Yes, Question Time NOT Answer Time

Question Time is the period (usually well over an hour) allocated on each sitting day, allowing members of parliament to ask questions of Government Ministers.

The purpose of the questions asked is to gain further insight and information from specific Ministers or to put pressure on the government over key issues.

The ability of Question Time to hold the Australian government accountable means that it is usually attended by many journalists and public visitors and is often broadcast on national television.

It’s interesting to note – Although there is no official rule, the Prime Minister expects all Ministers to attend Question Time.

Because Question Time has gained more popularity in recent years, it is an opportune time for Opposition Members to form their questions around issues that could embarrass the government and highlight the mistakes Ministers have made.

On the other hand, Government backbenchers can ask Ministers about what the government has achieved and how it addresses current issues. These questions, dubbed ‘Dorothy Dixers,’ give ministers a chance to show their policies and actions in a favourable light.

The term ‘Dorothy Dixers’ or ‘Dorothy Dix Questions’ originates its namesake, the American activist Dorothy Dix, who would make up her own questions in order to provide answers in her column. The term was adopted in Australian political culture during the 1950s.

House of Representatives vs Senate

Another non-official rule is in the House of Representatives, is that the first question is asked by the Leader of the Opposition.

Since Government Ministers are distributed between both Chambers, Ministers can also take on representative roles, answering questions relating to portfolios that are not their own because the responsible minister sits in the other chamber.

A Bit of History

Like most Commonwealth countries, Australia modelled Question Time off the Westminster System in the United Kingdom.

The practice of Members asking questions without notice in the House of Representatives developed in a rather impromptu way. The original practice only included questions on notice, in which Ministers would read out their predetermined answers to questions – Answer Time not Question Time.

It was not until 1950 that the standing orders expressly permitted questions without notice or included them in the order of business of Question Time.

Over the years, the amount of time spent on Question Time and the number of questions posed have varied considerably. Initially, 0 – 2 questions without notice were commonly posed during Question Time. However, by the 1930s, there was an average of 18 to 19 questions on a sitting day. Notably, in 1940, 43 questions without notice were asked in 50 minutes.

Since 1996, the number of questions asked during Question Time decreased due to the increasing length of the Ministers answers. In 1896 and 1993, the Procedure Committee recommended that Question Time continue until a minimum of 16 questions has been answered. The government accepted a minimum of 14 questions answered, and the current government answers about 19 questions each day.

House of Representatives Review into Question Time processes

In March 2021, the House Standing Committee on Procedure released its report ‘A Window to the House,’ which reviewed the practices and procedures of Question Time.

The Committee has released 10 recommendations to improve the effectiveness of Question Time including a minimum of 21 questions to be asked each sitting day. 11 of these questions should come from Members of the Opposition and the other 10 from Government Members.

In addition, the report recommends a new time limit of 30 seconds to be allocated for all questions and 2 minutes for all answers.

The report also endorses a trial of limited mobile phone use by Members and additional methods for the Speaker to manage disorderly behaviour during Question Time.

These recommendations are for the House of Representatives to consider and implement in order to improve the operation and culture of Question Time.

The Committee’s Chair, Mr Ross Vasta MP and Deputy Chair, Mr Milton Dick MP have labelled the report’s recommendations as bipartisan, and aim to restore ‘faith in the political process’.