Question Time reform to shake up most visible part of parliamentary sitting day

Question Time could be in for an overhaul. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Question Time could be in for an overhaul. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Politicians could have their mobile phones taken off them, and be forced to give up answering free-kick questions from their colleagues under a move to reform the most visible part of the parliamentary sitting day.

While politicians sit in the House of Representatives and Senate for hours on end in Canberra, debating and discussing bills, drawing attention to achievements in their electorates, it's the hour of Question Time, when the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader shape up over the despatch box, that is most likely to make it to the 6pm news.

It's meant to be a time when the government of the day is kept accountable, but often descends into a slanging match, with the worst of politics on display.

It is also "the part of the day on which many judge the House and its work," a parliamentary committee has found, making 11 recommendations to improve the conduct of MPs, the likelihood of proper answers, and "offer a much better view" on the House of Representatives.

If the reforms were to be adopted, it could signal the end of the "Dorothy Dixer", questions often prepared in minister's offices and dutifully read out by enthusiastic government backbenchers.

Dixers often end with a minister being asked about "alternative approaches", a device used to give the government the chance to spruik their own policies while criticising the opposition. The first recommendation of the committee is to ban asking about "alternative approaches".

The committee also recommends shorting the time limit for questions to 30 seconds, and answers to two minutes, allowing for 21 questions each day. Ten would be from the opposition, five from the government, one from the crossbench and five "constituency questions" from government MPs.

If a question is directed to the Prime Minister, the question could not be deferred to another minister without first speaking to the question, under the recommendations.

The committtee also wants changes to how long MPs can be kicked out for disorderly behaviour, and a " a short-term trial of very limited use of mobile phones by Members during Question Time".

"On completion of the trial, the House would decide whether to restrict their use during Question Time on an ongoing basis."

Almost 3500 people responded to a survey by the committee on changes to Question Time, and more than 95 per cent said changes to the process were needed.

"This package of changes would encourage questions to be more focused and answers to be more tighter and more relevant," committee chair Ross Vasta told Parliament on Thursday morning.

Labor MP Milton Dick, the committee's deputy chair, read a submission that said Question Time was when "I see many highly paid people behaving extremely badly".

"Many feel that the process is not currently achieving its purpose, call it a waste of time," he said.

The report was a "bipartisan blueprint for change," he said.

During the conduct of the committee, Question Time was critised by one ex-speaker as a "total sham" and another said it should be scrapped altogether.

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This story The end of the Dorothy Dixer? Reform to Question Time to make it more relevant, less shouty first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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