The quality of political debate in Australia is again under the microscope, courtesy of Malcolm Turnbull’s attack on question time in the House of Representatives.
Decrying the obsessive focus on the Prime Minister, asylum seekers and the carbon tax, the former Liberal leader declared that ”there’s nothing more certain to arouse your fury and invite your contempt than listening to an entire House of Representatives question time”.
Clearly Turnbull hasn’t visited the NSW Parliament of late. For sheer inanity and lack of substance, nothing beats question time in the Bear Pit.
What is supposed to be the main forum for holding the government to account is dominated by snide insults, obfuscation, time wasting and political point-scoring.
The quality is so poor that it is often difficult to sit through. It is no exaggeration to say Australia’s oldest Parliament, during question time, at least, has been reduced to little more than the platform for a cheap slanging match.
Who is to blame? Obviously, the O’Farrell government’s increasing unwillingness to answer questions with any real conviction, in part. Ministers routinely treat their responsibility to answer fully and frankly with utter contempt.
But even more culpable are those charged with taking it up to the government.
The sad fact is that the opposition under its present leader, John Robertson, is failing to hit the mark with alarming regularity.
The examples are too numerous to list but a recent case in point: the same day the Minister for Fair Trading, Anthony Roberts, was under pressure in the media over a policy decision that would benefit a colleague, the opposition led on the failure of the government to proclaim legislation about paying its bills on time.
But of even greater concern is that the opposition’s failings in question time are symptomatic of a broader problem.
When Robertson was elected leader, he promised to be the most energetic opposition leader ever seen in NSW. And in some respects he has kept his promise.
The problem is the issues upon which he is choosing to focus. Exhibit A is his tallying of every one of Sydney’s shootings, which has become a joke among press gallery journalists.
Conversely, he has largely gone missing in the area that many believe he needs to focus on most: policy leadership.
Robertson’s first budget reply speech showed some promise but this year’s was an abject failure. Shortly after announcing his plans for the expansion of an energy assistance scheme, it was revealed to be recycled policy dumped by the former Labor government.
Earlier, in March, Robertson had delivered a speech raising the issue of whether negative gearing should be confined to new properties, which add to the housing stock, and if stamp duty should be abolished. He also pledged to hold his own housing affordability summit.
But since then, there has been nothing, leaving his tally of big policy ideas at one in 18 months.
At a time when the NSW Labor Party is seeking to rebuild by engaging the community with ideas that differentiate it from the conservatives, it’s far from good enough.
It must be noted that Labor is operating with a fraction of the budget O’Farrell did in opposition after his government slashed it upon taking office. This means while O’Farrell had 20 staff, Robertson’s office employs only 11.
Being in opposition is never easy and this is particularly so after a demoralising electoral thrashing.
But it is equally true that after 18 months in opposition, Labor is flatlining. If Robertson wants to continue in the NSW Labor leadership, that’s going to have to change.
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