The Premier took exception to the Opposition’s line of questioning at estimates. (AAP: Dave Hunt)
Queensland Parliament’s annual budget estimates hearings resume today to scrutinise ministers’ spending, after dozens of questions were disrupted in the first week by points of order and bickering over parliamentary rules.
The constant use of standing orders against questions containing arguments, imputations, opinions or hypothetical matters was the worst since the estimates process began in 1994, according to long time observers.
Analysis by the ABC showed 20 out of 32 non-government questions to Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk on the first day of hearings were hindered by government members trying to block or weaken the attack.
Rather than a free-flowing examination of the Premier’s performance, there was constant interference from Labor committee members challenging, disrupting or ruling questions out of order.
Overhaul of ‘protection racket’ needed, says former speaker
Former Labor speaker John Mickel said the “protection racket” by Queensland Government MPs at the hearings needed an overhaul to make the process more accountable to taxpayers.
Mr Mickel, now an adjunct associate professor at Queensland University of Technology, called for Opposition MPs to chair some estimates sessions and for an all-party review of the 24-year-old system.
He said there were too many interruptions from “enthusiastic” backbenchers trying to protect ministers.
“It looks as though they’re running a protection racket for ministers, whereas I don’t think ministers want that,” he said.
“The impression I got in reading the transcripts is some ministers were keen to answer the question but a point of order had been taken.”
He said the current generation of parliamentarians was unfamiliar with how estimates were supposed to work.
“The landslide of 2012, the infusion of a whole lot of new people, plus the reversals of 2015 and retirements robbed the parliament of the corporate memory it had of how estimates could be conducted,” he said.
“It’s probably time that after two decades of estimates we had an all party parliamentary review of what is working and what could be improved.”
Radical reform could include sharing control of each day’s hearings between the government and opposition, and a pre-estimates agreement about what specific issues would be examined.
Mr Mickel said all sides should give the public better accountability from the estimates process, which was designed to scrutinise government spending.
“After all, taxpayers are the ones who pay the bills and they want to see that the money is spent wisely,” he said.
Opposition members also had a responsibility to come to the hearings with targeted, legitimate questions about the budget and the Government’s administration, rather than a “gotcha” mindset, the former speaker said.
“For example, despite the recent public debate about the size of the bureaucracy, all the Opposition asked about was when reports were released,” he said.
Current Speaker Curtis Pitt issued a warning to all sides ahead of the second week of hearings.
“Members are put on notice that the use of props, framing irrelevant questions and frivolous or tedious points of order which only seek to disrupt the flow of proceedings, or unsustainable claims and counter-claims, will be dimly viewed by the Queensland community,” he said.
“All members must strive to do better.”
Ask better questions, Government tells Opposition
A State Government spokesperson said the standing orders had been in place for many years and should be very clear to all members.
“As a Government we want to talk about things the money is spent on — the roads, schools and hospitals, but the Opposition seem set on a Canberra style estimates process of political theatre and personal attacks.”
State Development Minister Cameron Dick defended Labor committee members for interrupting the opposition’s questions with points of order.
“If MPs don’t like the standing orders there is a process to change them,” Mr Dick said.
“We’re there for hours on end. We make ourselves open to the process and we don’t restrict what happens in those hearings other than expecting members of parliament to comply with the standing orders.”
Deputy Opposition Leader Tim Mander said the estimates process should be overhauled.
“Too often last week we saw Labor MPs abuse the process and run a protection racket for Annastacia Palaszczuk and her ministers,” Mr Mander said.