Britain can teach us how to keep our House in order
From the parliamentary precinct across Lake Burley Griffin to this correspondent’s home takes six or seven minutes by car - max.
But that was easily long enough on Wednesday night to highlight a massive contrast between the grindingly dull and scripted performance of the Australian House of Representatives and the more dynamic, and frankly more honest British equivalent on which ours is modelled.
Thanks to the storm over phone hacking and political entanglements associated with the now defunct News of the World, Question Time in the mother of Westminster parliaments was broadcast on the ABC’s News Radio.
In the time it took to make the homeward journey, there were perhaps seven or eight probing questions put, bringing as many concise answers.
You’d be lucky to hear one full question in that time in our comparatively turgid QT and that would usually be only half audible over the row of mindless barracking and frivolous points of order. Even the British speaker displayed wit.
His light touch was a welcome change from our own charisma-challenged Mr Jenkins whose momentum-sapping interventions meander painfully towards their dull and pointless conclusions. “Order! Or-der!”.
The reasons for the superior watchability of the Commons are many and they derive from the more mature culture of the legislature which prevailed even as the PM David Cameron returned from abroad to tend to a political crisis.
First, nearly all of the questions to him were brief and free of gratuitous point scoring. Second, because of that, they elicited brief answers - simply there was no extraneous argument with which the PM could engage. Third, these answers actually were for the most part, answers - not speeches, party-political rallying etcetera.
Fourth, the rapid pace and brevity conveyed far less rancour, notwithstanding the heat in the issues and notwithstanding that Mr Cameron was ostensibly on the back foot for having hired the disgraced former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his press secretary.
And fifth, Mr Cameron, who forthrightly acknowledged the past craven behaviour of the Tories as well as Labour, resisted trying to kick the Opposition to death even when questions from his own back bench offered him that opportunity.
In short, the more intimate but significantly larger body of MPs (650 in the House of Commons to 150 in the Reps) was a lot more mature and civilised, considerably more productive and a damn site more interesting.
Compare this now to the US.
For months now, the Democrats and the Republicans have been locked in a tense and surreal stand-off over the country’s unfathomably large debt ceiling.
The Obama Administration has been trying to get Congress to sign off on raising the $14.3 trillion borrowing limit or face defaulting on loan repayments and having its credit rating downgraded.
Surreal is the right adjective because the stand-off has been waged essentially as a proxy war on the Obama presidency. Republicans, now in thrall to a rabble of zero-tax Tea Party fundamentalists have been so gung-ho, they’ve been prepared to sacrifice the country’s economic interests to do so.
They have steadfastly refused to countenance any tax increases despite the obvious fact that the US government’s outlays vastly exceed its income forcing it to borrow at the rate of several billion dollars a day to meet its costs.
Obama’s attempts to reach a compromise have so far done little else than expose the powerlessness of White House and the systemic weakness of a system where executive power is completely separate from the legislature.
Nonetheless, as a genuine crisis looms, a deal does appear to be inching closer, thanks to the last minute concessions of a cross-party clutch of slightly saner lawmakers.
The process is deeply flawed and you would not want to emulate it. It does however highlight one thing which is quite foreign to Australian democracy. That is that the two sides, Democrat and Republican, will eventually give ground to each other in direct negotiation.
Imagine that principle applied in Australia at present. Rather than nutting out a deal with the Greens party and independents and then simply out-gunning the alternative in Parliament as is planned, a compromise which has the signatures of both sides may eventually go forward.
Who knows, on a policy debate as polarised as the carbon tax, this direct bargaining might even lead us toward a political and social consensus. Wouldn’t that be in the national interest? It would certainly be better for business investment certainty.
Australia at present seems to have absorbed, almost too literally, some of the worst aspects of both “big brothers” - the institutionalised adversarialism inherent in the Westminster system and the tendency to reckless unaccountability open to those not currently in power (yes, Mr Abbott, this refers to you).
The UK and the US are not perfect but we are no closer.
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