Edifying and not: two days in WA Parliament

Tuesday and Wednesday this week saw the best and less great of parliamentary conduct in the Western Australian parliament.

On the first sitting day, members paid tribute to former member Jaye Radisich in a series of speeches in support of a condolence motion. Some of the contributions were rich with personal stories humorous and heartfelt, others respectful, all of them clearly heartfelt. It was a fitting tribute to Western Australia’s youngest ever woman member of parliament.

Contributions were made from all sides of parliament, Labor, Liberal, National and independent members all rising to honour too short a full life. In celebrating Jaye’s life, all members publicly displayed the kind of empathy that must, at their cores, motivate each of them to seek public service through representing our community. After all, what greater expression of empathy could there be than that felt for the pain and suffering of people with who you are in daily conflict?

What a shame, then, that within a day the parliament showed us how self-indulgent it can so easily become.

There was a point behind it: there so often is a real point to be found in parliamentary arguments. It’s just that once the point is made it’s hard to justify the same point being made more than half a dozen times, and being rebutted as often, for over an hour and a half.

Yesterday, Question Time was cut short after three questions from the Opposition by Speaker Woodhams due to rowdiness in the Chamber. As an aside, I confess to being bemused by the vast majority of the Speaker’s admonishments to the Legislative Assembly. It’s almost as if telling members off is the only time he gets to say anything, so each time he gets to his feet we’re subjected to a dissertation on the full depth of his disappointment in members’ conduct.

Anyhoo, Question Time was cut short. I’ve just heard a piece on the ABC news involving the Opposition calling for Standing Orders to be amended to ensure that there is an adequate number of questions asked and answered. They’re right, by the way, that Ministers are wasting time and avoiding accountability by taking up so much of the allotted 45 minutes with rambling answers to questions from their own backbench.

In the House of Representatives under Speaker Harry Jenkins a rule was introduced that no answer to a question could be longer than four minutes. Something similar in WA might sort this problem out.

The Opposition is less convincing when it argues that the Premier and his Ministers seek to goad them into interjecting, inviting misbehaviour. I can understand why they interject, and that it’s part of the cut and thrust of parliamentary politics. I’m just not sure that an argument that amounts to ‘they started it’ elevates the discussion on accountable and transparent government particularly greatly.

The motion of dissent in the Speaker’s ruling (I’m pretty sure that’s what the motion ended up being) was moved at about 2:40. So, in effect, giving about five minutes for the argy bargy before members figured out what motion was appropriate, Question Time was cut short with about ten minutes to run. The Opposition would most likely have got one more question in. Nonetheless, the broader point that they’re making, that the Government is soaking up time to avoid answering difficult questions (though they may laugh about whether they consider the questions all that difficult) is a real point.

Answering a Dorothy Dix question over the course of eight or nine minutes is ridiculous. It makes a mockery of the rationale behind Question Time. The Government needs to rein this in.

Ordinarily on a Wednesday, Private Members’ Business starts at 4.00pm. Private Members’ Business is when non-Government members get to raise their own issues in the parliament. The debate on this motion was still going when I tuned out at 4.15.

I had just heard the so-called independent member for Alfred Cove, Janet Woollard, banging on about how disappointed she was that Private Members’ Business was being delayed while they dealt with the motion. I would have thought that the best way for an ‘independent’ member interested in Private Members’ Business to overcome that disappointment would have been for the member to sit down and shut up.

It was when the member for Jandakot, Joe Francis, who never tires of decrying the Opposition as socialists, started crying ‘poor fella me’, claiming that he is subject to more interjection from Labor than any other government backbencher that I simply couldn’t keep listening.

So it goes in Australian representative democracy, it seems: eloquent empathy one day, juvenile whinging the next.

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