Dorothy Dixers have long been a staple of question time in the Westminster parliamentary system, but no longer in Victoria thanks to a decision by the Andrews Government to replace them with Ministerial Statements in a move that has attracted the derision of its political opponents.
Replacing the hoary practice are so-called Ministerial Statements that allow Government Ministers two minutes to update the House on a topic of their choosing, and non-government MPs have so far found the new system, now eight sitting weeks-old, underwhelming.
Independent Suzanna Sheed, of Shepparton, says of the change: “I would rather hear the backbenchers in the government ask Dorothy Dixers than have the ministers get a free-for-all.”
The change means that questions are now reserved for non-government MPs, who bemoan the new ministerial statements as a free kick in which Ministers recycle media releases or lambast the previous government without having to go to the trouble of scripting a question for some compliant backbencher.
When Labor set its sights on Dorothy Dixers last year, it described the practice as “stage-managed . . . whereby Ministers pre-prepare questions and rehearse answers for the purpose of grandstanding.”
The Dixers were abolished as part of a suite of reforms including the introduction of supplementary — or follow-up — questions, shorter time limits on questions and a lower cap on the total number of questions asked (down to five from 10).
The institution that was Question Time had become a farce under the Liberals, Labor claimed, which it accused of hiding “behind antiquated rules to avoid scrutiny.”
“Labor’s changes will help Victorians trust their Parliament, after four years of chaos, confusion and cover-ups under the Napthine Government. It’s about raising the standard of behaviour and making our parliament honest again,” it announced grandly.
But Ms Sheed said that while the Ministerial Statements were being used as planned to “highlight government policy”, they were also a means “of slamming the Opposition” over its previous term of government.
While Ms Sheed wasn’t keen on the changes, she conceded that “to some extent Question Time is really about the theatre of Parliament.” But, she added: “While the Opposition can ask very pertinent questions on issues of the day and it is designed to keep the government accountable, the answers are rarely responsive in terms of providing useful information.”
The Manager of Opposition Business, Robert Clark, was similarly dismissive of the reforms, saying they “haven’t produced any significant changes in Question Time. Although the Opposition can ask supplementary questions, Ministers routinely talk out the time allowed to respond, rather than actually providing an answer to the question.”
Mr Clark also noted that Ministerial Statements appeared to resemble Dorothy Dixers sans the question.
“Ministers’ statements are supposed to be to inform the House about new government initiatives, but the Andrews Government ministers have repeatedly used them simply as a platform for political debate.”
Monash University academic Ken Coghill, a former Speaker of the Legislative Assembly during the Cain and Kirner Governments, recalled that Ministerial Statements were actually the norm before governing parties took control of the procedures of parliament.
“Dorothy Dixers were a substitute for Ministers making a statement . . . [It is] far preferable for Ministers to have the opportunity to inform the Parliament,” said Dr Coghill, who is associate professor of Monash’s Department of Management.
Ministerial Statements were meant to be policy statements, he added, which opened up their subject matter to debate, unlike the answers to questions.
“The big difference [to a Dorothy Dixer] is that a Ministerial Statement can be debated.”
On the notion of Dorothy Dixers enhancing the theatre of Parliament, Dr Coghill said: “I don’t think the prime objective of parliament should be to entertain the public.”
By his own admission, however, Dr Coghill has not yet witnessed the new orders in action.
A more recent Speaker, the Liberals’ Christine Fyffe, who held the post through 2014, dismissed the Ministerial Statements as being of little value and for not being used as intended. “Ministerial statements are a farce . . . supposed to [raise] new matters but are usually rehashing what is already in [the] public domain and [are] instead being used to attack the Opposition.”
Instead, the government should abandon Ministerial Statements during Question Time “unless they are going to comply with their new sessional orders” and refrain from attacking the Opposition, she added.
Jacinta Allan, the Manager of Government Business in the House, defended the new orders, saying that “the introduction of shorter, two-minute Ministerial Statements, instead of Dorothy Dixers, provides Government the opportunity to update the Parliament and the people on important initiatives without the charade.”
“These reforms are working — they give the Opposition more opportunities to ask questions, they give Government a clearer avenue to update the public on important initiatives, and give the public a more efficient, accountable and meaningful Parliamentary process.”
For many onlookers, however, Question Time appears to be much the same as it has always been — mostly theatre, during which no MP appears capable of passing up a good opportunity to heckle. That’s partly because it is the one time during the parliamentary day in which both galleries — public and press — are well populated, allowing those in the political cauldron to perform before an audience greater than their fellow MPs and security staff.