Inside Story

The life and (possible) death of Dorothy Dix

Even MPs are getting worried about the quality of question time

Brett Evans 24 August 2020 2370 words

Prime minister Scott Morrison during his altercation with speaker Tony Smith in June. The manager of opposition business, Tony Burke, is standing at left. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

It is Thursday 18 June, in the First Year of Plague, 2020. Covid-19 has held the nation in its grip for months. Death numbers have stayed low, but there are fears of a breakout. An economic catastrophe of biblical proportions is thundering over the horizon. An anxious citizenry looks to federal parliament for succour.

And what they get is question time.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese, the man with the most thankless job in Australian politics, has just asked a question: “How many [Australians] don’t have a job because the prime minister deliberately excluded them from JobKeeper?”

It’s a reasonable thing to ask. Why was the JobKeeper payment not made available to workers employed casually or part-time by the same business for less than twelve months? We’re all in this together — except, it seems, if we work in the gig economy.

Prime minister Scott Morrison rises to his feet, feigns exasperation, and answers a completely different question.

“Mr Speaker,” he begins, “no one in this country is unemployed because of the government’s responses… People have been hit by the co–rona–virus pan–demic!”

The Labor benches erupt. Speaker Tony Smith turfs out the member for Lalor, Joanne Ryan, and warns the House to quit the catcalls.

Morrison continues. “For the leader of the opposition to come to the dispatch box and seek to turn that recession into some sort of partisan accusation, Mr Speaker, demonstrates not only his complete lack of understanding of economics, Mr Speaker, but an inability, an inability…”

This dismissive waffle is the PM’s stock-in-trade. He doesn’t try to dominate parliament with a grasp of the facts, he drowns it in cliché.

Tony Burke, manager of opposition business, proposes a predictable point of order about relevance. Speaker Smith gives him short shrift. Having paused for breath, the prime minister makes a screeching three-point turn.

A few days earlier, Nine’s flagship current affairs program, Sixty Minutes, had broadcast a damning report about corruption in the Victorian branch of the Labor Party. Naturally enough, the prime minister hares off in pursuit of this recent act of Labor malfeasance: “In the midst of a debacle and corruption scandal that he [Albanese] has overseen, Mr Speaker. Corruption, a word that his own member has used to…”

Before Morrison can finish, Tony Burke is back at the dispatch box. But Speaker Smith is way ahead of him. “The prime minister will resume his seat,” he orders. “The manager of opposition business will resume his seat. The prime minister needs to withdraw that imputation.”

The legendary standing orders prohibit any MP imputing improper motives to another MP, and Morrison has implied that Albanese is corrupt.

It would be a simple thing for Morrison to mutter, “I withdraw, Mr Speaker,” and move on, but he doesn’t. On the broadcast footage you can see Tony Smith’s hand beginning to bounce up and down with tension. He is clearly anticipating a stoush with the leader of his own party.

“Mr Speaker, on the point of order,” the prime minister says, with the tiniest hint of a threat in his voice. Having quelled the Labor benches, Smith turns his attention back to the prime minister.

“There’s going to be no debate,” he tells him, in the tone of voice my mother used to declare the arrival of bedtime. “The prime minister needs to withdraw that imputation.”

“Well, Mr Speaker, if you would allow me, if you would allow me…”

Smith is having none of it. “I’m just going to say to the prime minister, he just needs to withdraw. There was no point of order. I’ve made a ruling.”

What was looking like a commonplace question time fracas is quickly becoming a test of strength between speaker and PM.

“Mr Speaker,” says Morrison, “I was not impugning [sic] a motive to the leader of the opposition…” He starts a detailed exegesis on his use of the word “corruption” — never acknowledging, of course, that the key word in his attack on Albanese was “overseen” — but then he seems to experience an epiphany. It dawns on him that a soon-to-be-forgotten mention in Hansard might become a front-page story if he continues down this path. He makes another three-point turn.

“But Mr Speaker, to assist you and to respect your ruling…” he says, sounding for all the world like a man at a cat show looking for a dog to kick.

Before he can finish this graceless mea culpa, Burke is once again at the dispatch box. Not content with merely being the PM, Morrison now decides to take over the speaker’s job as well.

“It’s got nothing to do with you,” he sneers at Burke. “You can sit down.” His barely suppressed anger now has a target. “You’ve already had your point of order. I’m seeking to make the withdrawal.”

“Manager of opposition business will just resume his seat,” Smith says mildly. He is in the unhappy position of having scored a victory over his own prime minister.

“To assist the speaker, and out of respect for the speaker, I withdraw, Mr Speaker,” says Morrison.

In days gone by, question time was an arena in which reputations were forged and broken. Backbenchers might start to look like ministers or be revealed as perpetual second-raters. Ministers might begin to resemble prime ministers or be shown up as has-beens. And prime ministers might look like leaders or wrung-out dishrags.

So, what did we learn during that slice of question time on 18 June? Well, nothing of substance about policy, to be sure, though we did see a side of the PM that he normally keeps well hidden: the side that objects to scrutiny, fair play and grace in public life.

We also learnt that Tony Smith is one of the better parliamentary speakers of modern times, certainly a lot better than his predecessor, that hyper-partisan aficionado of taxpayer-funded helicopter travel, Bronwyn Bishop.

And that’s about it. The average citizen, watching it all on TV, saw rudeness from both sides, disrespect for the speaker — from the PM, no less — and a genuine question left unanswered. In other words, it was just an average slice of an average question time: witless, rancorous and uninformative.

The problem is that, for most Australians, question time is parliament. Most see at least a heavily bowdlerised version, chopped up and analysed on the nightly news, every sitting day. And just about no one likes what they see. Even the politicians look bored by its empty theatrics. Many spend question time staring at their mobiles like teenagers at a bus stop.

As veteran press gallery journalist Malcolm Farr puts it, “Parliament is suffering because of the misuse, every day, of the most public aspect of a sitting day.”

Because MPs themselves think it’s getting worse, the procedure committee of the House of Representatives is in the process of questioning question time. It called for submissions from the public back in 2019 and since June this year has been holding (online) hearings with experts and former speakers to seek out ways of improving this important but deeply flawed institution.

On one issue, at least, there is a surprising amount of consensus — much more than you’d ever get during question time itself. Just about every submission so far — from humble citizen to not-so-humble former speaker — has made the same point: take Dorothy Dix out the back of Parliament House and bury her body in an unmarked grave.

Dorothy Dix was an American “agony aunt” in the 1950s who was suspected of writing the questions she then answered in her magazine advice column. Forgotten now in her homeland, she lives on in Australia as the nickname for those appalling non-questions asked by government backbenchers of government ministers — the ones that invariably start with “Will the minister update the House…” and finish with something like “and are there any other approaches?”

As retired public servant Malcolm Mackellar wrote in his submission, the Dorothy Dixer is “an absurdity based on a fiction that the government backbencher asking the question was not given the question by the minister who then answers it… This sort of nonsense defeats the whole purpose of question time and brings the parliament into disrepute.”

Once these hated questions have been banished, you could begin a complete overhaul of question time.

First, you could replace Dorothy Dixers with short ministerial statements of policy. Then you could allow the opposition and the crossbenchers to follow up their initial question — especially when the minister has obfuscated — with several supplementary questions.

It’s not all that revolutionary. It’s already allowed, to a limited extent, upstairs in the relatively sedate Senate chamber, where senators can ask up to two supplementary questions when their first question fails to elicit a satisfactory answer. And, as British political scientist Ruxandra Serban told the inquiry, supplementary questions are allowed in most of the thirty parliaments she examined for her research on question time.

“It’s not always the case that a question needs to be followed by a supplementary,” said Serban. “But, in allowing at least one additional question, there is scope to create a more sustained line of questioning on a particular topic.”

ANU political scientist John Wanna went further, directing the committee’s attention to New Zealand, where supplementary questions are an integral part of parliamentary routine. For each question time, twelve questions are listed on a sheet, which is distributed beforehand to MPs, and even to the spectators in the public gallery. Question-askers can then build on their opening shot by bringing down a salvo of supplementary queries.

“They can ask virtually an unlimited number of supplementaries, as long as the supplementaries are considered to be investigative and seeking information,” Wanna told the committee. “The speaker doesn’t allow political comment, preambles or assertions… It has to be a question following up.”

In a couple of cases, ministers have faced eight or nine supplementary questions, he adds, “so the grilling was five to ten minutes long.” That sounds like accountability to me.

If time were an issue, this “Kiwi session” could be shifted to the Federation Chamber, which can be used to run parliamentary business in parallel to the House of Reps. If that happened, said Wanna, then question time could easily, and profitably, be extended to a couple of hours.

Wanna pointed out that British parliamentary procedure allows for subsequent debates on question time answers, presumably making it harder for ministers to give a non-answer if they know that more scrutiny awaits down the track. “There’s no reason why question time couldn’t be in two parts, where there’s a part in the main chamber and then a more portfolio part in the Federation Chamber.”

But why stop there? Why not import the format of “prime minister’s questions” from the Old Country?

Each Wednesday during sitting weeks, the British PM and the opposition leader duke it out for Queen and country, with the opposition leader allowed to ask six questions of the PM. For those missing live theatre during the Covid-19 lockdowns, can I recommend the comedy-drama double-hander currently wowing them in Westminster. It stars the slapstick artist Boris Johnson as a Tory PM out of his depth, and Sir Keir Starmer as a stern-faced interrogator representing the Labour opposition.

Several European democracies have already established their own versions of Britain’s PMQs — why can’t we? Why should we have to wait until they step into the ring during election debates to see our PM and our potential PM in verbal combat? Do a few radio interviews with friendly shock-jocks and a handful of interviews with Leigh Sales on 7.30 really expose our leaders — and wannabe leaders — to a level of scrutiny appropriate in a democracy?

All in all, the procedure committee has received an admirable program for change. But what chance does it have of being picked up? Members of the House of Reps should consider this: without some genuine reforms to their august institution they run the risk of being surpassed — not constitutionally, but in the public’s mind — by the forensic pleasures of Senate estimates. The Other Place, as they call it, may become The Place.

As John Wanna told the procedures committee, Senate estimates hearings are “much more diagnostic; there is much more drilling into something… They try to get a string of answers that gives them some information about what’s happening in a particular area of administration or in a portfolio. We’re not getting that in question time.”

Australia is now six months into its Year of Plague. So far, the Morrison government has been rewarded in the opinion polls for its handling of the crisis. A lot of this success was based on Scott Morrison’s seeming ability to rise above the quotidian pettiness of Australian politics by establishing institutions like the national cabinet.

Those days are coming to an end. Partisan politics is on the rise again, as it inevitably must. The Covid-19 crisis in Victoria has shattered the consensus model of the pandemic’s early days. Normal service has resumed, and the blame game is back in earnest.

In the last few weeks, the Labor opposition has started to get its mojo back. To be a loyal and constructive opposition during a pandemic, it has decided, doesn’t mean shying away from vigorously holding the government to account.

Parliament sits this week after a lengthy break. Despite its flaws, the return of question time will be a welcome event. But imagine if it had already been reformed along some of the lines discussed at the procedure committee’s inquiry.

There would be no Dorothy Dixers to waste everyone’s time. Government ministers might be grilled about the deadly impact of Covid-19 on Australians living in aged care facilities by opposition and crossbench MPs armed with a string of supplementary questions. And, during PM’s question time, Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese might be confronting each other across the dispatch box, mano a mano, with nothing but their wits to protect them. •

Funding for this article from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund is gratefully acknowledged.