A veteran Liberal MP was left red-faced and cringing in Parliament on Wednesday, after shattering the theatre of question time by asking the wrong pre-planned question.
“Sorry, you can’t… you’ve asked the question,” a bemused Speaker, Tony Smith, said as the chamber broke out into laughter when Liberal MP Rowan Ramsey realised his fumble.
Parliament’s daily question time session is officially known as “questions without notice”, but in reality, it’s anything but. The questions to ministers are pre-planned, referred to as “Dorothy Dixers”, written ahead of time and doled out to backbench MPs; the ministers then get their chance to script an answer to highlight what the government has been working on.
There have been calls over many years to reform question time, to cut down on “dixers” and inject more spontaneity.
Those calls usually get nowhere, with the government of the day reluctant to give up its chance to toot its own horn during the one part of Parliament that is regularly televised and watched by people at home.
It usually works well enough, as government MPs get half the session to pat themselves on the back. Except when, as on Wednesday, the script goes awry.
When it was his turn, Mr Ramsey – Liberal MP for the South Australian seat of Gray – looked down to a sheet of paper, reading off a question on business support to Small Business Minister Stuart Robert.
Upon finishing the question, a look of concern clouded Mr Ramsey’s face.
“I have asked the wrong question,” he said, looking around the chamber, before attempting to ask the one he was meant to, to Education Minister Alan Tudge.
If there was ever a sad example of an MP just reading a script as instructed by their party leaders, this is it. But it’s all too common. MP’s in major parties represent their parties, not their constituents. #auspol #DorothyDixer pic.twitter.com/ZivCGVLZ6D
— Rex Patrick (@Senator_Patrick) August 25, 2021
Concerns rose when Mr Ramsey began his address by describing Mr Robert as “my new neighbour up here” in the chamber. Mr Robert was sitting on the opposite end of the House of Representatives, while Mr Tudge sat just a row in front of Mr Ramsey.
Mr Smith, the Speaker, tried to keep a straight face as government and opposition MPs broke into laughter.
“Probably the clearest illustration that this isn’t a question without notice,” Mr Smith deadpanned.
The Member for Grey was elected to Parliament in 2007. He is a government whip, meant to ensure adherence to parliamentary procedure and that party leaders’ instructions are followed.
The next government question went to the Member for Robertson, Lucy Wicks, who seemingly was switched around to ask what Mr Ramsey was meant to ask. She put a question to Mr Tudge, who also stood up with a laugh.
Soon after, Trade Minister Dan Tehan was asked a dixer of his own by Warren Entsch.
Mr Tehan took to his feet, joking that he thanked Mr Entsch “for asking the right question”.
Mr Ramsey, two rows directly behind, cringed and hid his head in his hands.
Independent senator Rex Patrick tweeted it was “a sad example of an MP just reading a script”.
Mr Robert and Mr Tudge ribbed Mr Ramsay at the end of question time, joking with the backbencher about the unusual error.