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The term is used in a mildly derogatory sense. Often, the question has been written by the Minister or his/her staff rather than by the questioner, and is used to give the Minister a chance to promote themselves or the work of the Government, or to criticise the opposition party's policies, to raise the profile of the backbench Member asking the question, or to consume the time available for questioning and thereby avoid tougher questions. It is a common and widely-accepted tactic during Question Time in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
While it is not very common in the Australian context, it would be possible for a backbencher on the Government side of the house to ask a member of the Government a question without it being regarded as a Dorothy Dixer. Such a question would be one that the Minister was not aware of in advance, or that the Minister had not planted, or both.
It is common for "Dorothy Dixers" to end in the question: "Is the Minister aware of any alternative policies?" This enables the responding Minister to launch into extended criticism of the Opposition and its policy on the question's subject matter, while still remaining technically relevant to the question as asked, as Standing orders require.
The term references American advice columnist Dorothy Dix's reputed practice of making up her own questions to allow her to publish more interesting answers. "Dorothy Dixer" has been used in Australian politics since the 1950s, and has become increasingly common in everyday usage, although the term is now frequently shortened to "Dixer". However, the term is virtually unknown in other countries where Dix's column was equally popular.
In his book An Introduction to Australian Politics, Dean Jaensch observed on page 229:
A growing number of questions are of the 'Dorothy-Dix' type (from the government backbench) and attempts to win political points (from both sides of the house).
Similarly, Don Aitkin and Brian Jinks observe in their book Australian Political Institutions on page 67:
It is common practice for a minister to have a government backbencher ask a pre-arranged question which can be answered in such a way as to praise the government or exploit a weakness in the Opposition. Such 'Dorothy Dix' questions (after the syndicated 'advice' column which once appeared in popular magazines), are in effect occasions for ministers' speeches, rather than for parliamentary criticism of the executive.