the Greens, our fellow crossbenchers and, indeed, the government—because these things ought to be done by the whole of the chamber—to see how we can better change not just the standing orders but the way in which question time is used by all members of the Senate. I put that genuinely to both the opposition and the government.

What I have watched for 14 years here is simply a point-scoring exercise, a political exercise, rather than an information-getting exercise. I have heard these debates before, but I am saying we now have an opportunity to move this forward. I congratulate members of the opposition for changing the standing orders. We now have a question with two supplementaries, with time limits, and the House has adopted that. It has seen a better outcome. It is better than the free-for-all we used to have. But let us now move on from that to see if we can get better definition, if not agreement, on both the asking of questions and the delivering of information. The New Zealand parliament, for one, does. It is another option to be looked at.

I do think it is reasonable to expect that if ministers are going to be asked to give answers to questions, particularly where either complexity or important information such as of a budgetary nature is involved, then they ought to be given notice. One of the reasons ministers try to duck questions and be non-specific is that they are held to account: if they make a mistake, it will not be seen as a mistake; it will be seen as a misleading of parliament, with attendant motions. So I think we have to have a better spirit of goodwill but look genuinely at how we can improve question time. We can do it; I am making that offer; and I hope this debate does not come to nothing. We need to improve the way in which questions are delivered so they are not point-scoring and we need to improve the answers to questions so they are genuinely informative and serve the public interest.