Evasion in Australia's parliamentary question time: the case of the Iraq war

Parameswary Rasiah

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Abstract

Given that the basic functions of parliamentary Question Time are to provide information and to hold the Government accountable for its actions, the possibility of evasion occurring in such a context is of crucial importance. Evasion (equivocation) has been identified as a matter of concern in political interviews, but no systematic study has been undertaken in the context of parliamentary discourse, notably Question Time, anywhere in the world. This study applies and adapts Harris's (1991) coding framework on various types of responses, Bull and Mayer's (1993) typology of non-replies and Clayman's (2001) work on how politicians 'resist' answering questions, all of which are based on political news interviews, to the study of evasion in Australia's House of Representatives' Question Time. A comprehensive, unified framework for the analysis of evasion is described, a decision flow-chart for the framework is provided, and an illustrative example of the applied framework is given based on Australia's Federal House of Representatives' Question Time. Put simply, the study was undertaken to determine if evasion occurred, how frequently it occurred and how it occurred. It involved the classification of responses as 'answers' (direct or indirect), 'intermediate responses' (such as pointing out incorrect information in the question), and 'evasions' based on specific criteria. Responses which were considered evasions were further analysed to determine the levels of evasion, whether they were covert or overt in nature and the types of 'agenda shifts' that occurred, if any. The thesis also involved a discourse-analytical study of other factors that appear to facilitate Ministerial evasion in Australia's House of Representatives, including the Speaker's performance and the use of 'Dorothy Dixers'. The research data was sourced from Question Time transcripts from the House of Representatives Hansard for the months of February and March 2003, dealing only with questions and responses on the topic of Iraq. In those months there were 87 questions on the topic of Iraq, representing more than two thirds of all questions on Iraq for the whole of 2003. Of these 87 questions, the majority (48) came from the Opposition party, through its leader. The balance (39) was asked by Government MPs. Analysis of the question/answer discourse for all 87 questions revealed that every question asked by Government members was answered compared to only 8 of the 48 Opposition questions. Of the 40 remaining Opposition questions, 21 were given intermediate responses and 19 were evaded outright. The fact that the overwhelming majority (83%) of Opposition questions were not answered together with other findings such as instances of partiality on the part of the Speaker; the use of 'friendly', prearranged questions by Government MPs; and the 'hostile' nature of questions asked by Opposition MPs casts serious doubt on the effectiveness of Question Time as a means of ensuring the Government is held accountable for its actions. The study provides empirical evidence that evasion does occur in Australia's House of Representatives' Question Time.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2007

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