Tony Burke vows to ‘fix’ parliament as crossbench demands reform

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Labor’s Tony Burke has said he is “determined to fix” how parliament works, as crossbench MPs submit long lists of demands to boost their voice and influence.

More crossbench questions in question time, abolishing Dorothy Dixers, and guaranteed debates and votes on private members’ bills are some of the most common requests from returning crossbench MPs.

The crossbench of seven will expand to at least 15 after Greens gained seats in Brisbane and independents captured heartland Liberal seats. However, Labor is still on track to form a narrow majority.

Burke, who is likely to become leader of the house in the 47th parliament, has already met independent MP Helen Haines to discuss the ideas, many of which are drawn from an Australia Institute research paper to reform Australia’s democracy.

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Haines was a member of the parliamentary committee which proposed reforms to question time in the last parliament, ideas she said “went nowhere”.

Haines said that Dorothy Dixers, prepared questions and answers, should be banned, along with those asking about “alternative approaches”, used to invite stump speeches bashing opposition policies.

“They’re a waste of space … and the general public hate them,” she said.

Haines wants a minimum of four crossbench questions in question time, a “proportional increase”, and one day of private members business a week.

The independent MP also wants a minimum notice period before the government puts its own bills to a vote, with a “genuine opportunity to have prior consultation and propose amendments” including more crossbench input into committees.

Those and new rules preventing legislation being introduced and passed in the same sitting could result in “better legislation and a more effective way to work”, she said.

Haines said the requirement for an absolute majority to suspend standing orders should be changed to a simple majority.

“We saw how that operated during Covid, we could well have had an integrity commission if not for that rule.”

Burke said: “The Australian people have made clear they want integrity in government and in the parliament itself.”

“In the last term in particular the House of Representatives became a farce. I’m determined to fix that and I’m having conversations across the parliament to that end.”

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The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, who will be joined by at least two more Greens MPs, for Griffith and Ryan, and potentially four, said that “MPs outside the government should have the right to have their issues progress through parliament”.

“Private members should have the right to take their matters to a vote, that happened in 2010 in the power-sharing parliament and it led to some significant reforms,” he said.

Bandt said in the last parliament Liberal backbenchers were “prepared to defect … to support debate on an anti-corruption commission” but the government refused to allow a vote on the bill.

He said there was “a lot to be said” for removing the requirement for an absolute majority to suspend standing orders, noting the crossbench had been “excluded from pairing arrangements” and pairs between the “old parties” made it difficult to ever reach that threshold.

Bandt said he wants to end the practice of starting sitting days with the Lord’s prayer and to display First Nations flags in the chambers.

The incoming independent MP for North Sydney, Kylea Tink, said that parliament should shift from “a staged show to what it was designed to, be a chamber for robust debate and discussion”.

“It’s about ensuring all communities are heard equally – whether you voted for someone sitting in government or not … just because one major party is in government, I don’t think that should kill consensus-seeking,” she said.

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Tink said that, watching from the outside, question time was a “dissatisfying experience”, full of “jeering and yahooing”. “I didn’t feel like anything was addressing real questions people had,” she said.

The incoming independent MP for Goldstein, Zoe Daniel, said it was “important the parliamentary process evolves” to give newly elected independents a voice to represent their communities.

“If Anthony Albanese means what he says about inclusivity, he needs to reflect on how that should play out on the floor of parliament,” she said.

Independent MP for Warringah, Zali Steggall, said with one-third of Australians voting for independents or minor parties, the parliament has a “record-breaking crossbench”.

“The outcome of the election signals a move away from us v them, blue team v red team politics, and this has the potential to transform our political discourse, bring back respectful debate and make petty wedge politics a lesser force in the formation of policy.”

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