Canberra is Australia’s capital city, so while I’m housesitting here I have the opportunity to visit Parliament House to watch our parliament in action – and that’s not always a pretty sight. But before I go into that, I'll give some context: a quick reminder about what our parliament is. Australians should already know about this – although I have my own slant on it – but they probably don’t; and non-Australian readers will need this tiny bit of background before I talk about my visit to our federal parliament.
Parliament is the assembly of our elected representatives, when they get together to create and modify laws. Those representatives are our members of parliament. The laws start out as proposals called bills, and get voted on by the members to become (or not become) legislation, which is then law.
Australia has an adversarial form of parliament that it inherited from Britain. All proposals put to the parliament are debated by the representatives, and then voted on. This doesn’t sound like it could create adversity, but the trigger is that the vote is not secret, so the members know how every other member votes. This knowledge means that it’s possible for the members to organise voting cartels, because members can be held to a promise to vote as in an agreed way, a promise that they have to make to be allowed join the cartel. If a member of the cartel goes against the agreed vote the cartel can expel that member. If a cartel gets to control a majority of the votes in the parliament they have control of the parliament, and can create any legislation that they want to, and get to control the government of Australia.
A voting cartel has a weakness: if it controls the parliament by a very small margin, every member’s vote is important, not just to get their preferred legislation through parliament, but to take control of the parliament. This means that any one member has great power if they are willing to threaten to stand against the others on an issue, by revoking their promise to vote in an agreed way. Under these circumstances, any one member (or even a whole sub-cartel) who chooses to, can manipulate the policy of the cartel by effectively blackmailing the rest of them.
These voting cartels are called political parties, and sub-cartels within the parties are called factions.
There’s another variation on voting cartels: separate parties, which may have quite different ideologies, may also agree to a voting alliance, forming a coalition, which may give them sufficient numbers to take over the parliament and take control of government, even though the component parties can barely stand to work together.
This whole thing becomes a complex web of allegiances amongst all of the members of parliament, with coalitions, parties, factions, and independent members all swapping and negotiating their allegiances for each issue.
Creating legislation is only a part of the function of parliament; the other part is using (executing) that legislation as part of the process of running the aspects of Australia that the government controls. The political party or coalition that controls the majority of the parliamentary votes gets to ‘form government’, which means that they get control of the executive power of the government; that is, they wield the government’s power to run Australia. Not all members of the controlling party get to have control of executive power; the leader of the party, the Prime Minister, chooses a few of them, and gives them each control over particular aspect of the governments responsibilities. These members are called ministers, and they form the Executive Council which runs the government of Australia. The rest of the controlling party are called backbenchers and they’re only important because the can vote. All of the other members are collectively called the opposition.
Parliament only sits (operates) for part of the time; less than half the year. The rest of the time the elected representatives are doing other duties (so they tell us) and may be back at their electorates rather than in Canberra. Parliament assembles in two ‘houses’ (rooms) of Parliament House: the House of Representatives, and the Senate. This is what the rooms look like when no one is in them:
I can’t show you what the houses look like when anyone is there because you can’t take a camera into the houses while parliament is sitting.
Even when parliament is sitting, the representatives aren’t in the houses most of the time – they are running the executive branch of the Australian government, or in meetings, or in their parliamentary offices doing other business. They usually only go into the houses to ‘table’ (present) bills, to make statements and speeches to be officially recorded, and to debate the content of these things. Until you realise this, it’s quite a surprise to go into the public galleries of the houses, as I did, to see Australia being run, to find that there is almost no one there, and to see some member making a long and emphatic speech to an almost empty room!
However, there are a couple of occasions when everyone is in the houses. If a bill has been debated in one of the houses and is to be voted on, a bell is rung and the members have just four minutes to drop whatever they are doing and get into the house before the doors are locked and they miss the vote. Currently, the control of parliament is held by an advantage of only one member, so one member failing to get in the door can change whether or not a bill becomes legislation – this is a lot of pressure on the members to ensure that they get in the door!
The other occasion when everyone is in the houses is Question Time: for about an hour from 2pm on any day that parliament is sitting all government ministers are expected to be in the houses so that all of the other members can ask them questions about what the government is doing. Naturally, the questions asked by the opposition members are designed to expose weaknesses in the government, and questions asked by government members are designed to give the ministers the opportunity to spruik there cleverness and successes.
Okay, I admit that that’s more than the ‘tiny bit of background’ that I promised, and possibly more than you need, and almost certainly more than you want! So now I’ll tell you about my visits.
While I’ve been house-sitting in Canberra, I’ve made a point of going into Parliament House when parliament is sitting to watch Question Time in the House of Representatives a couple of times. Unfortunately, it’s really sickening – it’s a big fake show, and it’s really quite demoralising to see how our politicians behave.
I can’t show you any video of question time because you can’t take a camera into the houses while parliament is sitting; but, if you watch any Australian news program while parliament is sitting you’ll probably see what it’s about. You’ll see the infantile, overbearing, and inhumane behaviour of our members of parliament: catcalling, trying to catch each other out, and behaving like school yard bullies and ruffians. It mostly comes across as a stupid, brash, game. At best, I could be a little more generous, and say that they act like a recreational debating team for whom it’s all about showy, audience-pleasing ‘gotchas’ and imaginary point scoring, and nothing about finding the truth, or running Australia in the best possible way. Former Prime Minster Kevin Rudd, in his national apology to the Stolen Generations, had it worked out when he described the actions of the members as “our infantile bickering, our point-scoring and our mindlessly partisan politics…”
From watching the protagonists carefully as they perform, I really get the feeling that many of them greatly dislike behaving in this manner and do it with distaste; but they know that this how it is, and that they just have to get on with it. However, there are other members that revel in this sort of behaviour; and, indeed, for some this is the only part of the job that they are good at, and they seem to really enjoy it. If you are an Australian you probably know who I mean.
Whether the participants enjoy it or not, the nature of question time means that to be able quickly think up smug answers to stupid questions, and to instantly devise obfuscating answers to tricky and unexpected questions, are important abilities for our prime minister or any of our ministers, or anyone that aspires to those roles.
These aren’t actually necessary qualities for a good prime minster or minister who can run Australia effectively. The adversarial way the Australian parliament operates, particularly at question time, excludes anyone who is thoughtful, unaggressive, introverted, or even just civil and polite, who may have other qualities that would make them a good leader for Australia.
Personally, and I’m sure many Australians would agree, I’d like to see this fixed. Making parliamentary voting secret would be a good start to break the power of the parties; but really, we need a good overhaul of our parliament to make it collaborative and constructive and to get a better result!
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