Reforming Question Time debate – “directly” versus “generally” relevant
A Sessional Orders debate about whether answers to question should be “generally” or “directly” relevant.
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM [11.23 a.m.]: I move:
- That, for the remainder of the current session, Standing Order 65 be varied by inserting the word “directly” before the word “relevant” in paragraph (5).
A former Clerk of the Legislative Council, Ms Lynn Lovelock, in her book New South Wales Legislative Council Practice—
The Hon. Dr Peter Phelps: Have you read it?
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: —I have—highlighted that since the reconstitution of this place in 1978 the Council has rediscovered “its identity as the ‘House of Review’, central to the revival of parliamentary democracy in New South Wales”. This place performs an essential function in the operation of our democracy in New South Wales. As a House of review it is an important check and balance on the decisions of the executive branch of government and affords the community, through the members of the Legislative Council, the ability to ask important questions about the administration of the Government of New South Wales. We do this by asking questions verbally without notice in the House and in writing as questions on notice. The standing orders and rules of the Legislative Council set out the procedures for the asking and answering of questions. Standing Order 65 (5) states that an answer must be relevant to the question.
Since the making of this order Presidents have reflected on its application and have made rulings and reinforced those rulings that answers must be generally relevant. I am sure it would not surprise many in this House that my colleagues in The Greens and I feel that there may be reason to consider whether the current standing order meets the expectations of the people of New South Wales. General relevance can indeed be a very long yardstick with which to measure the responses to some questions in this place. Today my fellow Greens and I are calling on the House to take appropriate steps to ensure our rules require answers to be directly relevant. In moving this motion my fellow Greens and I are not casting aspersions on the decision of the President or his predecessors.
The status quo is that our standing orders have been interpreted as requiring answers to be generally relevant and Presidents have rightly relied on this interpretation in ruling on the appropriateness of answers. But I suspect that our test of relevance in this place falls well short of the pub test. The public would expect that if a fair and reasonable question was asked a direct answer should be given that was directly relevant to the question. The Procedure Committee considered issues relating to the relevance of answers to questions in 2011. In its November 2000 report titled “Report relating to private members’ business, the sitting pattern, Question Time and petitions” the Committee looked into how other Australian parliaments and parliaments in other countries have dealt with the challenge of improving the relevance of answers to questions.
My colleague Dr John Kaye was a member of the Procedure Committee and considered some of these very questions in 2011 and I am sure he will speak to his experience on the committee but I want to specifically highlight that a number of jurisdictions have considered this very issue. At the time the report was written, the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly and the Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly all had provisions requiring a Minister to be “directly relevant” to the question. While the report outlines some of the difficulties in enforcing such a ruling, I do not think we, the members of the New South Wales Legislative Council, should shy away from trying to set as high a standard as possible in accountability, transparency and honesty in our dealings with each other and with the issues that concern the people of New South Wales.
The Procedure Committee report also notes that despite any rules of debate, question time is an intrinsically political process and the intention in asking questions is often designed for a purpose other than eliciting information. I certainly agree with that and I am sure that many in this place enjoy, as do I, the theatre of question time and debate, but I want to run just a few examples of my 3½ years in this place past members so they can invoke their personal pub test as to whether some of the answers fulfil our public responsibility as a House of Parliament and a House of review. The catalyst for my raising this matter was my ejection from this place on 19 June 2014.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: Can you remember that day?
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: I can remember that day very well.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: I am surprised.
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: You are a grub, Duncan.
The PRESIDENT: Order! The Leader of the Government should remain silent.
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: I asked a question of the Minister for Roads and Freight on the issue of Needles Gap Dam, which the Minister will clearly remember, and about the fact that the Federal Leader of The Nationals had said there was no point in building a dam if there were no users. I accept it was a politically charged question but it went to the critical issue of the viability of this major project which, in my opinion, is not wanted and not needed locally. It was clear the Minister did not have an answer, but instead of taking the question on notice he chose to quote a recent media statement from someone having a go at The Greens on the issue.
I have a few more examples that I hope will illustrate the need for cultural change. On 17 October 2012 I asked a former Minister, the Hon. Greg Pearce, about a report published in the Sydney Morning Herald concerning the risk of gas price increases for domestic manufacturing caused by the gas export industry. I asked whether the Government was aware of the report and would guarantee there would be no increase in gas prices in New South Wales due to the opening of an export gas industry. It was an important question. The Minister answered:
- I cannot answer for everyone in the Government. There are several hundred thousand public servants in this State and I assume at least one of them reads the
Sydney Morning Herald
One could call it theatre, but I was asking a serious question about an issue that has now been demonstrated to have caught off guard governments at Federal and State levels. There is now a serious backlash from the manufacturing industry and concern that it impacts on our economy. It may just be hindsight but a more appropriate answer would have been that the report would be brought to the Minister to seek a response. More recently, I put a series of questions on notice to the Minister for Resources and Energy primarily concerning coal royalties and the administration of the royalty system. The questions were mostly of a technical nature, asking for figures.
The issue of coal is significant to this State. The Greens are opposed to expanding coalmining and are interested in how a transition away from coalmining and exports can be managed responsibly. The Government supports the expansion of coalmining and regularly champions to the public the role of coal in our economy. Given these opposing positions, I assumed that the Government had a positive story to tell about coal and other royalties. However, the answers I have received failed to answer any of my questions meaningfully or, in my opinion, relevantly. On a question about unpaid royalties and fines I was simply provided with a figure for total royalties received and a Government spin line about mining funding roads and hospitals. On a question relating to recent audits that identified underpayments of royalties and the amount of allowable deductions I was given almost identical answers.
On the very top line question about whether all mining royalties are paid in full and what the penalties are for underpaying mining royalties, I received the answer that all titleholders are required to pay royalties in full and if they fail to do so penalties apply. These questions did not relate to commercial-in-confidence arrangements. Total royalty figures are public information and there have been Auditor-General reports highlighting underpayments. Clearly not all royalties have been paid in full and, judging from the Government’s answers, it appears that no penalties have been levied. In recent years the administration of mining in this State has come under scrutiny by the Independent Commission Against Corruption and the public should reasonably expect direct and relevant answers to direct and relevant questions about the administration of an income stream so regularly highlighted by this Government, which demonstrates the virtues of coal and coalmining.
I have asked the Minister’s office to reconsider these answers but received the plain reply that it would not do so. On 11 September this year I asked the Hon. Duncan Gay a question about Shenhua—which he would recall clearly—and the $300 million success fee built into the exploration licence condition. I asked how the people of New South Wales could be confident that such a large amount of money would not affect the approvals process. His answer in full was:
- For the simple reason that the Government does not act like The Greens.
The Shenhua mine has been enormously controversial in the Liverpool Plains community. It will have a big effect on that community, business and the local environment. It comes on the back of corruption concerns about the issuing of licences, particularly by former Minister Ian Macdonald. It is a reasonable and responsible question. To have a question dismissed so curtly is unacceptable, in my view, and shows disrespect to the many people in the Liverpool Plains area who genuinely want to hear a relevant answer. I must admit that, while it is frustrating, there have been a couple of crackers from the early days that I should re-read into Hansard—including a couple of answers from the former Minister, the Hon. Greg Pearce, who decided to fantasise about North Korean controllers rather than answer the question. On 20 October 2011, I asked:
- I direct my question to the Minister for Finance and Services, representing the Minister for Planning. Does the Minister support the statement made today by the Minister for Resources and Energy about a potential coalmine in the Wyong area that “no applications will be permitted that are harmful to our water or our environment”? Can he confirm that this new benchmark for considering applications will be applied statewide?
In response, the former Minister said:
- I do not know; it is getting close to Christmas and the Christmas cards are flooding in from his controllers in North Korea. The member asked me a question as the representative of the Minister for Planning about the Minister for Resources and Energy. Obviously the North Korean translator in his office has lost it again. The Hon. Jeremy Buckingham knows the Government’s policy on these matters because we have discussed it with him many times. I refer him again to that policy.
I quote another answer from the former Minister’s spy thriller series in response to part of another question from me that was a follow-up from a question the previous week. I asked:
- Given the toxicity of antimony and history of contamination, what is the Government doing to ensure that these mines will not further contaminate the Macleay River and contaminate the Nymboida River?
The Minister replied:
- Last week I commented upon the member’s North Korean controller and the need to translate his questions from Korean to code, then from code to Korean, and then from Korean to English. I said that his questions are garbled. If anyone can make sense of that question, I invite them to answer it for me. I could not follow it at all—I really could not. I invite the member to put the question on notice to get a detailed answer.
The final example I would like to leave with the House is an answer to a question not from me but from my colleague Ms Jan Barham on 20 September 2012. Inexplicably, though, the answer is about me.
The Hon. Matthew Mason-Cox: It’s always about you.
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: I know; I am the centre of attention. Ms Jan Barham asked:
- My question without notice is directed to the Minister for Roads and Ports, representing the Minister for Primary Industries. Will the Minister advise whether approval has been given to the plans of management for the Crown’s Brunswick Heads holiday parks—The Terrace, Massey Green and Ferry Reserve—and/or the closure of Riverside Crescent, which had been the access to the boat ramp and its closure is now blocking the street and creating conflicts for the residents?
That is an excellent question. The response from the Hon. Duncan Gay was:
- I thank the honourable member for her question, which asks for great detail. It involves Brunswick Heads and the boat ramp—a well-known holiday destination. I suspect the 1972 Ford Country Squire station wagon that Corncob Joe uses around the place has been there. Yesterday I suspect he misled the House when he said he had answered my question on carbon sequestration. I had a look at
- and read what the Hon. Jeremy Buckingham said in an adjournment speech. He said:
- I draw the attention of the House to my recent “frack-finding” tour of the United States of America and wish to respond to the questions that have been asked about my emissions.
- At no time have I ever asked about the Hon. Jeremy Buckingham’s emissions. I am reliably informed they are not without substance, that my question was about his carbon offsets for his frack-finding tour to the United States in the 1972 Ford Country Squire station wagon—an aspirational vehicle if ever there was one. That car is powered by a 351 Windsor Motor. That is the same motor which powered the XY Falcon GT-HO.
I could go on, but I am sure members remember and take my point. It had absolutely no relevance to the excellent question from Ms Jan Barham about Brunswick Heads. Of course, in response to my feelings that answers have not been answered sufficiently I have taken to YouTube and other social media to demonstrate to constituents the Government’s response to their questions. It is very hard to post videos featuring the Hon. Duncan Gay. In fact, I have been approached by constituents who have seen these answers on YouTube or have read Hansard and who are astonished and appalled by the lack of seriousness that appears to have been given to an answer—particularly when it is an issue that concerns their areas or their interests. From time to time in this place we are very casual with each other—as we should be—but we should also remember our role and the responsibility people have given to us as a House of review. My preference would be not to have to rely on YouTube but to be able to email responses to constituents that, although may not include an answer they like, includes an answer that is relevant. The Procedure Committee report concluded:
- Real change to the operation of Question Time would require cultural change. However, notwithstanding the political nature of Question Time, all members of the House should be encouraged to use Question Time for the purpose for which it is intended—an opportunity to seek and provide information about government decisions and actions.
I agree that no amount of rules will change the outcome unless we take more responsibility as individual members in this place to approach question time with this very purpose. While I encourage the House to be bold and set our standard in the rules governing this place, regardless of the vote on this sessional motion I hope that we can all take on board the intention behind the motion and in our individual actions strive to attain the highest standard. I commend the motion to the House.
The Hon. DUNCAN GAY (Minister for Roads and Freight, and Vice-President of the Executive Council) [11.39 a.m.]: Frankly, this motion is a waste of the House’s time. It is the sort of issue that should be referred to the Procedure Committee for further consideration. It needs and deserves proper consideration to understand the impact of changing years of precedent in this House. It is entirely appropriate for the Procedure Committee to look into this matter further and to put recommendations to the House. Mr President, I gather from the contribution by the honourable member that the major reason he wants to change the rules is he was ejected from the House. The member should look at his own behaviour in the House and the circumstances that led to his being removed from the House on that day.
Mr Jeremy Buckingham: Frustration with your stupid responses.
The Hon. DUNCAN GAY: The member says it was frustration. Every member of this House knows it went a lot further than that. If the member wishes to put people on YouTube, maybe he will end up there too.
Mr David Shoebridge: Point of order: If the Hon. Duncan Gay wishes to cast personal aspersions on another member he must do so by way of substantive motion and not by way of commentary in the course of purportedly speaking to the motion.
The PRESIDENT: Order! There is a very fine line between speaking in reply to points that were made in debate and making reflections on members. At this point the Minister is responding to the debate but I will monitor his comments closely. The Leader of the Government has the call.
The Hon. DUNCAN GAY: Clearly, the member was removed from the House. Rather than look for excuses in the rules of precedent, the member should carefully analyse why he was removed from the House. I am sure that others in this place could—but have decided not to—use YouTube to show the member’s standards of behaviour. The Government has not done that, but if that is the way he wants to go it is up to him.
Dr John Kaye: Point of order: The Leader of the House is clearly casting an aspersion on Mr Jeremy Buckingham, which he should do only by way of substantive motion. The Minister is making implications about the member’s behaviour in the House that are not within standing orders.
The PRESIDENT: Order! The Minister did not make any specific statement about behaviour. There was a reference to behaviour but there was no reflection, by way of specific statements, as to what that behaviour was. Whilst sailing close to the wind, I do not believe the Leader of the Government was falling foul of that particular standing order.
The Hon. DUNCAN GAY: There have been rulings by former Presidents on the issue of relevance, including learned rulings by the present President and by me in a former capacity. I defer to the decision made in 2009 by former President Peter Primrose. As President, he stated:
- The only requirement is that in answering a question a Minister must not debate the question—Standing Order 65 (6)—and an answer must be relevant to the question—Standing Order 65 (5). The term “relevant” has traditionally been interpreted very broadly by successive presidents requiring general, as opposed to strict, relevance and I am bound by these precedents.
Further, he said:
- It is not for the Chair to direct a Minister how to answer a question. Ministers are not obliged to answer questions, they can answer part of a question. The Minister may answer a question in his or her own manner. Even though a question may invite a “yes” or a “no” answer, members cannot demand that an answer be in such terms and the Chair cannot compel a Minister to answer a question other than in the way the Minister chooses.
Do we want Mr Jeremy Buckingham to be able to say to a Minister in this House: “Answer this yes or no”?
Mr David Shoebridge: That is not right.
The Hon. DUNCAN GAY: It is ultimately where we could go on the relevancy issue.
Mr David Shoebridge: Rubbish.
The Hon. DUNCAN GAY: You might say that, but the issue here is precedent. Is the House going to put its trust in past presidential rulings or in the whimsy of the honourable member who felt he was badly treated in being removed from the House? As has been quoted by the honourable member, in New South Wales Legislative Council Practice, authored by Lovelock and Evans, the precise relevancy of remarks and their connection to the question before the House are not always apparent. Mr Jeremy Buckingham’s proposal to change Standing Order 65 (5) from “an answer must be relevant to a question” to “an answer must be directly relevant to a question” may seem like a small point but it can be argued that it alters the Minister’s ability to provide context and clarity to the question. That thereby limits the Minister’s ability to provide a relevant answer. If the honourable member is intent on changing years of tradition and reversing numerous rulings by past Presidents, frankly, it should be considered by the Procedure Committee so that the proposal is fully understood. If the Procedure Committee then believes it should go ahead, it will make the relevant recommendation to the House. In light of that, I move:
- That the question be amended by omitting all words after “That” and inserting instead “the Procedure Committee inquire into and report on whether Standing Order 65 (5) should be amended by inserting the word “directly” before the word “relevant” in paragraph (5)”.
The Hon. LYNDA VOLTZ [11.46 a.m.]: The tome New South Wales Legislative Council Practice, authored by Lynn Lovelock and John Evans, makes the point that Erskine May’s Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament describes question time as, “not a time for debate but one for seeking information.” A Minister can answer a question in any way he or she sees fit. Therein lies the dilemma for people in this Chamber. While the questions seek information, rarely do the answers provide any information. That is why the Opposition supports the idea of inserting the word “directly” in front of the word “relevant” in Standing Order 65. It is a worthwhile measure.
It reflects Standing Order 104 in the House of Representatives, which states that an answer must be directly relevant to the question. There is no argument put forward by Government members as to why that ruling in the Federal Parliament should not be applied in this Chamber. The Minister cited previous rulings from the Chair, but the Government has changed on a whim other rulings and precedents regarding a range of standing orders. The application of standing orders in any Parliament is a movable feast, and it is up to Parliament to decide whether standing orders reflect the public interest.
The Minister said that there was a need to provide context and clarity but the reality is that most of the answers given in this Chamber do not do that. That is not true of all Ministers, but some are better than others at answering questions. That is not only true of the Coalition Government but of previous governments. Providing context and clarity should also include providing some information with regard to the question but it rarely does. There is public discontent with politicians across many countries, particularly in Australia.
The Government’s desire to play political games rather than to provide information and a service to the people causes that discontent. If a question is asked and Ministers obfuscate to avoid answering and use question time as an opportunity to attack other members they do a great disservice to the public because that behaviour exacerbates community discontent. The Minister’s amendment calls on the House to refer the matter to the Procedure Committee. The Opposition supports that approach, but it also supports an amendment inserting “in regard to answers to questions” before the word “relevant”.
The Hon. Dr PETER PHELPS [11.50 a.m.]: Section 72 of Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice requires that Ministers’ answers be directly relevant to the question asked. Having worked in that environment for nine years, I believe I am the person in this Chamber who has the most direct and relevant experience of answers to questions that are supposed to be directly relevant. Having worked for Senator Ellison and Senator Abetz, both of whom were and are Ministers, and Senator Ronaldson, a shadow Minister, I was able to see for nine years a question time system that required direct relevance. No-one else in this Chamber has that level of experience.
The PRESIDENT: Order! I call Mr David Shoebridge to order for the first time.
The Hon. Dr PETER PHELPS: The simple fact is that there is no meaningful difference in the answers provided by Ministers in this Chamber and Ministers in the Senate or in the presidential discretion exercised by the President of this Chamber or by the President of the Senate. There is no practical difference between the answers provided in the Senate or in this Chamber, despite the difference in standing orders with regard to being “relevant” and “directly relevant”. Moreover, if Mr Jeremy Buckingham had any evidence that there was a material difference in the answers provided, he would have adduced it. However, he did not, and for the simple reason that if members were to watch Senate question time and compare it with the Legislative Council question time they would see there is no material difference in the answers provided. We can talk on and on about relevance or irrelevance, argumentation in question time or otherwise, but the simple fact is that there is no material difference.
Instead, what did we hear from Mr Jeremy Buckingham? He is clearly aggrieved by decisions made in this Chamber, and I thought he was straying towards reflecting on the President’s rulings. I ask him to watch Senate question time, which is conducted under standing orders that require answers to be directly relevant, and to tell me exactly where the material difference lies. He will not be able to do that because as a practitioner in that field for more than nine years I know that there is none. This is a waste of time. It is a truckload of butt-hurt from Mr Buckingham, and he should not stop whining like a North Korean air raid siren.
Dr John Kaye: Point of order: The member’s closing remark was irrelevant and offensive, and also well wide of the standing orders. He gesticulated at Mr Jeremy Buckingham and behaved in a deeply unparliamentary manner.
The PRESIDENT: Order! I call the Hon. Dr Peter Phelps to order for the first time.
Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE [11.54 a.m.]: I support the motion. The Government Whip said that even if we tightened up the wording of the standing orders we could still get long, rambling and irrelevant responses like those he says are delivered in the Senate.
The Hon. Dr Peter Phelps: Point of order: At no point did I say the words attributed to me. Mr David Shoebridge is misleading the House.
The PRESIDENT: Order! As the member knows, there is no point of order.
Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: Mr President, this motion in no way seeks to reflect upon your rulings or the rulings of any previous President of this Chamber. My personal view is that your rulings are fair and balanced and that you do your best to apply the practice and precedents in this House in an impartial manner.
The Hon. Lynda Voltz: You are not helping his preselection.
Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: Mr President, it is all the more credit to you in being an impartial Chair if that causes you embarrassment within your party. The issue before the House relates to the rules under which debate is framed. Question time is simply that—question time. It is about the theatre of the questions rather than the substance of the answers. Indeed, as a member who has participated in question time for the better part of four years, there have been many occasions when I have come into the House seeking a substantive response but known before I even asked the question that, given the politics of this place, I would not get the information I wanted. Rather, question time offers members the opportunity to embarrass the Government about its failure to answer questions. We should recast question time as answer time. It would be a far more fruitful exercise if we saw it as a period during which answers were provided and the substance of questions was addressed.
If members ask reasonable questions and the Minister cannot provide the facts in response, he or she should genuinely take the question on notice and provide the information requested. Instead, members feel frustrated because they get bizarre political diatribes such as those provided by the Leader of the Government. Members’ frustration is palpable. If members have the misfortune of looking to the public gallery during question time they see the disbelief on the faces of those present—if there is anyone in the gallery. That is their response to the nonsense provided as answers. It would be of benefit to all members—Government, Opposition and crossbench—if we were to amend the rules to provide greater scope to the President to call Ministers to account and require them to answer questions directly. The 2012-13 edition of Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice states:
- Questions with or without notice are permissible only for the purpose of obtaining information, and answers are subject to the same limitation, that is, they are limited to supplying the information asked for by the questions. Questions would not only be in conformity with the standing orders, but would be more effective and telling, if they were confined to properly framed questions, and did not contain statements, assertions, allegations, insinuations and other extraneous material. In answering a question, a senator must not debate it. Thus an answer should be confined to giving the information asked for, and should not contain any argument or comments. An answer must also be relevant to the question. On 22 August 1973 President Cormack ruled that in answering a question:
- the Minister should confine himself to points contained in the question with such explanation only as will render the answer intelligible. In all cases the answer must be relevant to the question.
I commend that practice to this House. But instead we have rulings that are in accordance with precedent and in accordance with our practice, so I do not criticise any President for making the rulings. The rulings are that a lengthy political diatribe, which is not providing any facts or any substantive response but is notionally providing some context, is ruled to be generally relevant.
That kind of answer provides no benefit in respect of accountability to the House or accountability of the executive to the Parliament. If question time becomes a mock debate or political theatre rather than a substantive exchange of question and answer then it greatly reduces the ability of this House to hold the Government to account. If we had clearer rules and the President had the ability to call the Minister to account and require the answers to be directly relevant then that would improve not only the answers but also the questions. If the Opposition believed that there would be a substantive response to a question that would encourage more substantive questions. But when members realise that if they ask a substantive question they are likely to get a political rant that encourages the questions to be crafted as a political point.
It would assist the administration of this House and increase the public confidence in this House if this motion were adopted. I am happy to see the Opposition support this motion. I hope that when the Opposition comes into government in the future it maintains a commitment to directly relevant answers to questions without notice. I have noticed that often the views of those in opposition do not reflect their views in government. Let us adopt good practice while we can. I urge crossbench members, who must also be frustrated by the absence of substantive answers, to join with The Greens and the Opposition in tightening up these rules.
Dr JOHN KAYE [12.01 p.m.]: I support the motion of Mr Jeremy Buckingham to insert “directly” before “relevant” in Standing Order 65 (5). I was disappointed by the contribution of Government members on this matter. I appreciate the contribution of the Deputy Opposition Whip, but I thought the contribution by the Leader of the House, the Hon. Duncan Gay, displayed a singular lack of understanding of what we are talking about. The Leader of the House specifically said there are rulings by various Presidents, including the Hon. Peter Primrose, that answers do not have to be generally relevant and that we have to live with that precedent.
However, that precedent is based on the existing wording of Standing Order 65 (5). Precedent is only an interpretation of the standing orders. It is not up to Presidents to change standing orders or to make rulings outside of standing orders; it is up to Presidents to make rulings that are within standing orders. A change to standing orders would change those precedents. I am not a lawyer, but I presume the same would be true in a court of law where precedents in respect of interpretation of a piece of legislation would change if the piece of legislation were changed. That is exactly what is being proposed by this motion.
The Leader of the House also said that Ministers would be restricted because they would not be given the opportunity to provide clarity and context to their answers. Indeed, this change would stop them from providing context and clarity to any matter other than the matter raised in the question. I have great confidence in the President of the day making sensible rulings on a putatively amended Standing Order 65 (5) that would allow sufficient context for the answer to make sense. Where context and matters of clarification are specifically and directly relevant to a question then the President would allow them.
The Leader of the House talked about years of tradition. There are years of tradition but they are not necessarily good. There are good things and bad things about tradition. On occasion we need to accept that we have not done as well as we could have done. I have been in this Chamber for 7½ years and I have watched Ministers from both sides of politics. Some people will recall the way former Treasurer Michael Costa dealt with answers. He exploited Standing Order 65 (5) despite repeated points of order and he turned question time into abuse time. I recall the Hon. Michael Costa standing at the podium and shouting at me for 2½ minutes in answer to a question when I could get no relief from the President because the President felt the answer was generally relevant.
Allowing Ministers to act in this way has three significant consequences. The first is that the Government is not held to account. A key component of responsible government in New South Wales is the accountability provision of the New South Wales upper House. The Government does not have the numbers to dominate this Chamber. This Chamber proportionately represents the people of New South Wales and allows for diversity of opinion. That diversity of opinion informs the questions asked of Ministers, and so sections of our society which would otherwise not be represented have their voices heard in holding the Government to account. The current structure of Standing Order 65 (5) is such that this accountability provision does not work as question time does not hold the Government to account. Instead of getting answers that are directly relevant we end up with tirades of abuse, particularly if the question is on the money and any answer risks exposing something that the Government would rather not have exposed. If something adverse has happened or has been perpetrated by the Government and a question is asked on this matter, all that does is to turn up the volume and the intensity of the abuse that the questioner receives.
This is not in the best interests of democracy because it brings the House into disrepute. Question time is observed by the public and the media probably more than any other time. When question time becomes a joke—and frankly it has become a joke under the current structure of Standing Order 65 (5)—the opprobrium associated with that attaches itself to the rest of the proceedings of the House and that brings the House into disrepute. The sorts of answers given to serious questions by this Government and its predecessors have frankly been embarrassingly bad for democracy. It is very clear that certain Ministers choose from time to time to treat the instruments of democracy, the Parliament, with total and complete contempt. That contempt goes to the integrity and authority of Parliament. The failure of Ministers to directly answer questions is a blight on our Parliament.
The third and most serious reason is the standard of government itself. When governments are not exposed to questioning they can hide behind the rock of secrecy and behave adversely. Many members will recall questions asked by former Greens member Lee Rhiannon to the then Minister for Minerals and Energy, Ian Macdonald, in respect of Doyles Creek. Minister Macdonald responded to these questions with tirades of abuse about Lee Rhiannon and her family. We now know that there were corrupt activities around Doyles Creek which directly involved Minister Macdonald, but at the time we could not cover this topic. The harsh reality is that there was a failure of Standing Order 65 (5) to provide a responsibility for the Minister to answer directly. This allowed him to evade the exposure that would have brought the Doyles Creek matter to a head much earlier and would have done far less damage to New South Wales.
The Hon. Dr Peter Phelps: Rubbish. You know that’s rubbish.
Dr JOHN KAYE: I hear the Government Whip saying, “Rubbish.” The Government Whip was not in the Chamber at the time. You were, Mr President, as were many other members. The Government Whip, who has had his opportunity to speak, would have known if he had been here that Ministers such as Macdonald, Obeid and the others who have been found corrupt used Standing Order 65 (5) to escape. The Government Whip would also know that questions relating to the impacts of coal seam gas were hidden by Ministers such as Macdonald refusing to answer. He would also know that repeated questions to Ministers Costa and Roozendaal with respect to the Gentrader and privatisation transactions, which ended up costing the State $5 billion, were not answered because they continually used the opportunity to attack the questioner—often being me and sometimes members of your party, Mr President—rather than fronting up to the accountability that would have saved the State at least $5 billion.
It is a tragedy that we did not have this rule earlier. The Leader of the House says that we are throwing away tradition. Tradition is one thing but we must understand, as Mr Jeremy Buckingham said, that this is exactly what happens in the House of Representative and in the Senate federally: the same relevancy laws apply there.
The PRESIDENT: Order! Members will cease interjecting.
Dr JOHN KAYE: The relevancy laws that apply in the Federal Parliament do not breach tradition because there is already a precedent: it is done in other Houses. I understand it is done in the Australian Capital Territory and in other State and Territory Houses. I congratulate Mr Jeremy Buckingham on bringing this proposal forward. He is responding to two governments back to back who have treated question time with utter and complete contempt. I qualify that statement by saying that some Ministers, on occasions, do provide honest answers, and I thank them for doing so. However, anyone who has been in Opposition or on the crossbench who has asked a question about an issue raised with them by a constituent or a group of constituents knows full well what they will get if they get too close to the bone and the issue is on the money—a tirade of abuse.
I find it utterly extraordinary that the Leader of the House, in particular, thinks it appropriate to make references to some mythical connection between The Greens and North Korea and Priuses whenever he is asked a question that he finds embarrassing to answer. This amendment to Standing Order 65 (5) is not about Mr Jeremy Buckingham being evicted from this House, as the Hon. Duncan Gay suggests.
The Hon. Dr Peter Phelps: Of course it is.
Dr JOHN KAYE: No, it is not. It is not about any one member in this Chamber, it is not even about the Hon. Duncan Gay; this amendment is about accountability. It is about mechanisms of responsible government. It is about holding the Government to account. It is about openness and honesty in government. It is about a higher standard of government and it is about going right to the heart of the cancer that is eating away at politics in New South Wales—the corruption scandals that have engulfed both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party. It is about addressing those by improving the standard of government.
I heard the contribution of the Hon. Dr Peter Phelps, who seemed to suggest that there was no such thing as EightByFive, that there was no such thing as the Eddie Obeid findings or the Ian Macdonald findings in the Independent Commission Against Corruption and that there was no such thing as corruption in this State. What the Hon. Dr Peter Phelps fails to understand is the direct connection between corrupt States and the failure of the mechanisms of accountability. One of the big failures of mechanisms of accountability in New South Wales is the current wording of Standing Order 65 (5).
I understand that this issue will probably be referred to the Procedure Committee, on which I still sit. I hope that we can—if not in this session of Parliament in a subsequent session of Parliament—do something to improve question time and turn it from the farce that it has become into a serious mechanism for accountability of government, no matter who is in government. I commend the motion to the House.
The Hon. Dr Peter Phelps: Like Senate question time, you goose.
Mr David Shoebridge: Point of order: I distinctly heard the Government Whip call Dr John Kaye a goose. That is a deliberately offensive comment. The Government Whip is already on one call to order and he appears to be flouting your authority, Mr President, and the ordinary decorum of the Chamber in making that comment. I ask you to call him to order.
The Hon. Dr Peter Phelps: I withdraw the terminology that I used towards the member.
The PRESIDENT: Order! The member has voluntarily withdrawn his comments.
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM [12.15 p.m.], in reply: I thank members for their contributions to the debate, particularly Mr David Shoebridge and Dr John Kaye, who so eloquently and eruditely fleshed out the issues that I have brought to the House today. The points raised by Dr John Kaye about the impact of this standing order on the standards of governments are pertinent and I support them wholeheartedly. In his contribution the Hon. Dr Peter Phelps suggested that what I have proposed would make no material difference. If it would make no material difference, why oppose it? If, in his opinion, it will not change things much—which I do not agree with at all—why oppose it?
I believe that if my motion were enacted it would enable you, Mr President, and future Presidents to make rulings that guide answers and it would ensure that answers are more relevant and that governments are held to account. It was remiss of me to overlook the contribution of the Hon. Lynda Voltz. The Opposition’s support is welcomed. I join Mr David Shoebridge in hoping that the Labor Opposition commits to this if and when it is returned to government, which may be sooner rather than later if the Government continues to act in an arrogant way and is dismissive of this House of review and its role.
I put a number of questions and answers in this place on YouTube and they are of enormous interest to the community. It informs the community of the standards of the executive and the Government. The Greens will be supporting a referral of this matter to the Procedure Committee, but I hope wholeheartedly that in good faith the committee—even though it has a Government majority—responds in a meaningful way because this is an issue that will not go away. I commend the motion to the House.
Question—That the amendment of the Hon. Duncan Gay be agreed to—put and resolved in the affirmative.
Amendment of the Hon. Duncan Gay agreed to.
Question—That the motion as amended be agreed to—put and resolved in the affirmative.
Motion as amended agreed to.