Most people in Parliament are just getting on with it

Viewers of question time could be forgiven for thinking that all MPs do is shout at each other for one hour a day, but hidden behind that arena is a collaborative network delivering the thousands of pages of legislation needed to make the country run.

There were 181 votes in the House of Representatives in 2017. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

And new data on the workings of Parliament indicates that to keep things running smoothly MPs are working longer hours than ever.

Statistics from the parliamentary library show despite the chamber hijinks, the House of Representatives passed 163 pieces of legislation in 2017 and the Senate passed 141.

That’s more than in 2016, an election year, when the lower house passed 123 pieces of legislation and the Senate passed 123.

There were 1088 questions without notice – question time – asked in 2017, up from 945 in 2016, but down on the 1371 that were asked in 2015 and the 1433 that were asked in 2014.

The house held 181 divisions, or votes, in 2017.

It divided 211 times in 2016, but 118 times in 2015 and 178 times in 2014.

From her seat on the crossbench, independent MP Cathy McGowan sees the high farce of question time as well as the more considered proceedings.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull consults crossbenchers, from left, Andrew Wilkie, Adam Bandt and Cathy McGowan. Photo: AAP

“Occasionally I get a question in question time but I don’t get involved in the hurly burly where both sides are at it like they’re the teams in a grand final,” Ms McGowan, who represents the regional Victorian seat of Indi, says.

Collaboration is the key, Ms McGowan says, and it surprises her constituents to see how much of that takes place.

Ms McGowan runs a program that allows people from her seat to volunteer in her parliamentary office for a few days so they can see politics is not all about landing a punch on one’s opponent in question time.

“They’re amazed at how much work gets done and how collaborative it is and that’s because question time is just one hour in an 18 hour day,” Ms McGowan told Fairfax.

The parliamentary library’s figures also show politicians are working longer days when Parliament sits.

Between 1901 and 2016, the library calculated, the House of Representatives sat for an average 20 weeks a year, or 627 hours over 67 days.

Independent MP Cathy McGowan in the House of Representatives in December. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

But in 2017 it sat for 60 days over 16 weeks resulting in 759 hours of debate.

Compare that with 2016, an election year, when the house sat for 51 days over 14 weeks but still clocked up 746 hours of debate.

The house sat for less days in 2015 and 2014 – 75 days and 76 days respectively – and the hours were lower too, 507 and 570 respectively.

Ms McGowan says if more people could see how politics really worked, she thinks there would be less cynicism about the process.

“They’re surprised, they’re delighted, they’re happy,” Ms McGowan says.

“They move from being cynical to saying ‘I can see how it would work’..No one wants to be cynical about politics. When you can see there’s this other side of it that’s not question time it brings optimism and willingness that produces outcomes.”

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