Screen time in Question Time

Legal studies students were shocked to see large numbers of elected officials using electronic devices during Question Time.

Legal studies students were shocked to see large numbers of elected officials using electronic devices during Question Time.

By Karen Gregory, Legal Studies teacher

The 'House on the Hill’ is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, so it seemed fitting to take both Year 12 Legal Studies classes to Parliament House for Question Time during our Politics and the Law unit. 

The students were looking forward to seeing the doctrine of representative government in action, to explore the political science themes from this term – power, authentic government transparency and legitimacy – and to unpack a little bit of the political philosophy we covered in class. However, it would be true to say that during this excursion, we saw nothing of the kind.

There is a reason why it is called ‘Question Time’ and not ‘Answer Time’. In both the House of Representatives and the Senate, we quickly discovered our elected representatives are heavily schooled in the art of not answering questions, in particular, questions without notice from the opposition. We heard question after question given a disingenuous response or an answer to the question that the representative preferred to answer but always beginning with mock courtesy, thanking the Member or the Senator for their question.

Maybe we are naïve to think that one hour of theatre in the course of a parliamentary sitting day has the potential to hold the government of the day to account, however, Aristotle, the so-called father of democracy, proclaimed that one of the most important democratic institutions of ancient Athens was the assembly (ekklesia), a meeting place where citizens could speak their minds and try to influence one another in the political process. The Greek Assembly, of course, became synonymous with democracy. It seems to us that our modern politician has forgotten the teachings of Aristotle, and the importance of the assembly has given way to grandstanding, obfuscation and personal insult. 

Worse still, the key observation from our excursion to Parliament House was of the sheer numbers of elected representatives who spent the entirety of Question Time on their electronic devices – neither engaged, nor willing to be engaged, in the political discourse around them.  

It is ironic that, prior to entering the visitors’ gallery of each House, we had to hand in our own phones and electronic devices. Across the political spectrum – from backbencher to cabinet minister, opposition or government member, minor party or independent – the majority were on their phones, tablets and notebooks, engrossed in reading and replying to emails and following Twitter feeds. Even in the Press Gallery, with the exception of the cartoonists, most journalists were multi-tasking, glued to digital screens. It is likely that, without the distraction of electronica, we and the other school groups and members of the public were paying more attention to the proceedings of Question Time than the politicians we elect to represent us. It is also ironic that teachers, academics and well-meaning educators tell us that our students should not be multi-tasking when our leaders and aspiring leaders are before us doing exactly that!

In a world where legal and political commentators claim that democracy is under threat from right- and left-wing extremists, it would seem that the real threat to democracy is in our hands!

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