A Westminster tradition, used in most commonwealth countries, question time is meant to be one of the linchpins of democracy, a chance where constituents, through their representatives, can ask the government of the day “what’s going on?”

In reality, it’s where questions go to die, suffocated in the sludge of government lines, opposition grandstanding and backbenchers grasping for their moment in the sun.

A bipartisan parliamentary committee recently handed down 11 recommendations to try and improve question time, in an attempt to re-engage the public with the most infamous part of parliamentary sittings. The 51 public submissions all told a very similar story – question time was frustrating, did not serve the parliament or the parliamentarians well, and mostly seemed to turn people off.

Of the 3,465 survey responses the committee received back, more than 95% of people wanted question time to change. “Waste of time” and “farce” were among the popular comments.

Mostly, people are disillusioned with the whole process. They expect questions to be answered, or for the answers to at least be relevant to the question. Anyone who has watched QT knows that’s almost impossible. After all, it’s never been known as answer time.

The recommendations seek to change this in some pretty simple ways. For example, banning dixers – questions written by a minister’s staff and given to backbenchers to ask their boss – reducing the time allowed to both ask and answer a question, and making the prime minister answer more questions, rather than palming it off to a minister. Scott Morrison has done this at least 200 times since becoming prime minister, and that doesn’t count the 60-plus times he started answering before passing it to someone else.

Then treasurer Scott Morrison with a lump of coal during question time in the House of Representatives, Thursday, 9 Feb, 2017.
Then treasurer Scott Morrison with a lump of coal during question time in the House of Representatives, Thursday, 9 Feb, 2017. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

It’s not the first time someone has tried to fix question time. History says it won’t be the last. Question time might be a theatrical farce, but that’s just the way governments like it. Sure they might have to take some pesky questions from the opposition, but they also get equal time slamming the opposition over whatever issue it chooses.

John Howard made a (obviously non-core) promise in 1995 to install an independent, rather than a member of the government, as Speaker – one of the most crucial players in question time.

Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop made a sport out of how many Labor MPs she could boot from the parliament during QT – including a record 18 in just 55 minutes in one day in November 2014. By the time she left the chair, Bishop had removed 400 MPs from the chamber – all but seven of them from Labor. Tony Smith does his best to be fair, but like all Speakers before him in recent times (Peter Slipper the obvious exception), he’s still a member of the Coalition.

Then Labor leader Mark Latham also vowed to clean up question time, declaring in 2004 he would kill off Dorothy dixers. Obviously, that wasn’t the only political fight he lost that year.

Dorothy dixers, or just dixers are named for the American agony aunt who wrote the questions she would respond to in her column (she’d stolen the name Dix for her pseudonym from a slave her family owned) are an established part of the Australian parliamentary tradition.

The practice enlightens no one beyond proving the backbencher who’s been tasked with delivering the question passed Year 3 reading comprehension.

If you’re really unlucky, you’ll tune in to QT on a day when WA backbencher Vince Connolly has been given the tap to ask a dixer and witness what it looks like when the understudy drama kid finally gets a lead role in a third-rate community theatre production of Cats.

Between performances so bad it wouldn’t be surprising to see Tommy Wiseau’s name pop up as a consultant, responses which include a run down of the backbencher’s CV before parliament and answers which make Anakin Skywalker’s “I hate sand” speech seem Nobel prize-worthy, question time has taken a beating.

The death to dixers movement has a strong following, but will probably never be successful, no matter how ridiculous the questions become. Dave Sharma holds the dishonour of asking one of the worst dixers in recent memory, asking the prime minister: “Will the prime minister update the House on further action the government has taken this week to deliver on its priorities?”

He took a deep breath before he delivered it. Even he knew it was terrible. Which is no mean feat when it exists in a field which includes Tony Pasin asking “Minister, could you update the House on the importance of strong and consistent border protection policies, and, Minister, are you aware of any risks associated with alternative approaches?” and anytime anyone asks Michael McCormack to speak.

No two words in the English language can bring a twitch to the eye faster than “and is the minister aware of any alternative approaches”, a question tacked on at the end of a question to allow ministers to launch into kicking the opposition, while remaining within the standing orders.

It came to prominence during the Turnbull years – every single dixer ended with the joyless inquiry for a few weeks there, before dropping off to every second – and has just never gone away. The very words elicit groans in the chamber, and not just from the opposition benches.

No matter how noble the intentions of the MPs who worked to see how question time could be improved, dixers are not going anywhere. Because the question never matters – it’s the performance delivered in response which counts.

It was a dixer which led to Morrison, then the treasurer, to bring in a piece of coal in the national parliament. A week before Valentine’s Day in 2017, Morrison gazed adoringly at the dark lump he held aloft in the chamber and declared: “This is coal. Do not be afraid. Do not be scared. It will not hurt you.”

WA backbencher Andrew Hastie, who represents Canning, had asked the question.

Canning is known for its gold and bauxite mines, but is rather bereft of coal – in fact, the coal Morrison held that day had been dug up in the Hunter Valley, nearly 4,000km from Hastie’s electorate.

That’s how little the questions actually matter – it’s only ever about the theatrics.

Morrison has been particularly deft at wielding QT as a weapon. He also holds the mantle for overseeing the longest question time in Australian history – in February 2019, he extended the usual hour and a bit to two and a half hours, to avoid a vote being called on establishing a royal commission into disability care.

Which is why all the reviews in the world will do little to change how question time operates. It may be the only thing people think of when they think about the endless hours of a parliament sitting – it’s the only part of the sitting consistently broadcast to the public, and it may have contributed to, as the latest review found, a general sense of ennui and malaise with the parliament as a whole.

But it remains one of the strongest weapons the government of the day has in getting its message out unfiltered and, at the end of the day, both major parties use it to try and get as many snappy 10-second grabs on the six o’clock news as possible.

The state of question time is not just about what it has become, but the players who use it as their stage.

Are there any alternative approaches? Of course. But as QT proves each and every sitting day, no one is really interested in the answers.

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