'Disheartened': Labor MPs call for ban on phones and end to Dixers in question time

Paul Karp
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Labor MPs have called for a ban on mobile phones in question time and an end to Dorothy Dixers on the basis they allow government attacks on the opposition.

New Labor MPs Kate Thwaites and Peta Murphy made the reform proposals in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry, along with measures to allow backbench MPs and the public to scrutinise the executive.

Thwaites and Murphy said they are “disheartened” because visitors to parliament are either extremely bored or amazed at “a display of behaviour that would not be tolerated in any other workplace [or school playground]”.

“Our constituents tell us that they are dismayed by what they see on their televisions and too often they wonder what the purpose of parliament is,” the pair said.

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The House of Representatives procedures committee is holding an inquiry on reforming question time.

It will consider submissions, which closed on Thursday, and the results from a survey that asks the public’s view on everything from question and answer length to abolition of questions from government MPs to their own ministers, colloquially known as Dorothy Dix questions or “Dixers”.

Dixers are routinely shared between backbench MPs who ask ministers pre-scripted questions.

Thwaites and Murphy warned that question time is “clearly broken” due to Dixers allowing “campaign speeches and personal attacks on opposition members while ministers avoid giving genuine answers to the crossbench and opposition”.

The pair proposed:

  • An end to Dorothy Dix questions or replacing them with short statements from ministers on government achievements, as occurs in Victorian parliament

  • Tightening the definition of relevance to prevent “gratuitous personal or partisan attacks”

  • Portfolio specific question times

  • Constituency-specific questions at the end of question time to allow backbenchers to ask ministers about issues relating to their electorate

  • The inclusion of a question from the public once a fortnight; and

  • A ban on mobile phones

“When members of the parliament can’t even be bothered to pay attention (and we’re guilty of this ourselves!) how can we expect the public to respect what we do,” the submission said. “We are clearly failing at self-policing our addiction on this front, and need some extra assistance.”

In a separate submission Labor MP Brian Mitchell suggested that “genuine backbench questions from government MPs” could be promoted by a convention excluding the executive from any role in drafting or allocating questions.

Similarly, one day per sitting week should be reserved for opposition backbench MPs to question ministers, rather than their frontbench colleagues, he said.

The Northern Territory independent speaker, Kezia Purick, noted that since 2016 Dorothy Dix questions have been banned in the NT parliament on Wednesdays, as well as repeated questions to the same minister.

Purick said that members “adjusted fairly quickly” and “objections faded” with the result that “all members have come to appreciate that this one day is completely allocated to opposition and crossbench member questions”.