Question Time's bunch of spuds

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Question Time on the first day of a new Prime Minister. Do I expect pomp? Ceremony? Gravitas?

Scott Morrison during question time at Parliament House (Stefan Postles/Getty Images)Of course this is not day one of a new parliament — it's just another day in the life of this one. But I am making my first ever visit to the House of Representatives, and I'm not alone in expecting the afternoon to be something more than a Mad Monday. The ticket queues are long. 'Can't think why you've all come today,' one guide jokes.

I meet a woman visiting from Albury. 'My friends think I'm mad,' she says. 'But I had to see.' What? What are we hoping to find?

I take my green ticket entitling me to a seat above the LNP benches, and settle myself into the second row. I can see all the players except for three rows of the Coalition. No Tony Abbott in my eyeline; no Julie Bishop. I don't see her response when the new Prime Minister thanks her for her service. I can't see Abbott's reaction when Scott Morrison thanks Malcolm Turnbull for his.

Morrison does this as part of a cursory recap of the events that led to him being in the big chair. There's no vision laid out — he simply tells us the story we already know. I sense I'm not alone, up in the galleries, in wanting more.

Beside me sit a family — Mum and Dad with two teenage sons. I have to stop myself from staring at them. One of the boys has the most startling eyes — wide, curious and dark. He is twitchy, febrile, observant. His brother is guarded, his gaze downcast. They have a day off school, but I wonder whether this excursion is punishment or gift. Are they political beasts, this family? I get no sense of that. Like me, I suspect, they're drawn here because of the day, and a wish to understand ... something.

The House of Representatives is light and airy. It's hard to imagine secrets in this place. There is nowhere to hide. And yet the antics that play out for the next hour would be better hidden. The Labor Party repeat the catchcry of 'Muppets', over and over. The Liberals manage to work the CFMEU into every ministerial response. Morrison and his men (and they are all men who speak) insist, over and over, that they are 'getting on with business' because that is what 'the Australian people want'.

 

"I suppose it was naïve to hope for answers. They don't call it Question Time for nothing."

 

Which people? Not up here in the gallery. We want to understand ... something. When Bill Shorten asks 'Why?' of the sacking of Turnbull, I hear murmurings of agreement. The watchers in these balconies want explanations for this particular departure.

Coalition ministers continue to insist how well the government has done, how many jobs have been created, how all the figures demonstrate the excellent work of this team in its term — and yet they kicked out their captain. If the AFL premiers — and sadly that won't be my team this year — announced they were sacking their captain, everyone would ask why, and I'd wager there'd be some kind of answer.

Not today. We get more and more rhetoric, mocking, repetition and refrains, which only serve to bewilder the three elegant women seated behind me.

'Can't they hear themselves?' one whispers.

'Well, they don't hear us,' says her companion.

I'm grateful for Tony Smith's calm, ordered presence as Speaker, but eventually, I can't tolerate listening to the same songbook on repeat. I leave.

On the way out I whisper to the guard, a bloke who has clearly seen it all before. 'You're a hero, having to listen to that every day.'

'It's terrible,' he says. 'Sorry.' His tone suggests that he has hurt me.

In the café, the boys' mother stands in front of me in the queue. I ask her what her sons thought. She says they were interested for the first half hour, but after that they began to get restless.

'We try to teach them to listen, and speak to people respectfully,' she says. 'But ... '

We order tea. I sit by a window to catch some blue sky, trying to fathom why I feel grubby. Looking back into the café, all the other patrons appear weary, their backs bent and voices subdued. The atmosphere is not funereal, just deathly dull. We are sapped.

The mother comes to find me. She reports that the big-eyed boy summed up the experience for them all. 'They're a bunch of spuds,' he said. We both laugh, but it doesn't feel good.

I believe in our democracy, and I know there are many good people working within it, so I wonder again ... What was I expecting?

I suppose it was naïve to hope for answers. They don't call it Question Time for nothing.

 

 

Ailsa Piper headshotAilsa Piper is a writer, director, performer, teacher and speaker. She was co-winner of the Patrick White Playwright's Award in 2001 for her script Small Mercies, and her first book, Sinning Across Spain, was published in 2012. An updated edition was released in 2017. The Attachment: Letters From A Most Unlikely Friendship, co-written with Tony Doherty, was also published in 2017.

Main image: Scott Morrison during question time at Parliament House (Stefan Postles/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Ailsa Piper, Question Time, Scott Morrison, Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten, Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop

 

 

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Thanks Alisa. I finished the article with tears. I understand grubby, weary, sapped... The "spuds" paid to cherish and protect our democracy, our communities, our environments, are the very people undermining them.
phil smith | 12 September 2018


Our new Prime Minister, like others, has failed to tackle the greatest challenge of our time - climate change. Scott Morrison's Government now has no climate policy at all. If you are wondering how climate change will affect Australia, please go to the Climate Council website, where you will find the following advice: “Cyclones are likely to become more intense, but less frequent. Extreme rainfall events are expected to become more intense. Hotter and drier conditions will lead to harsher bushfire weather. Heatwaves will become even longer and hotter. Higher sea levels will increase flooding in coastal cities and towns. Potential severe thunderstorm days are expected to increase. Droughts are likely to happen even more often.” Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal into Parliament and passed it to Barnaby Joyce. But why are the Coalition so pro COAL? Isn't it because they recieve big donations from the coal industry? I think Question Time in Parliament will always be a farce when political parties are bought off by donations from vested interests. By doing this, they effectively undermine our democracy. The Greens are keen to abolish such donations, and are also opposed to the Adani mega-coalmine. Consider voting Green!
Grant Allen | 12 September 2018


Well said Ailsa. Abbott and Dutton are just schoolyard bullies. Their orchestrated overthrow of Turnbull is just a turgid echo of the Rudd Gillard farce of a few years back. The reason the kids got bored is because Question time is not the main event, but a side show. The LNP havent created a job since they got there. They are in it to feather their own nests. Seriously Parliament these days is just a yawn.
Frank Armstrong | 12 September 2018


Thank you Ailsa: "...trying to fathom why I feel grubby..." - so well put. I wasn't there and yet I feel I know precisely what you mean. What does it say of national leadership and governance when citizens who come to experience it 'in action' feel tarnished by proximity to the seat of democracy? Telling also is the phrase "We both laugh, but it doesn't feel good." Thank you for allowing me to share vicariously your trip to Canberra, which I might not have had the stomach to make on my own behalf. As nervous Catholics who have never visited the Eternal City are sometimes wont to say: "If you are not a confident sailor, it is probably best to keep well away from the engine room."
Richard Jupp | 13 September 2018


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