Aug 14, 2012

Why ask questions when you can just say no? – Opinion – The Drum, ABC

Since the nation’s Parliament first sat in 1901, there has been an opportunity for Members of Parliament to ask questions and hold the government of the day to account.

Ministers have always been expected to be prepared for questions across any policy area in their portfolios.

So far this year, 533 questions have been asked during Question Time.

However, more than half the frontbench – twelve ministers – have not had a single question from the Opposition this year.  Not one question for Jenny Macklin, Peter Garrett, Tanya Plibersek, Simon Crean, Craig Emerson, Nicola Roxon, Mark Butler, Jason Clare, Kate Ellis, Julie Collins or Warren Snowdon.

In fact, I have waited all year for a question from the alternative Deputy Prime Minister and Transport Minister, Warren Truss.

This startling statistic shines a light on something I have suspected for a while – that Tony Abbott and his Noalition are a policy-free zone.

The Government has been far from idle in the portfolios of education, health, families, transport, Indigenous affairs, regional development and law reform.

Just this year, in my own portfolio, the Parliament passed historic laws to revitalise our coastal shipping industry. The Government negotiated the establishment of national laws and regulators for heavy vehicles, maritime and rail which will reduce 23 state-based bodies to just three, and we continued to deliver record funding for major infrastructure through our $36 billion Nation Building Program.  Not a single question from Warren Truss.

The Gonski review, released in February, is the most significant reform opportunity for our schooling system in decades.  Apparently, it’s not worth a single Opposition question to the Minister, Peter Garrett.

We provided $1 billion in this year’s Budget to design and commence trials on the National Disability Insurance Scheme – a landmark reform which will transform the lives of our most vulnerable Australians.  Again, no questions.

Labor has delivered record increases to pensions and supported families through the Schoolkids Bonus and household assistance payments.  All of it was opposed by Tony Abbott.  That might explain why Jenny Macklin has not been asked a single question in nearly 18 months.

Labor’s Budget saw the single largest investment to improve mental health care and support for Australians of all ages in Australian history.  I’m betting Mark Butler will be waiting a long time to be asked about our $2.2 billion package.

More than four years after it was first flagged, this Parliament passed means testing measures to make private health insurance fairer, which began on 1 July.  The Opposition voted against it.  Did they have a question for Tanya Plibersek? No.

The idea that the ministers responsible for these major reforms shouldn’t receive a single question from the Opposition about how the policies will be delivered or funded is ridiculous.

Accountability and debate are the bedrock of the system of government we inherited from the Palace of Westminster.  Nowhere are these principles more evident than in the daily Question Time battles that Westminster-based parliaments conduct around the world.

Mr Abbott has instead trashed this institution, like all others, in his desperate quest for power.  He must be the only Opposition leader in history to have shied away from the chance to ask serious questions of ministers.

It might seem like a bizarre approach for an Opposition to take until you consider his motives.  As a general rule, Oppositions only ask questions if they are interested in a policy or would rather persuade the public of alternative policies.

Tony Abbott, unlike his predecessors, has no interest in positive policy.  His only interest is in saying no.  His only policy is to oppose.

So, instead of asking ministers about policies, Tony Abbott and the Noalition have trashed Question Time and interrupted proceedings with motions to suspend the House’s order of business.

These interruptions and stunts have meant that another 375 questions were lost in the current term of Parliament, equivalent to 19 full Question Time sessions.

This mindless and destructive negativity will only get Tony Abbott so far.  He would do well to heed the words of a wiser Liberal leader.

After the collapse of the United Australia Party, Robert Menzies brought together conservative parties and groups to talk about forming a new party.  Reflecting on past failures at that conference in October 1944, he said:

“…on far too many questions we have found our role to be simply that of the man who says ‘No’.”

His vision for the soon-to-be Liberal Party of Australia was a positive one. He said:

“There is no room in Australia for a party of reaction.  There is no useful place for a policy of negation.”

Menzies understood that the Australians expect our political parties to tell us how they will help create a better future for them, their children, our economy and the nation.

The Liberal and National parties ignore his words at their peril.

Today, when Parliament resumes, I look forward to continuing to outline Labor’s plans for infrastructure to build our economy and invest in jobs.

Who knows, I might even get a question.