Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Speaker flexes question time muscle

Speaker Harry Jenkins
Speaker Harry Jenkins has laid down the law in parliament, ruling disparaging
remarks out of order.  Picture: Ray Strange Source: The Australian

The days of endless question time haranguing may be over following a landmark edict by Speaker Harry Jenkins ruling disparaging partisan remarks out of order in the federal parliament.

Mr Jenkins slapped down ministers today, ruling out formulaic "Dorothy Dix" questions which set the stage for gratuitous attacks on the opposition.

The change came after he was forced to rule out an opposition question contrasting Julia Gillard's support for scandal-hit MP Craig Thomson with her criticism of High Court Chief Justice Robert French.

He initially said he was inclined to allow the question, based on past precedent, despite his misgivings over all questions that cast aspersions on members of the House.

But Leader of the House Anthony Albanese argued the point, saying the question should be rejected because, among other reasons, it cast aspersions and inferences, was insulting and hypothetical.

"Well, this is a big change in the game," Mr Jenkins said.

"I've got to decide whether I rule out most of the questions from both sides. And I'm happy to do that if that is the wish of the House.

"I've tried for four years to get a sensible set of rules for question time, and if they want me to implement my version of the rules, I'm happy to."

He then proceeded to rule out of order portions of questions to ministers by government MPs providing open-ended opportunities for attack.

A question to Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin was the first to suffer the speaker's wrath.

She was asked: "Minister how is the government delivering on its commitment to support pensioners to balance their budgets? What risks are there to this support and how is the government responding?"

Mr Jenkins intervened before Ms Macklin reach the despatch box, erasing the usual invitation to attack the opposition.

"The last two parts of that question are out of order, I will allow the first part," he said.
Under the new standard, much of the party-political abuse in both questions and answers will now be out of order.

Under normal circumstances, a speaker might face removal by his or her own side for such a ruling.

But any such move would be intensely dangerous in the current parliament for a government with a one-seat majority.

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