In need of some House training

The distasteful spectacle of MPs behaving badly in the House is hardly a new phenomenon, but there have been signs in recent years that standards still plumb low depths. While the nadir came when two politicians became involved in a punch-up in the corridors of power, watching the end of the current parliamentary term has become something of a lottery as onlookers wonder who will make the next outrageous statement in tones designed to deafen.

Speaker Lockwood Smith, to his credit, has waged a campaign to force ministers to answer questions from the Opposition. Ministers have for years got away with fudging answers at question time, particularly when asked "patsy questions" from their own backbenchers.

Question time should be a duel of wits between the Government and its opponents. The opening question is just a foray into a topic; the main thrust of the argument comes from supplementary questions prepared by research teams. Of course, the reaction to a non-answer is for the questioner to get on their high horse and become increasingly shrill in demanding answers.

New MPs who arrive full of hope and promise soon descend into the confrontational style of their more experienced peers. Dr Smith is often left with no alternative but to banish offending MPs, after they are forced to withdraw any out-of-line remark and apologise. The withdrawal and apology are not sincere and no-one so much as pretends they should be.

Outside Parliament, many people find the behaviour off-putting and childish. To be fair, a lot of excellent cross-party work does take place - away from the cameras - in select committees in a mostly constructive and positive working environment.

Retiring Green MPs Sue Kedgley and Keith Locke last week lamented the standards of debate in the House. Ms Kedgley, in a thought-provoking valedictory speech, recalled that when she first raised a voice for animals in the House, MPs cracked jokes and rolled their eyes as if to say how could you expect them to take such a trivial issue seriously.

She observed that Parliament had become stale, tired and out of touch and particularly despaired about the polarised and confrontational way business was conducted in the House. Much of the time, it was trench warfare. MPs gathered for question time as if for a military confrontation. The aim was to do battle, to defeat the enemy on the other side, not to debate or to listen. The heavy hitters, the point scorers and alpha males led the charge - hurling abuse and insults at the other side.

And so question time, which ought to be a showcase of democracy, routinely degenerated into a pointless slanging match.

"And the rest of us have become so used to this belligerent behaviour that we end up thinking it is normal and acceptable," Ms Kedgley said.

Mr Locke suggested the MMP Parliament be refined to remove the fiction of an official Opposition, and the title Leader of the Opposition, which he said was a hangover from a two-party system. The official title of Opposition did not belong in a multi-party Parliament where parties voted for and against Bills in different combinations.

It would seem naive to think that two valedictory speeches will change the behaviour of nearly a lifetime, but help could be at hand: a parliamentary committee of all parties has backed some forward-thinking remedies against MPs who continually offend.

Among the suggested changes is a register of daily attendance for MPs, to be administered by Sergeant-at-arms rather than party whips, and for a full attendance record to be published on the parliamentary website (including for select committees, official parliamentary travel, such as parliamentary conferences, and approved absences).

Badly-behaved MPs could be named and suspended from the House for 24 hours at the first naming, seven days on the second naming in the same Parliament, and for 28 days from the third naming. At the same time, their pay would be docked. And while the docking of pay might not be such a hardship, the naming of the badly-behaved MPs could well be a punishment that might turn the tide of increasingly bad behaviour.


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