My Turn: More personal connections, accountability in government

Posted: Monday, December 27, 2004

For years I watched the program "Questions to the Prime Minister" in England. Then, my friend, and former "whip" of the minority party in England, Ken Eastham, explained to me the secret of these "questions."

The prime minister knows in advance what the first question will be. However, he or she has no idea what the secondary or "supplemental" question will be. That is why there are oftentimes questions asking, "What are your appointments for the day?" When the prime minster answers, the supplemental question might be, "When you meet with ... will you press for the agreement you promised in ... or will you change your position?"

It is a great system. As Ken explained, they don't want the answers in personal written responses, they wanted the answers open to the public on television, so that all the voters could see and understand where the prime minister stood and to get his explanation.

Maybe we should try the same thing in the United States and Alaska. Perhaps once a month, or every two months, the president could appear before the House of Representatives. The governor of Alaska could also appear before the House of Representatives. They would both have to answer questions from the elected representatives of the people. Senators are elected to longer terms, but representatives on the state or national level are elected much more often. They are the people who represent the feelings, thoughts and ideas of their constituents. Sure, we see "press conferences" and "photo opportunities" on television, but who asks the really hard questions, based on information and the views of the people? Who challenges those in power? Who supports the decisions of those in power? Why do they hold different views?

In England when there are questions to the prime minister, the speaker of the House makes sure that each side has time for questions and responses. It is a fair process. At the same time, it is not an interview by selected reporters, or responses from a public-relations officer. The person in charge, the one elected, has to be intelligent, ready to answer questions, with facts and data in hand, and be able to explain his or her interpretation and justify their vote. Gov. Murkowski, President Bush and others would have to speak, without notes and prepared statements, exactly where they stand and why.

Wouldn't it be great if, in Alaska, we did not have media control "press conferences," "photo opportunities," but representatives from all elected parties asking questions. Most importantly, wouldn't all of this be even better if it were on television and all voters could see where party representatives and administrators really stood, what they decided and why, what the questions are, and what are the issues. Maybe Alaska can be a model for the rest of the nation. If we are lucky, maybe the president of the United States will stand before the House of Representatives and try to answer their questions and acknowledge their support on issues. Wow, someday, lobbyists and special-interest groups will not control the United States, but voters could learn what the issues are and they could vote knowledgeably. I think the old terms were representative government and democracy. Let's find ways to recover the past.

• Wallace M. Olson is a Juneau resident and a professor of anthropology emeritus at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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