One of the ways in which the Senate seeks to hold the government accountable for its actions is by questioning ministers. The procedures of the Senate provide a number of opportunities for senators to ask questions of ministers—during question time, through written questions on notice and at committee hearings, especially when estimates of expenditure are being considered.
Question time in the Senate is scheduled to begin at 2.00 p.m. on each sitting day and usually continues for an hour. The number of questions (including supplementary questions) asked at question time in recent years has averaged around twenty-eight. Questions without notice may be put to a minister relating to public affairs with which he or she is officially connected, or to any matter of administration for which the minister is personally responsible or in respect of which he or she represents another minister. However, there is no corresponding obligation on those questioned to give an answer. President Baker ruled on 26 August 1902 that there was ‘no obligation on a minister or other members to answer a question’, and in 1905 he ruled: ‘It is a matter of policy whether the Government will answer a question or not. There are no standing orders which can force a minister or other senator to answer a question’. However, political realities dictate that ministers must demonstrate that they have a firm understanding and command of the matters for which they are responsible by answering questions in a competent manner. In party political terms it is important that a minister performs well at question time.
Following a minister’s reply to a question without notice, the questioner or any other senator may, at the discretion of the chair, ask two supplementary questions in order to elucidate a reply. Supplementary questions are considered inappropriate for the purpose of introducing additional material, or for proposing a new question.
Supplementary questions must be actually and accurately related to the original question and must relate to or arise from the answer. It is not in order to ask a supplementary question of another minister. As mentioned earlier, in addition to answering questions concerning their own portfolios, each Senate minister also represents one or more ministers in the House and responds to questions concerning matters for which House ministers are responsible.
Apart from the questions asked orally in the Senate chamber each sitting day, senators may also at any time address written questions on notice to ministers and other senators. In a typical year senators ask over 1,000 questions on notice. These questions and the answers to them are not usually read in the chamber, though they are published in Hansard. Standing orders require that answers to questions on notice be supplied within thirty days. If a minister does not supply an answer within that period, and does not give an explanation, when asked, of why the answer has not been provided, a senator may move, without notice, a relevant motion— usually a motion for the answer to be tabled by a specific date. Ministers normally comply with such orders. For further details of the procedures for questioning ministers see Senate Brief No. 12, Questions.
Senator the Hon. Arthur Sinodinos AO responding to a question without notice in 2013
Ministers from the Senate are frequently invited to appear before Senate committees to give evidence and answer questions. Ministers from the House of Representatives have also occasionally given evidence. Standing order 26(5) provides that Senate committees considering estimates of government expenditure ‘may ask for explanations from ministers in the Senate, or officers, relating to the items of proposed expenditure’. While many of the more detailed answers are provided by government officials, ministers are responsible for answering questions about policy matters which public servants are not required to comment on (see Senate Brief No. 5, Consideration of Estimates by Senate Committees and Senate Brief No. 13, Rights and Responsibilities of Witnesses Before Senate Committees).