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Which Minister?: Answering questions during Question Time


During Question Time on 5 December 2013, the member for Kennedy, Bob Katter, asked the Treasurer, the Hon. Joe Hockey, a question. Halfway through his response to the question, Mr Hockey invited the Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. Warren Truss to finish the answer. The Speaker ruled that this was in order and by doing so upheld precedence.
While transferring the responsibility for the answer of a question seems highly unusual, House of Representatives Practice (6th ed., p.550) states that it is entirely in order for a Minister to transfer a question to another Minister and that it ‘is not in order to question the reason for doing so’.

The Practice takes us back to 22 August 1979 to find precedence. In that instance, the member for Newcastle, the Hon. Charles Jones, directed a question to the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon. Malcolm Fraser. Instead of the Prime Minister answering the question, the Treasurer, the Hon. John Howard did the honours. The Speaker, the Rt Hon. Billy Snedden upheld the transfer of the question stating:
...It is perfectly acceptable for any Minister to answer the question.
This was in contrast to another circumstance in 1962 when the member for Scullin, Ted Peters directed a question to the Postmaster-General (the Hon. Charles Davidson). Instead of Davidson, the Treasurer, the Hon. Harold Holt began answering the question. After a point of order, the Speaker, the Hon. John McLeay ruled that the Treasurer would indeed answer the question. This prompted the Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. Arthur Calwell to move a dissent from the Speaker’s ruling. In his debate on the dissent from ruling, Holt stated:
…I say this in relation to your ruling: As I understood it at the time, and as I understood the subsequent elaboration given by you a moment or two ago, your ruling was to the effect that it is the practice of the House to call on the Minister who, in the judgment of the Chair, is most responsible for, or is best informed on, the matter raised…
The dissent from the ruling was negatived at a division, and Holt continued with his response to the question.

Going back to 5 March 1947, John McEwen, member for Indi, directed a question to the Prime Minister, the Hon. Joseph Chifley, who passed the question to the Minister for Commerce and Agriculture (Hon. Reginald Pollard). This prompted McEwen to insist that he sought an answer from the Prime Minister. The Speaker ruled:
The procedure covering questions is that a Minister may be asked questions dealing with his department. My view is that that provision should be observed, but I have noted on quite a number of occasions that questions not connected with his department have been asked of the Prime Minister. He, like previous Prime Ministers, has courteously replied to them. I personally consider it a reasonable view to take that if the Prime Minister is not seised of the whole of the facts involved in a question, the inquiry should be directed to the Minister who has the available information. However, if the honorable member for Indi does not wish to pursue his question I shall not call upon the Minister for Commerce and Agriculture to reply to it.
In this instance, McEwen did not get a response to his question.

Two occasions mimic that of 5 December 2013. On 3 March 1970, the member for St George, Bill Morrison, directed a question to the Minister for the Army, the Hon. Andrew Peacock. During Peacock’s answer, he indicated that the question should have been directed to the Minister for Defence (Hon. Malcolm Fraser). At the conclusion of his answer, Fraser asked the Speaker if he could answer the question and after approval, proceeded to do so.

Another occasion was on 30 April 1987 when member for Gwydir, the Hon. Ralph Hunt directed a question to the Minister for Resources and Energy, the Hon. Barry Jones. After completing his answer, the Treasurer, the Hon. Paul Keating added to it. The Speaker cited the precedence of 3 March 1970 when allowing Keating to add to the answer.

It is rare for a Minister to transfer a question to another Minister during Question Time and has led in the past to the ire of the Questioner, but to do so is in order and has been ruled in order by past Speakers.