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Thursday, 13 November 2008
Page: 28

Senator FERGUSON (12:13 PM) —I kept my remarks constrained in the initial stages because I thought we were under some time pressure. Having had half an hour from the government, there are a couple of points I feel I must respond to.

Senator Faulkner —I thought you would agree with most of what we said.

Senator FERGUSON —I agree with many things that you said, Senator Faulkner, as I always do. The one thing we need to realise in this chamber is that proposals can only pass this chamber if there is some consensus or some general agreement. It is not like the other place, where the government of the day can do exactly what it wants. Under the current configuration we have to have some consensus. So while the ideas that were put forward in the original proposal were ones I still hold to, there has to be an agreement by least two of the parties in this place before we can get anything through at all. I think what we have finished up with is something that people are prepared to give a try. It does not mean that it is the end of the road; it means there may be a chance at some future stage to revisit some of the issues that we have raised and, provided we can get to the stage where the parties concerned do not feel that any of them will be disadvantaged in their questioning, then in fact we might be able to go further.

Senator Faulkner, in his remarks, talked about estimates and how that is the process in which the most answers are given to questions that are asked of ministers and departmental officials. Can I say to Senator Faulkner that, if the answers that are given in this chamber were in any way similar to the answers that are given at estimates, we probably would not even be looking at this change.

Senator Faulkner —I don’t consider my answers to be any different to the ones I give at estimates.

Senator FERGUSON —Senator Faulkner, you are not the only minister in this chamber. As I look at some of your colleagues can I say that, if they gave the answers in this chamber that they give in estimates, in fact we would find that the process would probably not need changing.

The other point I want to make is in relation to relevance. I think the best test of how ministers answer in this place in relation to relevance is to consider that, if a journalist were to put a question to the Prime Minister or to a minister in a press conference in the courtyard, and a member of the opposition were to ask a minister exactly the same question in this place, the two answers would be unrecognisable. If an answer given in this place to questions was given to a journalist, they would walk off in a minute; they would not stay, because the answers bear no relation to many of the questions that are asked. That is the real test. That is the test that government ministers ought to apply to themselves: ‘If I were being asked this question by a journalist on behalf of the Australian public, in the same way that a senator asks a question on behalf of the Australian public, what sort of answer would I give the journalist compared with the answer I give all my colleagues in this chamber—who I think have a first right to get the information they are seeking?’ It would simply not be the same. I think even government ministers would agree that, to some of the direct questions that are asked in this parliament, an answer is never given. The questions are deliberately avoided and they can get away with it in this place while the Presiding Officer can say, ‘There is no point of order; the minister is relevant’, when in fact nobody in the outside world thinks the answer is relevant and half of this chamber does not think it is relevant—and probably the other half know it is not relevant but know that the minister can get away with it. So in real terms we need to use this process much more effectively than we have in the past. I agree, Senator Faulkner, that it is only an incremental change—you know how disappointed I was that we could not go further—but I think that if we make some start it might be a way to a change for the better in the future.

Can I just question your statement in relation to the timing. It is a fact that questioners rarely ever take the minute to ask their questions in this place. That is why we get 12 questions in the hour—because in total we rarely ever spend more than five minutes on questions; sometimes only two or three if the answer is short, although these days that seems to be getting rarer, as most answers seem to take the full four minutes. But I anticipate under this process that questions will be shorter. Most questions only take 15 or 20 seconds. The answers will probably still take four minutes. In fact, we will probably get through more questions in a day—maybe one or two more—than we currently do, because, as I said, it is a rare occasion for any questioner to take a minute to ask their question.

So, while I take note of what the government ministers have said in relation to these proposals, they are proposals that were thrashed out over a long period of time. They are not as comprehensive as I would have preferred, but they are proposals that at least a majority in this chamber are prepared to give a try. All I can say in pleading with the chamber is: give the process a chance, see if it makes any difference—if it does not make any difference, you can revert to what we currently have in place. But I hope that, in making these small changes, it will in fact lead to further changes in the future, once senators and ministers in this chamber get used to it. I commend the report to the chamber.

Question agreed to.