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Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Page: 1496

Senator JOYCE (Leader of the Nationals in the Senate) (4:27 PM) —I think it is very important that, in turning question time into something more than a cathartic experience of the irrelevant, we make sure that we actually get something close to an answer to the question asked. In the modified rules in conjunction with standing orders 72 and 73, sessional order 22(c) notes that an answer must be ‘directly relevant’—that is, the answer must be candid, it must be frank, it must be unreservedly straightforward, it must not be posed or rehearsed, and it must have bearing on and be connected to the matter at hand. It must accomplish the goal of answering the question. There must be an empirical process between the intersubjectivity of the question and the answer. Why do we have question time? It is no more than trying to find out or discover the truth or belief, or at least get a greater understanding of the justification of a process that goes on in the parliament. It has got to be more about knowing that, rather than knowing how, and it is certainly not knowledge by acquaintance, which seems to be the process that it has devolved into.

What we are seeing more and more is that question time has turned into a form of a priori dirge delivered from the couches of one side against the other. That does not resolve the question as intended by the Australian public, which is the reason we are here. It is not a theatrical experience for us; it is actually about trying to get information back out to the public so that they can have an understanding of how their nation is being governed. Sir Richard Baker, right at the start, stated that you do not have to answer the question, you are not compelled to answer the question, but you cannot give a nonanswer. If you are going to give a nonanswer you have to sit down. That should not be seen as a great insult; it should just be seen as part of the process. We are seeing that in the other place. People are being sat down and I do not see the world coming to an end. But that is something that we must look at.

If we are going to say the words ‘directly relevant’ then either we move away from our comprehension of the English language or we start following exactly what they mean. When we ask a direct question such as ‘what is three plus three’, the answer is six. It is not an expose of the benefits of primary school mathematics and the deficiencies of previous governments and previous ministers.

The motion to change the standing orders was passed and it was passed for a purpose. Everything happens for a purpose. With humble respect, if we could now have a removal of the dissertations on inane ideas and move towards answers, it would be appreciated by the people who find themselves in the unfortunate circumstance of having nothing else to listen to but question time. Apparently, 60,000-plus people actually do that. If we can make question time work then it becomes a great mechanism. More and more, the answers are being found in alternative venues. It seems a shame that you get a more honest answer on A Current Affair, The 7.30 Report or Lateline than we get in the chamber. Surely, if there is a place where we should get an honest answer, it is here.

Senator Ludwig said that the President must judge whether an answer is relevant. What I am trying to remember is whether the President has ever judged an answer not to be relevant. I cannot think of a time in this chamber when any answer has ever been ruled as irrelevant. What is the point of question time if there are no relevant answers? I note that standing order 73(1)(h) says that you cannot ask for the expression of an opinion. So if you cannot ask for the expression of an opinion why is that so often the answer that you get? If the standing order states that you should not be asking for an expression of opinion, there must somewhere have been the belief that what you were going to get in return for asking a question was not the expression of an opinion.

I think that there is a general belief by the Australian public that we can do better than we are doing at the moment. I genuinely believe that there is a sense of goodwill in trying to bring this about. I would be so bold as to think that there is a possible sense of fear on the part of the President of the ramifications if we actually do follow the standing orders, as noted in temporary order 22(c). We have heard what Senator Bob Brown has had to say and we have heard the views of the Liberal and National parties. I presume Senator Xenophon is of the same mind. I am sure there are good people on the Labor Party side who also want to make sure that we have the possibility of changing the culture here. If we do not change the culture to turn question time into a forum where there is a real discovery of facts and a delivery of outcomes so that there is a purpose to it, then the chamber will end up being a place where you go to answer your emails and a place where you go for some quiet time before you go back to work.

There are many venues for people to offer opinions. You can offer an opinion at the doors. You can offer opinions in so many debates. As Senator Brandis has clearly pointed out, the purpose of question time is to obtain answers. I hope that, without being too convoluted, we make sure that the standing orders that have been put in place to make answers directly relevant are adhered to. That means that when we ask a question we actually get an answer.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I call Senator Fifield.

Senator Conroy —You can keep talking. You can talk on it all you want.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Conroy, I know that you have just entered the chamber, but this debate has been held in a very orderly fashion and I wish it to continue that way. I call Senator Fifield.