Feb 2, 2010

Parliament is back: let the bells ring – Opinion – The Punch

Today marks the return of Parliament in Canberra, in an election year. For some this will be of no interest, for others it is a captivating period in which the intrigue, dynamics and more subtle nuances are followed each sitting day.

I am firmly of the view that as Australians, we should be very proud of the vigorous nature of our democratic processes.

After all, millions of people throughout the world are prepared to risk their lives in pursuit of democratic principles being introduced to their nation.

Parliament is an opportunity for Governments to promote their ideas and implement their practical plans for the nation. For Oppositions, Parliament provides a forum to hold the Government to account and present alternative policies.

Australia’s democratic process stands up to comparison with any Parliament in the world.

Visiting Leaders, Ministers and Parliamentarians are invariably astonished that the entire Ministry, including the Prime Minster, attends question time every day and take questions which are genuinely without notice.

In the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister only attends Question Time once a week, for half an hour, and questions are placed on the notice paper three days in advance.

In the New Zealand Parliament, questions also appear on the notice paper and supplementary questions must relate directly to these. In the United States of America, there is simply nothing to compare with our House of Representatives Question Time.

In 2009 there were 1187 questions without notice asked during Question Time in the House of Representatives. In addition there were 616 questions on Notice and 9,313 Questions placed on notice through the Senate Estimates process.

For this 42nd Parliament there have been 21 occasions where there were more than 20 questions asked during Question Time in the House. This contrasts with the 41st Parliament, with John Howard as Prime Minister and Tony Abbott as the then Leader of the House, when there were never more than 20 questions asked.

During our first two years, the Rudd Labor Government has delivered 103 Ministerial Statements to the House, compared with 105 statements delivered by the Howard Government over more than 12 years in office.

Labor’s record includes 9 Prime Ministerial Statements on issues such as: Climate Change; Responding to the Global Financial and Economic Crisis; Closing the Gap on Indigenous disadvantage; the economy; relations with India; the actions of North Korea and weapons testing; Iraq; Terrorist attacks in Mumbai; and, World Environment Day.

The Opposition receives an equal amount of time to respond to these statements.

In 2009 the House of Representatives passed 205 pieces of legislation, the most for a decade. The majority of these were carried with unanimous support in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

There are 54 Bills which have been passed by the House of Representatives, but not yet dealt with by the Senate.

During this session, legislation debated will include the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the establishment of a National Broadband Network, creating a framework for National Consumer Law and a National Occupation Health and Safety regime, as well as reforming election funding.

From time to time oppositions will express frustration at the Parliamentary procedures which are in place. It is particularly the case that when Oppositions have nothing to say about issues of substance they will make substantial statements about nothing much, including about process.

This point is proven when in 2009, the current Opposition, even voted against the approval of the Parliamentary Sitting Calendar for 2010.

No amendments proposed, just opposition for oppositions sake. Given that Tony Abbott has pledged this oppositionist approach will characterise his Leadership, I guess we can expect more of this unproductive approach.

For those who doubt the significance of events in the House of Representatives Chamber, they only need to think back to the week beginning 21 June 2009. Malcolm Turnbull’s demise as Opposition leader can be traced to the week in Parliament when his lack of judgement was on full display through his irrational pursuit of the fake email affair.

During that week, Australians paid attention to the events in the Parliament with far greater scrutiny than usual. From that point on, Malcolm Turnbull’s days were numbered.

The challenge for the new Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, is to counter the alienation that many Australians already have from his extreme right-wing views and his aggressive style.