Ministerial accountability and effectiveness of Question Time
The essence of many of the concerns expressed to the Committee throughout this inquiry was that ministers do not effectively answer questions put to them in Question Time. As noted in Chapter 3, there was a strong theme across the evidence to the inquiry that the key purpose of Question Time is to assist in holding the government to account for its policies and actions. The concept of accountability to voters, through the Parliament, was also expressed in various ways. It follows, then, that an improved Question Time would be one where ministers were considered to be more adequately answering the questions put to them. This chapter and Chapter 5 explore some of the ways accountability could be improved.
Many submitters considered contemporary Question Time in the House to be ineffective at achieving ministerial accountability. Some considered that Question Time contributed to public disillusionment with Australian politics, and/or that opportunities existed to improve Question Time’s effectiveness and therefore build people’s trust in their elected representatives. A key theme in comments provided to the public survey was that Question Time in its current form was not fulfilling its purpose and/or was a waste of time.
Former Speaker Mr Jenkins considered that Question Time was ineffective in its current form and that there was substantial wasted productivity with most backbenchers having to sit through Question Time without being able to ask questions. In further discussion, he considered there was value in people seeing the House in action; however, he again emphasised a preference for other parts of procedure or parliamentary activity to be given more spotlight. Former Speaker Mr Slipper considered that the original intention of Question Time was for it to be an opportunity for Members to question ministers about matters for which they are responsible, and that in that context ‘what’s happening today is a complete sham; it’s a joke’.
Ms Kate Thwaites, the Member for Jagajaga, and Ms Peta Murphy, the Member for Dunkley, considered that Question Time is ‘broken’ and that constituents who are ‘dismayed by what they see on their televisions’ too often ‘wonder what the purpose of parliament is’. They wrote that ‘the frustration members of our community feel about Question Time has serious repercussions. It plays into broader concerns around declining trust in government, politics and the institutions of our democracy, including parliament.’
Professor Lewis considered that, at present, Question Time does not provide effective ministerial responsibility, ‘which is fundamental to our democratic system’. Professor Evans, from Democracy 2025, considered that Question Time currently ‘only marginally delivers on its democratic purpose’.
Democracy 2025 research ‘suggests that the majority of Australians dislike conflict driven, adversarial politics’. Professor Evans pointed to focus group research in which participants were asked to describe the characteristics of their ideal politician. They emphasised the importance of honesty (somebody who does what they say and explains any broken promises), empathy (somebody who is approachable and accessible—who listens to them), and delivery (somebody who follows up and delivers). Professor Evans considered that reforms to Question Time should be viewed in terms of how to make Question Time a space for public trust building and information sharing, rather than distrust in politics. He suggested a range of procedural and other reforms to Question Time that could assist with broader ‘integrity reform’—that is, ‘the notion that politicians should be the guardians of liberal democratic norms and values and upholders of the highest standards of conduct in public life’.
At one level, the Committee heard the view that Question Time in its current form was ineffective to the point that questions without notice should be replaced with other procedures or that Question Time’s prominence should be reduced relative to other parts of the day and other accountability mechanisms elevated. The Committee also heard the view that Question Time provided a critical element of Australia’s parliamentary system. For example, former Speaker Ms Burke considered that Question Time provided the Parliament the ability to have a contest of ideas, and show people the robust nature of Australia’s democracy. Ms Kernot, a former Member, considered ‘Question Time remains one of the main opportunities for the opposition parties to hold the executive to account.’
Ms Burke put that Question Time is the only debate that takes place, even though it is not really debate. She saw second reading speeches as valid speeches but not debate as such:
It’s all valid, but I think that’s why it’s incumbent on us to get a really good Question Time, to demonstrate that actually we as members of parliament are here considering the issues that are important to you at this point in time.
While Ms Burke considered that Question Time was not operating at its best and that there were ways to improve it, she also considered there had been improvements over the years. This showed that change is possible, both through the standing orders and ‘through acceptance of the members of parliament that a better standard is required’.
Access to Question Time, including via television, was valued. For example, Ms Dawn Hannan wrote that Question Time was:
… a personal, in-my-loungeroom education and perception and understanding of the policies being generated and criticized right there and then …
… opportunity to view, hear and assess the members of both the Government and the Opposition. Assess their knowledge of Australian’s needs and direction, their attention to their homework needed to pursue such initiatives and especially their individual decency, humanity and integrity.
So while there is strong sentiment that Question Time is currently not delivering sufficiently on ministerial accountability, there is also a sense that there are things that can be done to improve it. Adjunct Professor the Hon. Dr Ken Coghill of the Accountability Round Table saw the inquiry as an opportunity to contribute to the historical development of ministerial accountability, the effectiveness of the House as a whole, and by extension, the relative strength of Australia’s liberal democracy. The following sections of this chapter look at specific elements of Question Time, either as currently practised or as suggested to the Committee during the inquiry.
Questions from government Members
One of the main concerns about Question Time expressed to the Committee related to questions from government Members—specifically, the Dorothy Dix questions that characterise the vast majority of these questions.
Dorothy Dix questions are questions which ministers have arranged for government Members to ask in order to provide opportunities to put government policies and actions in a favourable light or to embarrass the opposition. They are so called in reference to an advice columnist who reputedly wrote her own questions as well as their responses. ‘Dorothy Dix’ questions have been referred to by that name in the House as far back as 1937.
It was not only the Dorothy Dix questions but the way ministers of the government of the day chose to answer them that disappointed many who engaged with the inquiry. Particularly disliked were phrases such as ‘alternative approaches’ at the end of questions, and the subsequent comment on opposition policies in answers.
Standing orders and practice
The standing orders place no restrictions on who may ask questions, and long-standing practice is that any private Member may ask a question. While allocation of the call is at the Chair’s discretion, most Speakers have allocated the call first to an opposition Member (usually the Leader of the Opposition) and then alternated between government and non-government Members. Cross-bench Members receive the call in proportion to their numbers. There is nothing in the standing orders that prevents Dorothy Dix style questions.
The practice of inserting ‘alternative approaches’ or ‘alternative policies’ into questions asked by government backbenchers started in the 1980s. House of Representatives Practice records that at times phrases such as ‘are there any other policy approaches?’ have been ruled out of order on the assumption that they have invited comments about opposition policies or approaches. However, Speakers have also indicated a preparedness to allow such additions to questions, as it had been the long-standing practice to allow the use of such phrases (as long as they did not directly seek a view about opposition policies) and it was reasonable for ministers to discuss alternative approaches as part of a free-flowing debate.
In 2019 the Speaker told a minister, ‘You are entitled to be asked about the government’s policy and answer that and you are entitled to be asked about the alternatives and answer that…’ The following day he further stated:
The standing orders make it clear that ministers can only be questioned about matters for which they are responsible … The Practice makes very clear that some Speakers have had a very strict approach and indeed have not even allowed taglines like ‘alternative policies’. I have been more liberal, but there has never been a time when an entire answer can be about an opposition’s policy … because the policies the minister is responsible for are the government’s.
The Procedure Committee has not previously made recommendations specifically about Dorothy Dix style questions or phrases such as ‘alternative approaches’ that are common in Dorothy Dix style questions today. The Committee referred to Dorothy Dix style questions in its 1986 report (without using the term ‘Dorothy Dix’). Length of answers was a considerable issue for that inquiry, and Dorothy Dix style questions were mentioned along with an issue of long answers resembling ministerial statements. The Committee considered that its separate recommendation of introducing a minimum number of questions should, if adopted, help to self-regulate abuse of these types of answers.
More than 86 per cent of respondents to the public survey thought that the ability to ask Dorothy Dix questions should be removed, while a further eight per cent thought the practice should be amended. In submissions, views expressed on Dorothy Dix questions and government questions in general were often linked, with some authors seeming to see the two as synonymous. However, many survey respondents made a distinction between scripted Dorothy Dixers and other questions from government backbenchers. Respondents were asked who should be able to ask questions, and 55 per cent said that both government and non-government Members should be able to ask questions, while 41 per cent said that only non‑government Members should. This suggests that what people are most concerned about is pre-arranged questions which provide ministers the opportunity to speak favourably about their policies (and at the same time criticise opposition policies and actions).
Twelve of the 16 Members survey respondents thought that Dorothy Dix questions should be removed or the practice amended, while four said the current practice should be retained. All respondents to the Members survey considered that non-government Members should be able to ask questions, and 13 of the 16 respondents said that government Members should be able to ask questions. There were three comments about tightening of government questions. One said they should be electorate based and pressing as the current Dixers are a waste of time. Another said they should be related to their electorate or seeking a specific piece of information, and that the community hate the ‘alternative approaches tail’, and could it please be stopped. A third said that there was a role for genuine government back bench questions, but the current contrived nature of the practice meant that either the government should not have control over which backbenchers ask questions, or the number of government questions should be reduced.
Submissions were similarly unsupportive of Dorothy Dix questions. Overwhelmingly, these questions were seen as disingenuous and as not aiding the pursuit of government accountability, thereby contravening the purpose of Question Time. Instead they were seen as providing an opportunity for answers that were effectively press releases or talking points for the government. The Accountability Round Table considered Dorothy Dixers to have a ‘corrosive influence’. Many authors considered that Dorothy Dix questions should be discontinued, and some put that only non‑government Members should ask questions during Question Time. Various reasons were provided, including that government Members have other opportunities to raise concerns or highlight government policies and achievements, both inside and outside of the Chamber. Although some who made submissions saw some value in the government using Question Time to explain government policies and work, this did not translate to support for Dorothy Dix questions.
In hearings, Professor Evans considered that ‘absolutely’ Dorothy Dixers should not be allowed in Question Time, as ‘there’s no doubt that nothing arouses distrust more than that type of questioning’. He observed that ‘that appears very, very strongly in the international evidence [and is] a key fragility in a number of systems’.
Mr David Crowe, representing the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, expressed ‘a very strong view’ that ‘a very clear way in which to improve Question Time—to make it matter for the people of Australia—is to get rid of Dorothy Dixers and to move to a new system of allowing open questions with greater accountability for ministers …’ He believed Dorothy Dixers were a ‘fundamental problem with the operation of Question Time now … an old problem that’s got worse’. Professor Lewis considered that Dorothy Dixers ‘have to go’ given the evidence received from the public. She considered that removing them might ‘help the public think that there is more relevance to Question Time, but … to change behaviours, you’ve got to change the culture which is manifesting itself in the behaviours’.
Ms Kernot considered that government/Dorothy Dix questions should be abolished given the resources of government to engage with the media. High school students who appeared before the Committee were not in favour of Dorothy Dix questions. They considered that government should showcase its achievements on a platform separate to Question Time, which should focus on accountability of the government and provide opportunities for non-government Members to ask questions.
Some submitters and witnesses also saw Dorothy Dixers as demeaning to the government backbenchers that ask them.
At the same time, several other witnesses explicitly supported government backbenchers having the ability to ask questions. The way they are used is largely a cultural practice and difficult to regulate through the standing orders. Mr Jenkins considered ‘it is only the excessive use or misuse of [Dorothy Dix questions] that leads people to spotlight them’. He considered it legitimate for Members to ask ministers about, for example, a policy or ramifications of changes, to ‘override the way that it might be filtered in the … media’.
Ms Burke considered that standing orders in relation to content and phrasing of questions could be tightened, as had been done in the past with regard to hypotheticals and with regard to sub judice, for example.
Professor Wanna, who considered Dorothy Dixers ‘a complete waste of time’, recommended the only questions allowed from government backbenchers be genuine questions for information about a minister, performance or administration. Government backbenchers would require permission from the Speaker or perhaps the Manager of Opposition Business to ask such a question.
Mr Slipper, who considered that Dorothy Dix questions bring the Parliament into disrepute and are ‘an appalling, terrible abuse of Question Time’, said the Speaker should be given the authority to rule out Dorothy Dixer questions. In order for this to happen he considered it would take goodwill by both sides not to have Dorothy Dixers, such as by an agreement in the Parliament.
Dr Serban noted that it is mostly Westminster parliaments, which tend to exhibit strong party discipline and a strong divide between the government and the opposition, that experience a debate about spontaneity and genuineness of questions. Backbenchers are ‘key players for their parties’ and ‘parties working in a unitary way to ask questions is typical to Westminster parliaments’. She saw the participation in Question Time of backbenchers from both sides, and this access to question the government, as beneficial. Dr Serban noted that, as well as being a forum for accountability, Question Time is ‘a forum for parliamentarians to express criticism or for conflict to play out’. So, government backbenchers can, via Dorothy Dixers, ‘express support for the government and help the government to make its case’. Dr Serban also provided the view that there could be some merit in separating out the aspects of Question Time—so separating out the function of government announcements could provide more space during Question Time for the accountability function of Question Time.
The Clerk wrote on the role of private Members, including government Members:
The ability of private Members to ask questions of Ministers, combined with the emphasis on accountability that I discussed … support the House’s role in scrutinising the executive as part of ensuring the operation of responsible government.
If the Committee does consider the appropriateness of [‘Dorothy Dixers’] as part of its inquiry, in my view it would be important to focus on the form of the questions rather than seeking to limit the ability of government Members to raise questions. To do so might restrict the notional ability of a Member to take part in the proceedings of the House. Members have responsibilities not only to their party (if aligned to a party) but also to their constituency and to the House itself.
Some submitters also considered that all Members should maintain the right to raise issues, but these should be genuine questions rather than Dorothy Dixers. The Committee also heard that cultural change would be required to achieve this. Mr Travers wrote that ‘political parties need to take a stand and give them up in the interests of government accountability and good parliamentary practice’. Mr Chris Curtis suggested that standing orders should be changed to ban Dorothy Dixers, although the wording would be difficult and ‘enforcement would come down to the Speaker and the self‑respect of MPs [asking the questions]’.
Mr Brian Mitchell, the Member for Lyons, suggested ‘a parliamentary convention that excludes the executive from any role in the drafting of questions, or allocation of questioning, from government MPs’. An alternative suggestion, from Mr Russell Allardice, was that time allocated to answers to government questions be reduced by half, and that time saved be provided to the opposition to respond.
Alternative policies or approaches
Various submissions expressed the idea that government questions (whether or not Dorothy Dix style questions are retained) should only focus on government policies or positions, rather than allowing contrasts with ‘alternative policies or approaches’—that is, those of the opposition or cross‑bench Members. Mr Maris Bruzgulis wrote that ‘Question Time should provide answers to issues addressed, not a means to attack opponents’. The submission from the Hon. Mr Tony Burke MP, the Manager of Opposition Business, asked the Committee to consider as part of its inquiry ‘whether the evolution of the “alternative approaches” device … presents any threat to the integrity of Question Time and is no longer within the spirit of the standing orders’.
In hearings, Professor Coghill considered there should be ‘an absolute ban’ on the alternative approaches device, which has ‘nothing to do with the ministerial responsibilities that the individual has and is simply used … to attack either the personalities or the policies—or both—of opposition Members’. Should Dorothy Dix questions continue, Ms Kernot would like standing orders to rule out ‘can you update the House’ and ‘alternative policies’.
Some submissions and witnesses discussed ministerial statements as a possible alternative to government questions. This approach has been adopted in Victoria. In the federal context, respondents identified both potential benefits and possible drawbacks if this were introduced.
The House does have time allocated for ministerial statements, as set out in standing order 34 as part of the order of business for the House. Currently, this is after Question Time each sitting day, at approximately 3.10 pm (along with presentation of any documents and, on Tuesday–Thursday, discussion of any matter of public importance). During this period and at other times a ministerial statement may be given by leave of the House or Federation Chamber. Under standing order 63A, the House shall also be deemed to have granted leave for the Leader of the Opposition, or Member representing, to speak in response to the statement for an equal amount of time. The use of ministerial statements by governments has varied over time.
Different views were expressed on the potential for the role of a form of ministerial statements to assist in a more constructive Question Time. Some considered that integrating a form of ministerial statements into Question Time, perhaps replacing Dorothy Dix questions, could be useful, while others suggested elevating other parts of the parliamentary day (which could include the existing form of ministerial statements).
For example, Ms Burke considered that Question Time would be improved if, separate to Question Time, ministerial statements received greater prominence, including being televised. Ms Kernot supported an idea of ministerial statements on a daily basis as required. Professor Lewis considered that ministerial statements, with questions, in a different forum to Question Time could be useful. Professor Wanna considered ‘we should probably allow’ short ministerial statements.
Professor Coghill also considered that making more use of ministerial statements, followed by a debate taking note of the ministerial statement, would provide a way of information being brought forward and debated and ministers being held to account on their policies. Professor Coghill considered the Victorian Question Time model to be working well, including its short ministerial statements alternating with questions from non-government Members (and constituency questions). He also recommended the use of longer ministerial statements, followed by debate, and separate to Question Time. Mr Rozzoli considered that ministerial statements needed to remain separate from Question Time, although he acknowledged that incorporating them into Question Time was working for Victoria.
Ministerial statements were also raised in some submissions as an alternative to Dorothy Dix questions. These could happen, for example, at the start of Question Time, or between answers to questions from non-government Members. However, not all agreed with ministerial statements during Question Time. Mr Travers argued that a change such as that introduced in Victoria ‘takes away time for government accountability by the House’. He suggested that a minister could seek leave to make a ministerial statement after Question Time to explore the benefits of a policy.
Dorothy Dix style questions are not exclusive to the House of Representatives. They have been a feature of other Australian parliaments and overseas. In the UK they are called ‘helpful questions’.
Various parliaments have sought to reduce the impact of Dorothy Dix questions. As mentioned above, Victoria has removed government questions and introduced ministers’ statements. There is also a period for constituency questions, in which government backbenchers can participate.
In 2016 the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory introduced a sessional order to prevent questions from government Members on one day of each sitting week. The then Speaker, Hon. Ms Kezia Purick MLA, wrote that ‘this Sessional Order clearly prevents “Dorothy Dix” questions being asked this one day of the week’. At the same time, on that one day, a single minister could not be asked consecutive questions without another (relevant) Member being asking a question (aside from one supplementary question). In October 2020, at the start of the 14th Assembly, this sessional order was not reintroduced.
At the time of the New South Wales Speaker’s submission, the New South Wales Legislative Assembly was considering changes to improve Question Time, including restructuring Dorothy Dixers to permit a preliminary government statement followed by questions arising from it. In recent times, variations of ‘alternative policies’ at the end of questions have been considered out of order. In 2019, the New South Wales Speaker indicated that such additional phrases were open-ended and that, instead of seeking information, they invited ministers to pass comment or debate the matter, contrary to the Legislative Assembly’s standing orders. They also invited multiple questions and answers in the one question, or asked about alternatives that were not within a minister’s portfolio.
In Western Australia, Dorothy Dix questions are permitted. However, there are also Brief Ministerial Statements at the start of each sitting day. These statements last for three minutes each and there is no debate. These were introduced in 1993 ‘in an attempt to minimise “media release” type answers to Dorothy Dixers during Question Time’. Australian Capital Territory government Members can ask questions including Dorothy Dix style questions, but questions including words such as ‘alternative policies’ would not be allowed as they do not relate to ministerial actions and policies. At the time of the South Australian Speaker’s submission, about 75 per cent of questions went to the opposition rather than the government.
In Canada, although any Member can ask a question during Question Time, the time is almost exclusively set aside for questions from the opposition parties.
There is clearly dissatisfaction with Dorothy Dix questions and the answers given to them in the House. They are seen by many as synonymous with government questions. The Committee considers it likely that public calls for government questions to be abolished will only increase if genuine questions by government backbenchers are not observed by the public.
Recommendation 3 proposes minimum numbers of types of questions during Question Time, including greater focus on constituency questions from government Members. If put in place by the House, this would mean at least half of government questions would be based on electorate matters, with five questions available for the government to explore broader policy matters.
The Committee’s view is that questions should not be able to ask about alternative approaches to an issue, as this device is used by ministers to attack opposition policies in part of their answer.
The Committee recommends that the House amend standing orders to provide that questions during Question Time cannot ask about alternative approaches.
A common suggestion in the inquiry evidence was to allow supplementary questions to aid the pursuit of information. As outlined in Chapter 3 and summarised in the submission from the Clerk, the House has made use of supplementary questions at various times since the term was introduced into the standing orders in 1950. However, supplementary questions have not been allowed since 2013, when the standing orders were changed to omit the Speaker’s discretion to allow them.
Various forms of supplementary questions exist in other Australian parliaments, as well as in the Australian Senate. Where they exist, they are almost always used. For example, the Western Australian opposition may (and almost always does) ask a supplementary question after each (primary) question; government Members are not permitted to ask supplementary questions. The Australian Capital Territory and Victoria also have supplementary questions. In New South Wales, one supplementary question is allowed per Question Time, asked immediately by the Member asking the original question, and it counts as one of the permitted 10 answers for the Question Time period. The Northern Territory provides for one supplementary question each Question Time by a non‑government Member and it must be asked immediately by the same Member who asked the original question.
Allowing supplementary questions was a common suggestion in the inquiry. The Clerk’s submission suggested that:
… the Committee might wish to consider whether allowing supplementary questions may be of benefit, particularly if the Committee were considering recommending again that questions relate only to one subject. The re‑introduction of supplementary questions might then allow Members to pursue a line of questioning without contravening standing orders.
Some submissions were specific about circumstances under which supplementary questions might be allowed. For example, Mr Travers suggested supplementary questions in conjunction with a form of questions on notice procedure. Mr Holmes suggested they could be allowed in the case of a ‘short, curt answer’ such as yes or no. Mr Allardice considered they should be limited to non-government questions and Mr Colin White suggested a supplementary question be available at the discretion of the Speaker if a minister answering a question ‘persistently defies a direction by the Speaker to be relevant’. Mr Slipper recommended three to five supplementary questions for the Member asking the primary question, or their nominated replacement. These questions would be addressed to the same minister on the same relevant topic. In a public hearing, Mr Slipper explained they would enable the questioner to proceed down a path to extract information from the government and hold the government more to account, something that is currently difficult given the allocation of the call to each side.
Inclusion of supplementary questions also emerged as a (minor) theme in comments in the public survey. One respondent to the Member survey argued that supplementary questions should be reinstated, to enable an efficient line of questioning not interrupted by a Dorothy Dixer.
Professor Wanna also supported supplementary questions, as did the Parliamentary Press Gallery. It was also acknowledged that supplementary questions could also be used in a less than spontaneous way, and would not always be an improvement to Question Time. Ms Kernot considered supplementary questions should be limited to the opposition and cross‑bench, and acknowledged that not all would be spontaneous supplementary questions. Dr Serban saw benefit in allowing an optional supplementary question to each main question, allowing more information to be requested on a certain topic, but also noted that it is up to the Member how they use the question, and that there is the potential for an attack to be hidden in the second question.
The Committee considers that supplementary questions are useful in the pursuit of government accountability, particularly if they are spontaneous and related to the answer provided to the primary question.
The Committee recommends that the House adopt a standing order that permits one non-government Member to ask a supplementary question during Question Time each day. The Committee recommends that the time limit for the question be 30 seconds and the time limit for the following answer be 90 seconds.
Portfolio questions/Prime Minister’s Question Time
Some evidence to the inquiry suggested that the House hold portfolio-based question times and/or a specific Prime Minister’s Question Time, such as elements of the UK House of Commons model.
The House of Representatives does not have a history of portfolio question times or Prime Minister’s question time, although 1994 saw the introduction of a trial whereby ministers, including the Prime Minister, were rostered to appear for two out of the four Question Times in a sitting week.
Suggestions received during the inquiry differed from the 1994 trial. Ms Thwaites and Ms P Murphy called for the ‘addition of portfolio specific question times to allow for in-depth questioning of ministers and explanation on a portfolio topic’ [emphasis added]. In hearings, Ms Kernot referred to the 1994 trial and that she had come to the conclusion ‘that the Prime Minister should be [in Question Time] most days’. Her preference was ‘for the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition to have an opportunity for the “toing and froing” each day of Question Time’. Mr Travers proposed portfolio-based question times using rosters of ministers for Question Time, but with questions focused on areas of portfolio responsibility, unless a connection to another portfolio could be made.
Portfolio questions, or adoption of UK-style Question Time practices including Prime Minister’s Questions, was a (minor) theme in comments to the public survey. Mr Slipper also suggested considering the UK practice of a Prime Minister’s Question Time one day a week, which would provide an opportunity to develop a series of questions for the Prime Minister. Professor Wanna also supported the idea of a prime ministerial question time.
Other suggestions along the theme included periodic question times for particular subject matters, not always limited to one portfolio or an additional or regularly scheduled event, potentially in a different format such as a panel on select national challenges.
Use of the Federation Chamber
Associated with suggestions around portfolio question times (and some suggestions around constituency questions) were suggestions of using the Federation Chamber for questions additional to the main Question Time in the House. A Member responding to the Members survey suggested a roster of ministers to respond to questions from Members on their portfolio, perhaps in the Federation Chamber. The Committee explored this option during some of the public hearings.
When asked, Ms Kernot expressed the view that she saw benefit in the idea of an additional format in the Federation Chamber for individual ministers following a ministerial statement. She considered this could build on an initial ministerial statement and opposition (and cross-bench) reply in the House. This would not be Question Time for ministers, but a session ‘where ministers get to speak and answer questions related to their ministerial statement and possibly to their wider portfolio’. She considered that—except for the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and ministers of senior portfolios—most ministers in the House did not receive many probing questions, so welcomed the idea for further questioning of portfolios in the Federation Chamber. Ms Kernot did not think the Prime Minister should need to undertake that exercise regularly given the number of questions he or she received in the House.
Ms Burke considered the Federation Chamber had potential for greater questioning of ministers, particularly on constituency issues relevant to the minister’s portfolio. Although Mr Slipper would prefer a longer and improved Question Time in the House to additional electorate or portfolio‑related questions in the Federation Chamber, he considered the latter approach worthy of consideration and an improvement on the current situation. Professor Wanna also considered a portfolio section of Question Time could occur in the Federation Chamber.
The Committee considers there is some merit to the concept of portfolio‑based question times, in addition to the standard Question Time in the House. The Committee sees benefit in the Prime Minister attending every Question Time and so does not recommend changing that.
While considered outside the terms of reference for this inquiry, the Committee considers there could be merit in further investigating a periodic session for portfolios, or particular topics that may cross-cut several portfolios, potentially using the Federation Chamber. Changes to standing orders would be needed to enable this to occur.
While acknowledging the principle that any private Member is entitled to ask questions of the executive without notice, current practice means this rarely occurs spontaneously among members of the major parties, which use Question Time more strategically. ‘Constituency questions’ is a suggestion for a number of questions or time period set aside for backbenchers from all sides to question ministers on issues related to their electorate.
Inclusion of constituency questions emerged as a theme in comments in the public survey. The survey of Members asked if there were enough opportunities to raise constituency matters during Question Time, to which 12 of the 15 respondents who answered the question said no. Ms Thwaites and Ms P. Murphy suggested introduction of constituency question time at the completion of regular Question Time, in which backbenchers could ask ministers questions relating to their electorate.
The Accountability Round Table also called for a number of questions during Question Time to be allocated as constituency questions. Speaking in a public hearing, Mr Rozzoli talked more generally of returning ‘integrity to Question Time … in the sense of returning the opportunity for backbenchers, principally, to ask questions in relation to constituency matters’. As discussed in the section on Dorothy Dix questions, the Committee also received comments that all Members, including government Members, should be able to ask genuine questions about their electorate.
Professor Lewis considered that constituency questions would be good as long as they were ‘not really another way to ask a Dorothy Dixer’. Dr Serban considered that, although party teamwork is unlikely to be avoided altogether, and backbenchers can already ask genuine constituency questions, procedurally some space could be provided for backbenchers to act individually if they wished, and reserving some questions for constituency questions could be a way to do this. In addition, these could perhaps be provided on notice but answered during Question Time.
There was a brief trial of constituency questions in 2015, which was not continued. The Clerk noted that the trial was conducted within the framework of the existing standing orders, and changes to the standing orders would not be required should Members wish to adopt the practice. Professor Evans referred to the trial in the context that it takes time for reforms to Question Time to change public perceptions. He said that ‘some critics would argue that the political communication strategy surrounding [the trial] wasn’t particularly effective’.
Victoria has introduced constituency questions, which are asked orally but are to be answered in writing within 30 days. Constituency questions are asked after questions without notice and ministers’ statements, with five government and five non-government Members being able to ask one question each. The UK House of Commons also has a form of constituency questions.
The Committee considers that constituency questions are useful. The Committee takes the view that it would be useful for the standing orders to specify a minimum number of questions of particular types, including a minimum number of questions from government Members related to Members’ electorates.
Recommendation 3 includes that five of the questions allocated to government Members each Question Time be reserved for constituency questions, and that they occur on a rostered basis. This would provide each government Member with greater opportunity to ask a question relevant to their electorate.
Balloting/rostering of questioners
Another idea put forward regarding allocation of the call and time (opportunity) for private Members within Question Time was a form of balloting or rostering of questioners. This could reduce the control of parties in determining who is able to ask questions during a given Question Time.
Several submissions called for more questions from the backbench. For example, Civil Liberties Australia proposed that members of shadow cabinet should be limited in the number of questions they can ask compared to backbenchers and independents. A rotation system for backbenchers irrespective of party was suggested, with each cross-bencher to receive two places per rotation.
The Accountability Round Table called for a set number of questions (10) to be asked relating to government policy and administration (in order of opposition leader/nominee, opposition member, minor party or independent member), ministerial statements in lieu of government questions, as in Victoria, and constituency questions rotating through opposition, government and cross‑bench Members.
Mr Mitchell called for Question Time on one day per sitting week to be allocated to opposition backbench questions and that the shadow executive be excluded from any role in drafting or allocating those questions.
Ms Burke considered that taking away some control from managers of government and opposition business to allow backbenchers to jump for questions ‘would take a huge effort’ and could not be achieved through the standing orders. However, and despite party discipline in general being ‘perfectly reasonable’, Ms Burke considered it to be so regimented that it could be worth backbenchers jumping for questions and the Speaker choosing questioners. She had been a Member at different times when ‘the backbench got a bit more bolshie and actually just jumped as opposed to being told to rotate in turn …’
Dr Serban told the Committee that the ballot procedure is rather unusual, but is applied in the UK, Ireland and some other parliaments. She considered that it allowed some fairness in the selection of questioners, although it did not necessarily prevent the party from controlling to some degree the content of the question by asking a Member to ask a particular question.
In some legislative assemblies, such as the Australian Capital Territory, each non‑executive Member may ask a question each Question Time.
The Committee considers that questions from government Members should be on a fair and rostered basis with all government backbenchers knowing in advance when they will have the opportunity to ask a question. This will allow them to prepare a question on an issue relevant to their constituents or on another issue of concern to them.
The Committee considers that changing the overall structure of Question Time to have rostering of Members asking government questions and a minimum number of constituency questions—and including these requirements in the standing orders—would provide the opportunity to, firstly, improve the culture that has developed within parties around allocation of questions. Secondly, it would reduce the prevalence of Dorothy Dix questions compared to genuine questions—constituency or otherwise—from the backbench. The Committee’s intent is that the rosters would provide equal opportunity among government backbenchers to ask both constituency questions and other government questions.
The Committee notes that how questions are used is ultimately a matter for Members and parties. The following recommendation, like a number of the other recommendations made in this report, seeks to improve the quality of questions and answers; however, it will always remain up to participants to decide how they make use of the opportunities within the standing orders.
The Committee recommends that the House adopt a standing order that ensures Question Time consist of a minimum of:
at least 10 questions from opposition Members
five questions from government Members, on a rostered basis
five constituency questions from government Members, on a rostered basis
one question from a non-aligned Member.
Questions from the public
Questions without notice can only be asked by Members of the House. One theme in comments to the public survey (Question 8) was interest in inclusion of some sort of public questions, for example from citizens, the media, interest groups, experts and Indigenous groups. Some suggested a form of petition process to facilitate public questions.
Some submissions also suggested introducing questions from the public, with some suggesting how this could happen, for example via Members or directly from members of the public, including school students or others watching in the gallery. Ms Thwaites and Ms P. Murphy suggested one public question could be asked per fortnight and that questions could be submitted to the Parliament online. The New South Wales Speaker noted that that state’s Legislative Assembly Procedure Committee was considering a public question mechanism.
Professor Evans from Democracy 2025 considered that a ‘democratising reform’ to better link Question Time with citizens would be to introduce online public questions drawn from public submissions. In addition, as there is a high trust level in scientists and ‘experts’, expert questions could be introduced to provide an evidence check on policy. Professor Evans referred to select committees in the UK using this device. Ms Karp from the Museum of Australian Democracy noted that a question put to the Museum had been: ‘Why can’t the public put questions to Question Time?’
Professor Wanna reflected that having some questions from the public, read out by either the Clerk or the Speaker, would be ‘in a sense, tipping your hat at greater civilian or constituent involvement in inquiring about government’.
The Committee also heard the view that questions should be asked by Members, as elected representatives. For example, Mr Crowe considered that ‘the objective is to give those elected representatives of the people enough scope, enough power and enough freedom inside the Parliament to ask their questions as they see fit rather than to have them drafted by others’. Ms Katharine Murphy, also from the Parliamentary Press Gallery, also thought questions should come from representatives elected by the people. But if Members knew they were going to have a question soon, they could consult their constituents about potential questions.
Mr Travers also opposed any form of questions from the public. He referred to a review that had been conducted in New Zealand in 2017, in which the New Zealand House of Representatives Standing Orders Committee had noted that, in addition to decisions about political priorities for the few questions available being a role of Members, it was Members that hold the Government to account on behalf of the public, with Members free to canvass the public for issues and questions to ask Ministers.
In its 1999 It’s your House report, the Procedure Committee recommended a sessional order be introduced regarding ‘Questions from citizens’, so that under certain conditions, ‘a Member may give notice of a question in terms proposed by a person who resides in the Member’s electoral division’. The proposer of the question would be named in the question. The government did not support the recommendation, responding that:
The Government considers this recommendation is inconsistent with the principles of representative democracy, in which members are elected to represent their constituents. Members are ultimately responsible for all questions asked in the House and disclosing the identity of interested constituents would be inconsistent with that primary responsibility.
The Committee considers that only Members should ask questions during Question Time, although Members should be able to source questions from their electorate. The changes recommended in this report may give more flexibility and scope to ask questions of specific relevance to electorates.
Other ministers answering questions directed to the Prime Minister
Committee members have observed that sometimes the Prime Minister decides to refer a question to a minister without responding themselves.
The standing orders are silent on the Prime Minister referring questions on notice to other ministers, and currently the practice is allowed. Questions about any portfolio can be put to the Prime Minister, and it is not unusual for a Prime Minister to refer questions to the minister directly responsible. No direct statement, request or overt action by the Prime Minister is required to refer the question. In response to a point of order raised by the opposition, the Speaker has indicated that there has been a long history of Prime Ministers referring questions asked of them to other ministers, including without coming to the microphone to make the referral.
Ms Jones suggested that the Prime Minister or minister that is asked a question should not be able to pass it to another minister; instead they should respond ‘truthfully and to the best of their ability’.
Conversely, Mr Mitchell acknowledged that ‘the Prime Minister has the right to handball any question that is put to them to any member of the executive’, when submitting that ‘practice should not exclude the Prime Minister from being questioned about any matter related to the government, including government backbench MPs and statutory government bodies’.
Committee members sought views on the issue in several public hearings. Mr Slipper did not have concerns about the practice, if occasional, as it enables the person with greater knowledge of the issue to answer the question. Professor Wanna thought that, in relation to a practice such as this, governments will have a sense of what they can and can’t ‘get away with’. If overdone it would ‘make Parliament a bit of a laughing stock’ and be seen as a ‘tactic and an abuse of procedure’ and so he thought ‘there are limits that the political system will impose on itself by what an executive can get away with’.
Professor Wanna noted the practice in the Canadian House of Commons that the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Government in the House determines which minister will answer questions. Dr Serban spoke of the benefit to accountability of having the Prime Minister present along with ministers in each Question Time in Australia. On deferral of questions, she made the point that in parliamentary democracies, particularly in the Westminster system, the role of the Prime Minister is not entirely defined. Some national parliaments that have sought greater scrutiny of decisions made by their Prime Minister have introduced various (separate) forms of Prime Minister’s Question Time.
Practice varies across Australian legislatures—for example, some Premiers tend to answer most questions, and others have a general understanding between the Premier and the relevant minister about who is best placed to answer a question. Sometimes a minister might seek to refer to another minister. This tends to be an area of practice of various parliaments rather than prescribed in the standing orders, and can also depend on personal preference of leaders.
The Committee considers that, while it is reasonable to defer to another minister on the details of a question, a Prime Minister should be required to speak to any matter they are asked about. The Committee considers that an appropriate time for the Prime Minister to speak for before deferring to the relevant minister would be about 30 seconds.
The Committee recommends that the standing orders be amended so that the Prime Minister cannot refer a question to another minister to answer without first speaking to the matter of the question themselves.
Questions in advance
Some respondents to the public survey considered that providing questions in advance would improve Question Time. Some submissions also suggested some form of notice for questions, potentially for specific types of questions. For example, Mr Travers suggested that a form of supplementary questions be introduced, and that a notice system for primary questions would assist others to develop supplementary questions. Dr Malcolm Mackellar suggested major change: to replace questions without notice with ministerial statements and questions on notice. In his model, questions would be submitted in writing to the Speaker and minister one sitting day in advance. The Speaker would decide if the question was in order and the minister would have time to prepare ‘a relevant answer with no reason to waffle’. Question Time would still occur but without spontaneous questions.
In hearings, in discussion of potential use of the Federation Chamber for portfolio and/or constituency questions, Ms Burke raised the potential of having some questions on notice.
In Western Australia, while questions from the opposition to the government are not generally provided in advance, it is regarded as good practice to provide a ‘heads up’ for questions involving a lot of specific information or for those to parliamentary secretaries representing ministers in the other House. In Victoria, constituency questions are asked in the Chamber, before being answered in writing. The UK and New Zealand both have forms of providing (primary) questions in advance. Supplementary questions are then able to be spontaneous. The Accountability Round Table submitted that both the UK and New Zealand practices around notice meant that Question Time was ‘less gladiatorial’ and less likely to have ‘gotcha’ questions (noting that supplementary questions do still provide such opportunities).
Dr Serban discussed that the intent of questions without notice was to provide room for spontaneous questions while the aim of questions on notice was to provide more in-depth scrutiny. France was an example of a country with both procedures. She noted that many parliaments (for example, Ireland and Germany) that had a procedure for questions on notice had introduced a separate questioning procedure without notice to achieve spontaneity. Dr Serban considered there were trade-offs between the two types of questions. She saw the main merit of Question Time as being that it allows ‘genuinely open questioning’. The ‘constant exercise of coming to parliament and being questioned without notice puts ministers on the spot and achieves accountability, even as a by-product, if you like, of this constant routine check of questioning. It facilitates this regular dialogue.’ The purpose of questions on notice is ‘to achieve the opposite purpose, so more forensic scrutiny of portfolio responsibilities’. Dr Serban saw the daily routine of questioning, as in Australia, as beneficial.
On balance, the Committee does not consider that it would be beneficial to introduce notice for oral questions at this time.