What matters more: stability or Question Time?
The little we see of parliament isn't the true measure of our political culture.
Nobody who has ever sat through a full session of Federal Parliament's Question Time would argue that it is an edifying spectacle. But the introspective angst that followed Australian journalists' first exposure to the UK parliamentary Question Time was completely over the top.
Australian Twitter feeds usually scroll slowly in the early hours of the morning, as few updates are sent while most Aussie tweeters sleep. Not so on one night in late July. Twitter was alive with activity, as Australians sat up and watched an engrossing special session of British Question Time amid the News of the World hacking scandal.
Superlatives flew as Australian tweeters, many among them Canberra Press Gallery journalists, marvelled at Prime Minister David Cameron's performance. He was, in the words of many, ‘serious', ‘mature', ‘intelligent' and ‘sophisticated'. His answers were to the point and did not avoid the question.
The questions themselves were hard-hitting and relevant, and there was little sign of the
‘Dorothy Dixers' to which we are all too accustomed in Australia.
Indeed, it didn't take long for unfavourable comparisons to be drawn with Australia's own Question Time.
The Age's national affairs correspondent, Katherine Murphy, quickly distilled the Press Gallery's collective view. In an opinion piece a week later, Murphy obviously made full use of her thesaurus, describing Australian Question Time as ‘pathetic', ‘rubbish', ‘banal', ‘pointless', ‘timewasting', ‘confected', ‘aggressive', ‘spiteful', ‘gladiatorial', ‘soporific', ‘bitchy' and ‘a joke'.
Murphy was joined by a chorus of her colleagues - many of whom approvingly shared her article on Twitter - in bemoaning what has become of our Question Time.
Canberra Times editor-at-large Jack Waterford remarked that watching PMQs that week was ‘an occasion for genuine colonial cringe' because ‘politicians [asked] actual questions and politicians actually [answered] them'.
ABC Radio Brisbane presenter Christopher Welsh said watching Australian parliamentary proceedings made him want to ‘stick skewers in [his] eyeballs' and that he was ‘enthralled' by the UK parliament's Question Time, because it is ‘so much better than ours'.
Of course, there was nothing new about last month's PMQs. It has long been fast-paced, free-flowing and entertaining. But it seemed that the Australian parliamentary Press Gallery had discovered it for the first time. Only a cynic would suggest that this had something to do with the subject at hand.
Maybe they are right. Perhaps our Question Time really is the worst in the world. But who cares?
Appearing on Mornings with Jon Faine on ABC Melbourne's 774, former Monthly editor Sally Warhaft was aghast to hear me say that I thought the operation of Question Time had no bearing on how the country is governed.
Katherine Murphy argued in her piece that Question Time ‘symbolises everything that's wrong with political discussion in Australia'. Really?
After all, Question Time only showcases a tiny slice of our politicians' activity, and an unrepresentative one at that. Just because it dominates media coverage doesn't mean it's accurate.
Question Time receives disproportionate attention because it is much more entertaining than the minutiae of policy development. Headline-grabbing clashes, witticisms (of highly variable quality) and the theatre of political combat make for much better footage and copy.
Try enlivening an earnest exchange between an academic witness and a genuinely inquisitive senator at a committee hearing, or a dedicated local MP's five-minute oration about a great charity in their electorate, and you'll see why Question Time is a tastier proposition for a journalist.
Recent events highlight the absurdity of holding up parliamentary behaviour during Question Time as any way representative of the quality of a nation's governance. Britain's politicians may use well-rounded vowels and speak in crisp sentences, but British streets have also been ablaze with thousands of rioters and looters.
While the Left and the Right disagree about the cause of the riots - some say it's inequality, others lax policing - it's clear that poor government policy played a role. Nor is it Britain's only problem. The country is mired in record debt, unemployment is nearly nine per cent and, according to some studies, social mobility has rarely been worse.
The US, too, has always had a much more serene and cerebral parliamentary culture. There is no Question Time at all, members are highly deferential to each other on the floor, and speeches, while partisan, are most often respectful. The most controversial recent departure, when a Republican Congressman yelled ‘you lie' during President Obama's State of the Union address, was remarkable because it was almost unheard-of in US Congressional history.
Contrast this with the daily insults and even expletives hurled across the floor whenever the Australian Prime Minister rises to speak.
But like Britain, the US is neck-deep in debt, and more Americans than ever believe their country is heading in the wrong direction. But hey, at least their parliamentary behaviour is classy.
The truth is that at this moment, Australia stands almost alone as the most trouble-free and best-governed country in the western hemisphere. Our economy is strong, employment is at near record highs and even the Rudd and Gillard governments haven't been able to drag us down to European levels of national debt. Thanks to a sensible bipartisan policy consensus in favour of free trade, open markets and (relatively) limited government, Australians have never enjoyed greater prosperity.
So tell me again why Question Time matters?