It was a constant aggravation when the old girl would say, “Never mind, you’ll be on a break soon and you can have a rest.”
In fact, that’s when they can do constituent work, most of their committee work and find out what’s going on outside the Canberra bubble. If you think MPs don’t listen to their electorates enough then give them more time in their electorates, not less.
Government is about so much more than merely putting extra bills on the legislative iceberg. Nonetheless, whenever there’s a problem we hear the cliche “they should fix this” as if somehow the toolkit for delivering an unproblematic world lies in legislation from Canberra. Passing a new law or throwing money at something is not a certain remedy.
We have laws against murder, domestic violence and child abuse. We have spent a motza on the latter two for decades and we’re not getting there.
Maybe instead of Parliament sitting more, it should sit less. Perhaps putting more time into working out what needs to be done, what would work is much more important than being seen to do something. Less time might mean a sharper focus on debates and a brutal setting of priorities, which is rarely a bad thing.
Parliament has the task of both dealing with legislation and keeping a check on the executive. Question Time does provide one avenue for the government to be called to account although much less so now than in the past. The 24/7 news cycle we live in is very different from decades ago when people rushed out to their front porch to unwrap the newspaper and read “today’s” news.
In the past, if a serious question arose about an administrative mess or a minister’s behaviour, without a question time it might take some time to get media attention, capture the public’s attention and turn it into a real issue.
But these days one doesn’t need a serious question to set social media alight. A rumour will do. With smartphones and the internet a government or minister can be called to public account relatively easily. That’s not an argument against question time, merely a recognition that there are now many other avenues available.
In my opinion Question Time has over the last 20 years declined in relevance. It always was the theatre of Parliament, the crackle and pop rather than the substance but it appears to have become or at least be heading towards a caricature of even that. As it is what most people get to see of Parliament that decline has in no small way contributed to the decline in the standing a parliament. Regrettably, I have to take a portion of the blame for that.
I set myself the task of getting Question Time televised. Why shouldn’t the media be able to show Australia what people visiting Parliament House get to see? The trouble is what we see on the news is the loudest crackle and the biggest pop. How did I ever imagine that televising would improve the standard? Question Time has always involved theatrical flourishes but televising provided a spotlight.
Why don’t we show more interest in all the good work so many decent hardworking MPs do? Why don’t we focus on all the good ones who put doing their job well ahead of seeking centre stage? Sometimes we are our own worst enemy.
We actually have more power than we realise. Whatever you think of your local MP, why not pick up your phone and tell them. Someone who is a show pony media hog might not welcome being told that but needs to be told. When their electors tell them, they’ll take notice. Someone who quietly gets on with the job will not expect someone to notice but how nice it would be to encourage them by letting them know you have.
If the weekend papers had a regular segment featuring a hard-working MP who doesn’t chase the limelight, would you read it?
There’s another way we can all exercise voter power. If you see something on TV, read in the paper or hear on the radio that you think is sensationalist rubbish journalism, ring the outlet and tell them. Yes, one caller will not make a difference but if a fair few do it and the number grows the message will be heard. If you can’t be bothered doing any of the above it tells you something about why we are where we are.
Amanda Vanstone is a regular columnist and a former Coalition minister.
Amanda Vanstone is a former Howard government minister, and regular columnist.