There is no more grinding and time-wasting ritual in federal politics than the rubbish inflicted on the public between the hours of 2pm and 3.30pm. I know this is a very big call, but I'm going to make it anyway.It is not a very big call at all. It is like saying that rugby scrums take a long time to pack down or that water is wet or the sun is very sunny: it is so obvious that Question Time is a waste of time that it doesn't bear mentioning. Imagine if Katharine Murphy turned her journalistic talents to other parts of her employer's operations:
At ANZ Stadium last Saturday night, the Springboks scored 20 points and the Wallabies scored 39 points. Not only did the Wallabies win the match, but they were the home side and scored almost twice as many points as the visitors from South Africa. I know this is a very big call, but I'm going to make it anyway.
The forecast for Sydney tomorrow is 18 with a "possible late shower". This means that it might rain, and it might not, at some point later in the day. In Brisbane the forecast is 22 with no rain at all. I know this is a very big call, but I'm going to make it anyway.
Moody’s Investors Service has cut Greece’s sovereign credit rating three steps, saying the European Union’s financing package for the debt-laden nation implies "substantial economic losses" for private creditors. I know this is a very big call, but I'm going to make it anyway.Question Time is so pointless and banal that you wonder what sort of people participate in this spectacle (not only the members of whatever house has chosen to humiliate itself by broadcasting its QT that day, but here we rope the journalists in to the whole sorry event). Now you see that the entire careers of people like Annabel Crabb, Michelle Grattan, Jacqueline Maley and, yes, Katharine Murphy have been utterly, utterly wasted. There is no connection at all between what they write and what we need to know about what government is up to.
For those of us not in Parliament watching it live, Question Time is broadcast on the ABC before the afternoon re-run of Play School. One of the basic language skills that you teach small children is how to answer a simple question: it is possible to answer a simple question with a simple answer, especially if hundreds of well-trained and resourceful people have written answers for you in a folder. After watching Wayne Swan fumble and bumble his way through a straightforward question about the economy, combining a straightforward if dull answer with a lecture on economic theory, a glossy interpretation of recent economic and political history, a few digs at people which are not fully understood even by people who follow politics closely, then an anecdote that is beside the point at best and topped off by a 'dad joke' or euthanased by a point of order ... after all that, the dulcet tones of, say, The Wheels On The Bus Go Round And Round really is like cool water to a thirsty soul.
Question time in its contemporary manifestation symbolises everything that's wrong with political discussion in Australia — an exchange of manufactured sound bites and confected television "moments" signifying nothing at all. It is at once uncomfortably aggressive, spiteful and gladiatorial, and completely soporific.So: the basic idea that a banal spectacle can be set up so that it produces compelling television is false. Viewers don't believe it, the smarter politicians don't believe it, people who work in television don't believe it - only staffers and nongs like Abbott actually believe that carrying on like chimpanzees makes for the very opposite of entertaining and informative television. Finally, Katharine Murphy has realised it.
Given the absence of hope for a better reality, a radical person would conclude we should just dump it.Hardly. Senator Alan Ferguson, who presided over more than a few Question Times and was one of the least radical politicians we have seen in recent years, made that very call a few weeks ago.
Our elected representatives owe the voters a better process.No, what the voters are owed is better information, which should be available from (amongst other sources) web-accessible reporting engines. Journalists should go and find that information, wherever it might be, and report on it to us; instead, they bellyache:
As a mechanism for genuine accountability, it's a joke. As a spectacle, it's pathetic ... In an attempt not to go mad, Canberra political reporters have lurched into the practice of cracking jokes and effectively talking among ourselves until some kind person blows the whistle at 20 questions.Get off your arses and go elsewhere in Canberra, or even outside it, in order to find the information that we need. Witter ye not about Stockholm syndrome; journalists are not trapped in parliament, and ought to consider it a failure of their occupation to report non-stories, rather than the vindication that it is today. True, journalists report to crusty old editors who love their clichés and who clearly consider Question Time as a necessary chore for journalists to sit through - but in an age where even media companies are hunting for efficiencies, smart journalists would keep one step ahead and sharpen their information-gathering skills beyond jumped-up staffers and dreary pollies.
Its sheer awfulness has a strange lulling effect — like the victim of an abduction, you slowly develop Stockholm syndrome, becoming too worn down to hope for something better.
This was my state of being until last Wednesday night, when I tuned in to the House of Commons question time-style debate in Britain convened in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.If you were any sort of political junkie you'd have watched several PMQs. They're on the 'net, not only with Cameron (a loaf of white bread in a suit), but Blair and Thatcher. You understand why such a nuf-nuf as Gordon Brown could rally his followers once you say him at work in PMQs. Thousands of Australians have been to London and seen the Commons in full cry; to call yourself a press gallery journalist without understanding how other parliaments (and yes, other press galleries) work is a joke. To borrow from Kipling, what do they know of Canberra who only Canberra know?
The exchanges, moderated by an adroit Speaker with well honed reflexes for containing frippery and grandstanding, was fast, free flowing and informative. Oddly, given the high political stakes involved for Cameron, the tone of the debate was respectful; striking a functional balance between persistent interrogation, critique and basic civility.Yep: those of us who have travelled and who forage widely for information know that indulging pollies' wank-fantasies as the politico-media complex does is pathetically, ridiculously inadequate. It forms the basis for blogs like this, which insular journalists simply blow off by equating any and all criticism with the musings of Graeme Bird or Anders Behring Breivik.
Did you see politics actually working?If Gillard starts to cut loose and stuff Alan Jones into his own chaff bag, Katharine Murphy would be the first one to complain that she was departing from the script: the journosphere loves its clichés and hates politicians who depart from it. Worse, imagine if Gillard's approval rebounded as a result, leaving the journosphere bagging a Prime Minister who was becoming popular. The irrelevance of the media would be exposed.
Most intriguing for many observers was the apparent freedom of the discussion, symbolised by Cameron's tendency to speak and react like a human being. At one point, the Prime Minister simply growled in frustration and sat down. (Imagine Julia Gillard, in minority government and, like him, under siege, having the confidence to do that.)
We shouldn't be too credulous, of course. Presumably there were tactics, presumably there was discussion and war gaming by the brains trusts of both government and opposition about lines of attack, about what would be owned and what would be "finessed"; presumably Cameron delivered carefully prepared formulations for the most serious questions.This is so dopey I don't know where to begin.
Yes I do: wait until Murphy finds out that the Poms actually have political commentary media, and that much of it has canvassed the very issues which she speculates here. Imagine her reading it, and finding out that Andrew Sparrow or Simon Jenkins or Janet Daley on a bad day are far, far better than Michelle Grattan standing at the full height of her experience and misplaced stature. Then you'll realise how badly we've all been had by sloppy journalism covering beef-witted politicians who all get huffy when we call them out for being second-rate.
Politics doesn't change its spots just because it occurs in a different hemisphere.No shit! Here, have a Walkley.
And at one level it's completely unfair to compare a special sitting of the British Parliament in some extraordinary circumstances with a routine question time in Australia ... The culture of the British parliamentary system apparently allows the legislature to cut its jib to fit the circumstances; parliamentarians there must be a more flexible bunch than their counterparts here, folks who like what they know and know what they like — the opportunity to declaim with limited interruption, not necessarily the opportunity to interrogate one another.Particularly when they suck so hard at interrogation. It must have been wonderful to watch two of the country's top advocates, Menzies and Evatt, go at one another: an experience wasted on the journalists of the day. By contrast, Whitlam, Daley and Killen reprised set-piece routines from nineteenth-century debates in the House of Commons and were acclaimed as the great wits of our parliamentary history. To regard Peter Costello as some sort of lion of Question Time, as people like Katharime Murphy did, absolutely did my head in.
The myopia and stupidity of the press gallery in not only transmitting the banality of our Parliament, but hyping it, has locked them into a co-dependant relationship of mutual decline. The pollies could snap out of it - but, if Sideshow is any guide, they won't; now it's up to the journalists, and they won't either. Two weeks from now, pounds to peanuts Murphy will have forgotten she ever doubted Question Time or that she dared imagined a world where she could just go and do something more productive.
Truth is, the occasion in London was highly significant, and the British Parliament rose to it. Optimists argue the same would be true here: when questions are being raised that go to the very heart of power, whether significant institutions are healthy or corrupt, the Australian Parliament would also rise.Based on what?
You'd hope so.
The very future of the planet and the economy is at stake in the carbon debate, and Katharine Murphy and her pals are out covering Chris Monckton or Tony Abbott. Aboriginal people are withering under the Northern Territory intervention, which people like Katharine Murphy are ignoring because Barnaby Joyce might make an announcement this afternoon. The Australian Parliament faces real and pressing issues every time it sits, issues far more important than watching Jimmy The Idiot Boy perform at the helm of a global corporation in much the same way as Phaeton apparently did at the reins of the sun-chariot.
The Australian Parliament would do well to study the British example last week.On a regular basis, delegations of Australian politicians toddle off to London. Clowns like Katharine Murphy write these off as junkets and don't bother to ask what they learned from their so-called "study tour". It's a cop out to admit what everyone knows:
We who report on politics have to share culpability. We enable the rubbish we witness by not declaring it rubbish.... and then to confess that you can't do anything because you've got Stockholm syndrome, that you can't not report on Question Time, that sitting around having a whinge is somehow more productive than getting out and getting real information some other way.
Remember: the only people who are impressed by announcements are journalists.
It might be a downpayment on bringing a frustrated and disenchanted community back to politics.Or it might not: you know what journalists are like, anything you put before them would be pearls before swine. That way journalists can write articles like we get the representatives that we deserve, which only leads to further disengagement and getting representatives so bad that only journalists deserve them.