A minister may reply to a question relating to matters for which he or she is officially responsible in a personal or representative capacity and replies must be confined to those areas of responsibility. Ministers must accept full personal responsibility for answers given on behalf of others, and ministers have been censured by the Senate on this basis.
As noted earlier, since September 1992 time limits have been imposed on answers: the answer to a question may not exceed two minutes and the answering of each supplementary question may not exceed one minute.
The rules which apply to questions also apply to answers. For example, if a question may not ask for a legal opinion, it follows that an answer may not give one. Questions with or without notice are permissible only for the purpose of obtaining information, and answers are limited to supplying the information asked for by the questions. In answering a question, a senator must not debate it (standing order 73(4)). Thus an answer should be confined to giving the information asked for, and should not contain any argument or comments. An answer must also be relevant to the question. On 22 August 1973 President Cormack ruled that in answering a question:
…the Minister should confine himself to points contained in the question with such explanation only as will render the answer intelligible. In all cases an answer must be relevant to the question.
However, should the Senate seek a full statement of a case, latitude is allowed to a minister in answering a question; but if it is desired to debate the matter, this should be done only on a specific motion (ruling of President Gould, 1908). In relation to relevance, the Procedure Committee in 1994 observed as follows:
It is clear that, in answering a question, a minister must be relevant to the question. It is for the President to make a judgment whether an answer is relevant to a question. If the answer is not relevant, the President requires the minister to be relevant.
It is not the responsibility of the chair to tell ministers how they should respond to questions: ‘That is purely a matter for Ministers, provided their answers are within the Standing Orders’, ruled President McClelland in 1985. It is also not for the chair to determine whether an answer is correct. Challenges to the accuracy of an answer should not take the form of a point of order. It is in order for a minister to answer part of a question without notice and ask that the remainder be placed on the Notice Paper. As noted earlier, questions without notice relating to matters within the responsibility of ministers may not be directed to a parliamentary secretary.
It is established practice for ministers at the end of question time to make additional responses to questions without notice. They then provide orally, or by incorporation in Hansard, information which they were unable to provide at the time the question was asked. Motions to take note of such answers may be moved but supplementary questions may not be asked in response to them.