Monday, October 1, 2007

I take my hat off to you!

We all like to send up our politicians from time to time, it’s one of the perks of living in a democracy. Yet I doubt very many of us would put our hands up to be one of them. Constantly being asked questions is one thing, but having to actually give a reasonable answer is quite another. Now we all know politicians have their wealth of knowledge conveniently packaged and supplied to them by their hardworking support staff, but when it comes to the crunch they are the one who has to think on the spot! Unfortunately for them it doesn’t always go the way they had planned.

In answering a question about reforms in the health system John Howard claimed that the leader of the opposition had been “bagging the proposal” – hardly the most eloquent response. Yet he was still quick enough to put in a little jibe at the Labor Party (I suppose being Prime Minister he would have had quite a bit of practice at this kind of political banter). In ridiculing the long list of pointless inquiries announced by the Labor party he stated “In Australian politics at the present time there is only one list longer than this and that is the list of the former trade union officials that will constitute the federal parliamentary Labor Party, irrespective of the result, after the next federal election.” – Now I wonder if he had that one up his sleeve?

For all those semi-important ministers this is their time to shine. They have to be ready for any question they might be asked about their portfolio and be ready with the right information. It reminds me of having to stand up and speak in front of the assembly in school, even if you were a good speaker, you were always a little bit nervous. Whether its fisheries, the arts or indigenous affairs, if you’re asked a question you’d better know your stuff or risk being made a fool of in front of your friends (and enemies!)- not to mention the entire country. So while I may laugh and shake my head at the sometimes cruel, sometimes childish antics of politicians, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be one!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Questions?

Another aspect of question time that has me puzzled is the name of the process itself. Perhaps considering what actually goes on it could be more appropriately named “Statement time.” For on September 11, although cleverly disguised in the form of a question, did Kevin Rudd really believe he would get the answer he so obviously desired when he addressed Parliament?
KEVIN RUDD “My question is to the Prime Minister. Now that APEC has concluded and given that three years ago we were already two weeks into an election campaign, will the Prime Minister set an election campaign, will the Prime Minister set an election date and let the Australian people decide for themselves what type of future they want for their country?”
JOHN HOWARD “The election will be held at a normal time. A normal time is any time between now and early December”
Not much of an answer right? But really, he couldn’t have expected much more. Rudd most likely just wanted to get the election issue on the public agenda, and thanks to a grab of his “question” in a lead news story, he did.
So it’s not about questions at all but rather raising topics that might be helpful to the cause of either party. Which funnily enough, is exactly what happened next! Howard was asked about the impact of APEC and subsequently rattled off his little practiced spiel about how great it has been for our country. I wonder how many people really wanted to hear the liberal party gloating. Moreover I wonder what type of questions would be asked if the public were allowed to voice their opinions as ask some real questions in question time. Just imagine!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

contradictions

The process of question time is quite a thing to behold. I find it to be full of contradictions. Firstly, there is a mix of order and disorder. Each senator or MP takes their turns and reads out quite formal, long winded questions and yet in voicing their response individuals are heckled and interrupted at length before the speaker or president restores order. Questions are asked by one individual but the answers are addressed to either “Mr Speaker” or “Mr President.”
Politicians don’t seem to be afraid to use loaded words either, Senator Conroy denouncing a Liberal document on the introduction of new broadband as “fraudulent propaganda” while Liberal Senator Coonan openly slated Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party’s inability to stand up to Telstra and the Unions.
It also stuck me as amusing that the title “questions without notice” was given to what was often such a prepared and rehearsed process. Senator Ellison was given a question on a platter from a member of his own party which allowed him to go on at length about all the good things the Howard government was doing about veterans affairs. How convenient!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Committee Hearing

I have always been a little suspect of the government, and I am sure I am not alone in wondering where the billions of tax-payer dollars gets spent making this country of ours a better place to live. No doubt a lot gets lost in the whole process of government. Countless committees and inquiries into nearly every possible concern anyone could think of. Something looking bad for the government? Quick! Conduct an inquiry, by the time the findings come out the media would have already moved onto to the next big story.

What do committees achieve? They may seem to the average man (or woman) merely a project to keep public servants occupied, but far be it from me to be cynical about the process. (writing this blog has made me realise that I am a far bigger cynic than I originally thought!) Surely attending one such committee hearing would open my eyes to the real good these government departments do.

The committee was called “The standing committee on state development” which in the style of government was typically ambiguous. The public hearing for the inquiry into “Aspects of Agriculture in NSW” held on 29th August was my first real glimpse into the real workings of the government outside a mandatory school excursion to our nations’ capital. Of course what became immediately apparent was that this was by no means a government only show. All sorts of organisations wanted to get their views across, UNSW’s FATE program (Future of Australian’s Threatened Ecosystems), the Rural Alliance, NSW Farmers Association and Beyond Blue. It became clear that each representative of an organisation had something they wanted discussed. The scope was pretty big when you consider that a lot could fall under the heading of “Aspects of Agriculture in NSW” – and indeed a lot did. I learnt that Kangaroo’s have soft feet and therefore do not wear away top soil like introduced animals such as sheep and cattle. I also now know that Australia imports Eucalyptus oil from Portugal and New Zealand have been marketing NSWs state flower the Waratah as the “Kiwi-rose”.

Aside from these interesting facts I did actually learn something about the process. In its most basic form this is how I first saw the committee work: written submissions are given, statements are made and questions are asked. Yet in doing this with a number of different people, representing a number of different organisations each with their own agenda, things get more complicated. Key themes such as “sustainability” kept cropping up with groups on either side of the argument. It did appear at times like a debate or a court case with witnesses being cross examined and probed by the committee on their topic of choice. It was interesting to see how some organisations voiced their specific concerns over legislation, such as how high vehicle registration costs in NSW compared to other states were affecting farmers. It was clear these groups did not simply come to complain or say their piece but tried to offer suitable alternatives or solutions to problems, like the development of a drought-tolerant wheat to help farmers work instead of against with Australia’s dry conditions.

It also amazed me how passionate some of these people seemed to be about their organisation or their issues and goals. They were ready for every question on their given topic and it was obvious they really believed what they were saying.

The committee hearing taught me a few things. There are a lot of problems and issues to be addressed in both NSW and Australia, serious issues that in many cases I had simply not heard of. Clearly these problems need to be addressed and relevant stakeholders need to have a voice if things are to change. I do actually feel bad about belittling the process somewhat because I was clearly ignorant of what these committees can achieve for both individuals and organisations. I can’t say that I would go to one again, or that it was entirely riveting, but I can now appreciate their purpose and role in our democratic society.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

the value of Question time?

Not a lot of people would sit down in front of the television with a cup of tea and a bikkie to watch the strange pariamentary ritual we know as "question time"
Those snippets we see on the news can often give us the idea that its merely a slanging match between the government and opposition. Which side can made the other look more stupid? Of course we know its more that, but how effective is question time and what does it achieve?
Allow me for a moment to get on my soapbox and say that question time really is 'democracy in practice'. Those individuals running our country are put under scrutiny by other members of parliament who check and question their every action. This rings even more true for the humble independant member of parliament who having no loyalty with any of the larger parties can pursue the interests of their own electorate! I was proud to be a member of the now defunct Calare electorate and happy to have an indpendant Peter Andren representing our part of Australia. I even remember seeing him in parliament on a yr 10 school excursion. I recall our teachers telling us 'We are lucky to have an independant because his loyalty is not to a party but to his electorate'. I thought how great it was that there were no party politics he had to worry about, he must really go for it in question time!!
Alas Calare is no more and our new seat of Macquarie is held by the Kerry Bartlett of the Liberal Party. I wonder if he was ever called on to speak during question time whether he would be the voice of our region, or be silenced by party policy. I wonder if he did disagree with his own party whether he would 'cross the floor' in a vote and face the repercussions later?
Whatever the case, question time can undoubtedly be amusing but does also serve a serious democratic purpose. I only hope that our members of parliament take a leaf from the independants' book, loosen the chains of their party loyalty and use question time for its original purpose. To be the voice of the people!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Communication revolution or waste of time?

John Howards seems to be riding the digital revolution wave quite nicely, albeit assisted no doubt by his many advisors. Kevin Rudd may have more friends on MySpace but John Howards got his own YouTube video!
While it might be a bit of fun for our nations leaders to dabble in these new and exciting means of communication....are they really that effective? Intentions aside, are they wasting their time on websites used by the majority as procrastination tools? or is this really the newsest and the best from of communication?
perhaps time (and the election results!) will tell

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Social Media.....what I think!

Its hard not to be just a little bit cynical about the rise in the use of social media especially by our very own politicians. They're not the first people we think of as being at the forefront of a new social revolution....or maybe that's just me.
Are they really using these social media tools for their intended purpose? A new means to get their message out to the people? A way in which to interact with the public and find out what they are really thinking?
Or is it simply a new way in which to morph their boring politicians image into something trendy, show the public that they're on their level, just one of thousands of other users.
Surely there will come a time when myspace is no longer the new 'new thing'.
What then? I suppose they could move on to facebook.