Visiting Number 10

Gordon Brown in the House of Commons

Trying to check up on some claims I made about Gordon Brown’s promise to involve Parliament in any decisions to commit troops abroad, I found myself at pm.gov.uk. It’s a much more interesting site than pm.gov.au – or at least what I remember of it. There are podcasts of often quite interesting interviews, quite a bit of stuff on the history of the Prime Ministership and also podcasts of famous speeches – including a recording of Gladstone!

The British Parliament has a much deeper tradition of fine speechmaking than our own. The last great speechmakers in Australia (at least Parliamentary ones) that I can think of were from the Whitlam Era – Whitlam, Kim Beazley Snr, Jim McClelland – Steele Hall gave some great speeches in October and November 1975 also. Paul Keating was in a class of his own, but not your classic Parlilamentary orator. Not really even a rousing speaker, but quite unaccountably inventive with the Australian idiom.

When I last listened to PM’s Question Time, Tony Blair was defending his disastrous decision to invade Iraq. I didn’t agree with him, but of the defenders of the invasion, his defence was so far and away the most painstaking, and the most persuasive for acknowledging the force of the case for the other side it wasn’t funny.

Anyway, along with Gladstone, Chamberlain, Attlee and Churchill I downloaded PM’s Question Time.

I thought I might post here on how much of the old traditions of Parliamentary accountability remain in the old country (but then I probably wouldn’t because for every post you read here, I form vague plans to write about three or four posts).

Last night, tucked in bed, I listened to the mp3 of the PM’s Question Time on the 10th October. I was completely gobsmacked. It is hard to imagine how one could make the Australian Parliament’s Question Time any worse. But what I heard from the 10th October is a lot worse. Added to the idiocy of our own institution, is a staccato quality of banter and cheering across the chamber. Where we have long set abusive questions, and much longer abusive answers that are not answers, on that day the questions were derisory. Our Oppositions try to ask difficult questions of the Government. They inject a fair bit of snide content into the questions. And then there’s a torrent of abuse from the other side.

The dynamics of the British equivalent seem quite different. Instead of crafting the abuse into a question, the Opposition Leader simply prefaces his question with a bit of stray abuse. “The big question this week is: can we believe what the Prime Minister says? So let us start with his credibility gulf over the election.” Then he asks a purely rhetorical question. “The Prime Minister was asked, “Hand on heart, if the polls showed a 100-seat majority, would you still have called off the election?” and he said yes. Does he expect anyone to believe that?”

In fact it turns out that the Opposition has strategised to focus on the PM’s courage after he decided not to go to an election. One can imagine an Opposition doing the same thing here, but there are a whole lot of subtle and pretty profound differences in the way this is done. The session was kicked off not with a tough question, but with a completely satirical question. Some backbencher asks about Bromley’s recycling program, inviting the PM to visit, but the point of it all is to end with these words “I could take him and show him one of our bottle banks,” whereupon there’s an uproar of laughter.

Of course in Australia such a question could have been asked. In a way it shows the Opposition being a bit more free-wheeling than the worthies in this country. Humour is one of the best tools of attack in politics – probably the best in many ways – as Paul Keating knew. But the humour is so uniformly puerile. It’s so juvenile it’s hard to believe. There’s no wit whatever in it.

Indeed what it smacks of is schoolyard bullying or indeed schoolroom baiting, of the teacher – where students feign certain behaviours – like interest in the subject – only to send the teacher up.  Everyone knows the joke, and everyone laughs at how daggy the teacher is – how they don’t get the joke (or must assume at least at the start that it isn’t a joke).  And of course the teacher in this situation is on a hiding to nothing, because if they behave as if it is a joke the jokester will then stick to the spoof script and feign outrage that they are not taken seriously.

I’m not meaning to suggest that the PM isn’t up to it. I guess he is, though I expect it is exceedingly unpleasant. But the whole impression left with me was of something really quite a lot more base than our own farcical institution.

The architecture and the format both contribute to this. The chamber is much more crowded and more like an amphitheatre. The fact that the questions are all directed at the PM gives him a kind of embattled quality. But there’s also something else going on. I also wonder if it was this bad when Labour was last in Opposition. A working hypothesis of mine is that it’s the establishment that feels more comfortable in taking the next set of liberties with conventions. (Hence my comments on Ken’s recent post about sacking departmental secretaries). As Oscar Wilde has (I think) Algernon say at the opening of The Importance of Being Ernest, “Really if the lower classes are not prepared to set us an example, what on earth is the use of them”.

Who knows? In any event, there’s little of any substance whatever in the questions and the answers are (understandably) equally staccato and contribute nothing except a sullen kind of resistance to the bullying of the questions. There’s constant cheering on both sides like it’s some high school end of year debate but with that flavour of school bullying. And at times it even becomes a bit like a soccer crowd. I was half expecting a chorus of “You’ll never walk alone” to break out.

Yours,

Gobsmacked,
Port Melbourne

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Niall
14 years ago

Statesmen and women, that’s what Australian politics lacks. T’would be good to have a few more of the Fred Daly’s and Jim Killen’s still around, but sadly, I feel that era will never return. QT these days is all about theatre of the thuggish and casts aspersions on all who partake.

Niall
14 years ago

To each their own, Nicholas

Russ
14 years ago

I find it hard to believe question time could be worse than normal. The last time I was up in Canberra it was pretty awful – embarrassing too, given the constant stream of international guests taking it in. On the other hand, it inspired me to post a list of modest reforms.