Is it Time to Question "Question Time"?

Two groups of fully grown adults, yelling, pointing fingers, and calling each other names as part of an organised daily ritual of their workplace. I am, of course, talking about Question Time. A feature of Australian politics, it takes place at 2 p.m. every day during Parliamentary sitting weeks. It is supposedly a time for Parliament to hold the executive (Ministers) to account. But does it fulfil this function (and has it ever)? And if it does not, does it have any place in Australian politics? These are the questions that need to be asked and are being asked by members of the crossbench (but notably not the government or coalition). 

Question Time is a tradition inherited from the Westminster system, which has been the basis of Australian politics since federation. However, British Question Time differs slightly from Australian Question Time. It lasts only an hour and rotates through designated government departments, meaning more targeted and specific questions. Furthermore, it allows for written questions in advance and supplementary questions. This helps to ensure that their Question Time never quite reaches the low, low standards of Australia’s. 

Our current form of Question Time developed almost by accident on the first sitting day of the new parliament in 1901. Questions were originally meant to be given with notice and read aloud in the chamber to be answered in the chamber. A question was put to the speaker asking if he would accept “questions without notice.” As there were no standing orders (the chamber’s operating rules) directly opposing this, the speaker allowed it, and thus, Question Time was born. 

Today, it is a chance for theatrics and political point-scoring. Viewers are reminded of a rowdy primary school classroom, with frequent interjections of “there is too much noise in this chamber” and “I expect silence when I am listening to an answer” from the speaker. Answering a question involves far less answering a question than it does cheap shots at the other side or misdirection tactics used to discuss what the Minister really wants to talk about. Common in Question Time are Dorothy Dixers- questions written by the Minister’s staff and asked of the Minister by a backbencher. This means one of two things: heralding the current government’s achievements or abusing the opponents’ failures (sometimes both within the one 3-minute answer!). 

There have been attempts to fix the broken mechanism that is Question Time. The most recent was a bi-partisan inquiry conducted in 2019. It acknowledged Question Time’s important function but accepted that it is currently “a series of competitive performances for the purposes of a few seconds of evening television news.” Public submissions to the inquiry found that Australian citizens are frustrated and disheartened by what they see, with 95% of respondents saying they want QT to change. The inquiry handed down 11 key recommendations, most notably:  

  • Allowing one follow-up question after the Minister’s initial response 
  • Limiting the use of mobile phones in chamber during Question Time 
  • Disallowing points of order in the first 30 seconds of an answer (a common tactic used to interrupt an answer) 
  • Disallowing questions about ‘alternative approaches’, which give the Minister free reign to attack the opposition’s ideas 

Other suggestions from the public, which were not officially recommended in the inquiry but are standard practice in other legislating bodies, include: 

  • Disallowing Dorothy Dixer questions and instead allowing 2-minute statements from the Minister updating Parliament on their department’s work (Dororthy Dixers are banned in the Northern Territory Parliament, and ministerial statements are standard practice in the Victorian Parliament) 
  • Allowing (or only accepting) written, advance questions (as occurs in New Zealand and UK Question Times) 
  • Having portfolio-specific question times (as in UK Question Time) 

A very limited number of the official recommendations, and none of the other recommendations, were adopted. This begs the question, is question time fixable? Is there an appetite from the public and politicians to change it? To both questions, the answer seems to be a resounding “yes.”. Members of the public and several notable political figures (current members and former ones, including Julia Gillard in her book Not Now, Not Ever) have noted a need for change. Who is willing to drive it? Luckily, there is an answer to that, too. Current independent MP Kylea Tink called out the behaviour in the chamber during Question Time, stating on the 7th of September, “in any other professional environment this sort of behaviour would be completely unacceptable” and said that she did “not feel safe”. Other Independent MPs also pointed to a need for change during the debate over the Parliamentary Workplace Support Services Bill 2023. 

Independent MPs will fight for change in this area, aiming to bring Parliament greater respect, accountability and transparency. Changing Question Time would be a sign to the Australian public of a willingness to engage meaningfully with constituents and to focus on policy over politics. The question remains whether the independents will be able to raise their voices loud enough to be heard over the din of the government and opposition. Let’s hope so.  

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.