A new Parliament assembles tomorrow; dare we hope for a new standard of decorum? Hope might not be forlorn. Just a generation ago, the House of Representatives was a good deal more dignified than it has been in recent years, particularly during questions of ministers at the beginning of each day's sitting. Governments before 1984 did not encourage their ministers to engage in political jousts at question time. Ministers generally treated even mischievous questions with seriousness and respect. They replied in considered terms that did not often give much away but were usually more informative than the mutual abuse of recent years.
The change can be dated from the election of the Lange Government. Of a different generation than the one it defeated, it regarded previous practice as pompous and outdated. Concepts such as decorum and dignity were not among its values. At question time ministers took their cue from the combative wit of David Lange, though their rejoinders usually lacked the redeeming good nature of his.
Since then things appear to have deteriorated to the point that question time in the Clark years became merely sneering and nasty. The Prime Minister adopted a practice of pointedly turning and looking away from the Opposition leader while delivering dismissive responses to his questions. The advent of MMP may also be to blame. The House seemed to have a higher tone when members were addressed by their electorates rather than by name.
Obviously list MPs cannot be so addressed, but there would be no harm in restoring the practice for constituency representatives whose elected status deserves recognition anyway.
Unfortunately the deterioration has coincided with the televising of the House. Many have seen the previous Speaker, Margaret Wilson, reduced to a shriek when trying to restore order. A generation of voters probably believes Parliament has always been like this and can be no better. But it is also a generation that has revived some of the traditions and social graces that its parents rejected.
The new Prime Minister appears to have more in common with them than its parents. He was born too late to acquire the cynicism of youth in the 1960s. And as a comparative latecomer to politics he seems better equipped to ignore its petty contests than are those who made it their career.
He would do well to encourage his new ministers to conduct themselves with dignity and decorum in the House. The Government's role is crucial to its conduct. Oppositions have to be aggressive and provocative, ministers need not reply in kind. Ministers have the advantage of status at question time, they should use it. A polite, restrained, factual answer to a politically-pointed question would be far more impressive on television than the tedious partisan exchanges of recent times.
While they are about it, the new majority in the House might agree also to reduce the number of follow-ups allowed on every question. Only one supplementary question used to be permitted. The number taken now, presumably because there are more parties in Parliament, almost guarantees the exchange will descend to nonsense. Let the party that asks a question be the only one permitted a second.
This Parliament's likely new Speaker, Dr Lockwood Smith, is an ever-cheerful character, which should be an attribute in that chair. The time is ripe for a better standard of behaviour and the stage is set for proceedings more fitting the status of Parliament. It does no harm to hope.