Question time in the Australian Parliament is political theatre at its best. The chamber is packed as each side tries to land a telling blow upon its opponent. Politicians jeer across the aisle; the Speaker tries to maintain a semblance of order; government members use questions as an excuse to pummel the opposition, frequently with scant regard for answering the question asked; opposition members call points of order, protesting that the question is not being answered.
And just occasionally, a question is asked that puts an end to the cacophony of ambition, and generates a silence reflecting the serious import of the questioner. Two days ago it came from Adam Bandt, the sole member of the Greens in the House of Representatives. Pointing to the refusal of doctors at the Melbourne Children’s Hospital to release children they were treating back into the detention centre on Nauru, he asked whether there were not better ways to prevent drownings at sea than locking up children in mental torture centres.
The Prime Minister rose and stated that he would give the question the serious answer it demanded. He then proceeded to do anything but this, suggesting that the policies supported by Adam Bandt had been tried, had seen 50,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat in three years, with up to 1500 deaths at sea. Over against this, the policy of the Coalition had been tried and tested and had stopped the flow of boats and therefore of deaths. The Prime Minister’s sombre and pained tones belied the politics that were being played out. The Greens policy on asylum seekers, which calls for a combined regional approach, has never been tried and tested. When in power the ALP did not provide a coherent effort to develop a regional solution that would see nations working together to process and settle refugees, but offered only piecemeal agreements that would allow them to offload asylum seekers to poorer countries in the region.
Unlike many I do not find Question Time disgraceful. It is one hour every sitting day that is about the game of politics, political theatre in which the aim is to best one’s opponent. I love the cut and thrust, to observe the political tactics employed and see who comes out on top, and enjoy the faux outrage thrown across the aisle. But two days ago in Canberra I left Question Time agreeing that yes it was disgraceful. Not because of the political theatre going on, but because for that one moment when the parliament fell silent and political theatre was put aside, the game of politics was not. When doctors feel they have to refuse to return children to government care because that “care” is abusive, surely it is a signal that something is very seriously wrong. We had the opportunity under a new Prime Minister to strike a new approach to the question of refugees and asylum seekers, but the Prime Minister’s answer revealed that our nation will continue to brutalise innocent people even though there are better options to be tried.