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Written June 28
The Australian government seems to be set up in a similar manner to the US with one glaring exception. Question Time.
On sitting days, starting at 2, is approximately 90 minutes of time allotted as Question Time.
The theory behind it is a time for asking clarifying questions, getting the ideas and reasons behind votes and positions, and generally clearing up all of the misunderstandings and uncertainties of politics. But as is the case with almost all political theory, the idea and the action are usually vastly different.
I was fortunate enough to have someone sitting beside me who gave me context on many of the issues, because the pollies (politicians) certainly weren’t. And while I think I could figure out her affiliation from her points, it was also clear that she was being critical of both sides, cynical, jaded, but entertainingly so. It felt, in a way, like getting the answers from an Australian version of myself.
Three main points came up and were given time on the floor. The asylum seeker bill that passed the House last night. The carbon tax which comes into effect in a couple days. And a motion to censure the Prime Minister.
The former, being a topic already voted on and passed, received a lot of talking time but no one was really debating the various pros and cons of the bill, why they were in support of or against it. Instead the talking points mainly centered on the Labor party (the majority) trying to get the Liberals (the minority) to get their counterparts in the Senate to get out of the way and let the bill through.
The carbon tax has similarly been voted on and is set to be enacted. Nothing can change that at this point. And so the “questions” were slanted one way or another, invoking even more party line answers. Each side was trying to redefine the debate, to reframe what good they had done and what gross incompetence or malice or fraud was from the other side.
And the last point, a censure for the PM, came down to the point that Julia Gillard (the PM) had campaigned on a platform of invoking no carbon tax, and was now in charge of putting one through. There wasn’t an expectation that it would pass. But it gave the minority leaders time to rant and rail against the PM, providing soundbites they could take back to their constituents. It was apparently a momentous occasion for me to be there, as they’ve brought this charge against Gillard some 60+ times, and this was the first time she had stuck around to respond rather than walking out. Her response was that the minority leader had supported a carbon tax in the previous administration, and so he needed to stop being against it now. Not really a response, but then again it wasn’t really a question. The press gallery was laughing. Actively.
The whole process was absolutely a blast. I sat in the House chambers with empty pockets (we had to cloak just about everything) and giggled to myself at how much of a circus I was watching. The populace of the US seems to think of Congress as a bunch of diatribe-spewing idiots that can’t get anything done other than working on their own reelection. Having not watched our own government in action (or, as The Daily Show would say, inaction), I can’t speak to the validity of that statement. And perhaps that is the reason that we don’t have a Question Time. We probably don’t really want to know just how bad it is in there. Sitting in the gallery I was chuckling to myself wishing I had popcorn to go with the show.
Members of both sides served up softball questions to their own side or biased and misleading ones for the other. And in response, very few of the speakers seemed to really address the issues or “questions” directly, or frequently even tangentially.
The Labor Party did their best to paint the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, as Mr. Doom and Gloom, the Fear Monger of the Carbon Tax, a man who would be exposed as the fraud and liar he is once the carbon tax took effect and mining towns didn’t just vanish from existence.
The Liberals in turn did their best to portray Gillard as a liar, a manipulator, a woman who would sell her soul to be in charge of a country that now had absolutely no faith in her ability to lead.
Both sides used hyperbole, over-simplification, and false portrayal to get across their points. Both sides used the session as an excuse for soapboxing, insulting, and generally lambasting the other. Almost no one brought up any actual policy points.
It was a circus. Nothing was gained. Both sides were full of vitriol. Absolutely nothing can come of this.
It was near the end, when most of the members had left, that the most reasonable thing I had heard all session was brought up. One member of the majority asked that a motion be considered to have members of parliament on both sides take down insulting, overly-harsh, unfair posts and cartoons from their office doors and windows. He cited laws about the rights of every Australian to work in a workplace free of open hostility. I’m not sure exactly what my opinion of the proposal is, but I do know exactly why he was presenting it and the precedent he was basing it on. Straight talk, even if about a seemingly minor issue when compared with the others.
I rethought my want of popcorn. The show was funny, but perhaps it wouldn’t have left that tragic taste in my mouth if I hadn’t left the chambers on this final thought.
These people are in charge of a country. A country that is one of our strongest allies.