This post links together two apparently disconnected stories, both concerned with the effective operation of parliaments.
On 16 September, Annabel Crab's UnQuestion Time: the Speaker makes a point dealt with question time in the Australian Parliament. The story points to a conflict between standing orders and the way question time works in practice.
On 19 September, Christopher Moore's Samara on parliamentary disfunction discussed a report by the Canadian Samara Foundation on the functioning of the Canadian Parliament based on exit interviews with retiring MPs. The MPs fulminated about the uselessness, impotence, and frustration they felt.
Both pieces are interesting. However, they also go to a common problem, the actual roles of an MP.
MPs in the Westminster System have multiple roles, roles that can conflict. They are first elected to represent electorates. Then, once elected, they acquire a role in Parliament in contributing to governance. Beyond that in a party system, they have obligations to their parties. Then ministers acquire obligations as members of the executive.
We live in a professionalised world in which the focus is on party and government. You see this in the argument that people vote for parties, that parties must select people who can ultimately best contribute to the business of power and government. You can see this in the focus on professional campaigning, on machine politics, on the leader, on the need to maintain a common front, to stick to message.
To my mind, this professionalised world misses a fundamental point, the role of the member in representing his or her electorate. It also misses a second fundamental point, the role of the member in and responsibilities to Parliament itself.
In voting, I vote for a person. I may or may not be influenced by the party that person stands for, but I am still voting for a person. In doing so, I am not voting for someone because they might become minister or even PM. I am not voting for a person because they are a good manager or might be intellectually bright. I am voting for someone who might represent me.
I grew up in a political world. For the first eighteen years of my life my grandfather was a local MP. Later, I became actively involved in party politics and even tried for pre-selection. I saw good and bad politicians. But I never doubted that politics was a vocation.
My deep distrust of the Liberal Party and its predecessors, the coalition partner of the party I supported, lay in the simple fact that (at least as I saw it) the Party was too dominated by people seeking power and career for its own sake. You could not trust them. Then Labor, by contrast, may have been the natural political enemy, may have played dirty politics from time to time, may have used class arguments that I denied, but you knew where the Party was coming from.
The original role of question time was to allow MPs to find out information about Government activities that interested them. These might deal with specific policies. More often, it dealt with specific electoral matters. Questions also allowed MPs to flag issues that were important to them.
This is no longer true. Question time has become another part of the general party political process. Who can ask a question, what will be asked, is determined by the Party leadership. There is actually no place for the ordinary MP to do his or her job. They have been emasculated.
I think that this links to the type of disillusionment recorded in the Samara report: MPs who want to fulfil their representation role and to make an individual contribution find their task increasingly constrained and difficult.
Just as bad, in attempting to focus in party selection on the roles of MPs as potential ministers or party leaders we build in seeds of future disillusionment. The statistical reality is that most MPs cannot become ministers. If that is the primary reason for entering parliament, then failure is inevitable for most. Further, many of those who come in for this type of career reason are actually impatient with the electoral grind that is an inevitable part of the representation process.
To my mind, the current approach to question time is actually a fundamental denial of the role and power of Parliament. If we really want question time to work, then one of the most practical things that might be done would be to limit the number of questions that might be asked by any single MP in any parliamentary sitting. This may sound extreme, but it would destroy current political games.
If this is too extreme, then another option would be to provide that a proportion of question time be limited to back bench questions on matters of direct concern to them.
In this, improving the capacity of MPs to actually represent might go some way to addressing the disillusionment experienced by many.