Chapter 19 - Relations with the executive government

Questions without notice: question time

Question time for questions without notice occurs at 2 pm on each sitting day.

Time limits are imposed on questions and answers at question time. Standing order 72(3) provides that:

  1. the asking of each question not exceed 1 minute and the answering of each question not exceed 4 minutes;

  2. the asking of each supplementary question not exceed 1 minute and the answering of each supplementary question not exceed 1 minute.

While standing orders give senators the right to ask questions of ministers and certain other senators 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 member 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” (SD, 26/8/1902, p. 15311 and 20/10/1905, p. 3858). Other presidents have stated that answers are “optional” or “discretionary” and that, “There is no obligation on a minister to answer: he does so merely as a matter of courtesy”. (For rulings that ministers cannot be required to answer questions see SD, 26/8/1902, p. 15311; 1/6/1904, p. 1736; 20/10/1905, p. 3858; 22/5/1914, p. 1428; 16/7/1919, p. 10718; 1/10/1952, p. 2373; 2/6/1955, p. 592; 5/10/1961, p. 891; 10/9/1963, p. 372; 22/8/1973, p. 40; 19/10/1983, p. 1717; 3/11/1983, p. 2186; 6/12/1990, p. 5131.) These rulings relate to the conduct of question time and do not preclude the Senate taking some separate action to obtain the required information.

The standing orders prescribe no limit to the duration of questions without notice. In practice, about one hour is usually occupied by questions without notice, at the expiration of which time the Leader of the Government in the Senate or the minister at the table asks senators to put any further questions on the Notice Paper. As ministers are not obliged to answer questions without notice (see above), this effectively terminates question time for that day.

Except for the period 26 September 1967 to 27 March 1973, it has been the practice for question time to be ended by a minister asking that any further questions be placed on the notice paper.

On 26 September 1967 the Leader of the Government in the Senate moved that further questions be placed upon the Notice Paper. The President stated that it was the practice of the Senate that a minister had the right to ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper, without proposing a motion. A motion, proposed by an Opposition senator, was agreed to that questions without notice be proceeded with. Ministers answered further questions, although they were not obliged to. (The President had ruled that such a motion could not be moved without notice. This ruling, though undoubtedly correct, was dissented from by the Senate.)

For some years after the 1967 proceedings no minister attempted to terminate question time by means of asking that further questions be placed upon the Notice Paper, and the duration of question time increased markedly, from about 45 minutes prior to 1967 to 80 minutes at the end of 1972 and 110 minutes during the early part of the 1973 session. Question time was curtailed for a brief period at the end of 1972, however. Faced with a large amount of business to be dealt with in the remaining days of the session, the government moved

That, unless otherwise ordered, question time including questions on notice, for the remainder of the present period of sittings, shall not exceed 45 minutes.

The motion was passed on October 25 1972 (J.1193) and for the remaining four days of the 27th Parliament question time was limited accordingly.

A general election was held in December 1972 and when the Senate resumed in February 1973 the practice which had been followed since 1967 (with the exception of the four days in October 1972) was briefly resumed before being replaced on 27 March 1973 by the practice which had obtained prior to 1967. President Cormack then made a statement concerning questions in which he outlined the practice which prevailed until 26 September 1967 and noted that since that time no minister had attempted to terminate question time as long as senators wished to ask questions. He stated:

Notwithstanding the September 1967 proceedings there is still no obligation upon a minister to answer questions, and if the minister in charge asks after a certain time that further questions without notice be placed on the notice paper I believe that I have no alternative but to call the next business. (SD, 27/3/1973, p. 567.)

The rationale for the restoration of the earlier practice was that the decision of 26 September 1967 to extend question time applied to that day only and the fact that for the next five years the government had chosen not exercise the right to terminate question time at the request of the minister at the table did not affect the validity of this practice. Consequently, on the next occasion after 1967 that the minister at the table asked that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper, the President ruled in accordance with traditional practice.

Following the President’s ruling (which he later repeated, SD, 17/5/1973, p. 1688), the Senate proceeded to the next business, but the Leader of the Opposition intended that the practice should be reviewed. On 29 March 1973 the Leader of the Opposition moved:

That, in the absence of any Standing Order on the matter, honourable Senators’ right to question Ministers is limited only by the judgment of the Senate, and that Ministers who seek recognition from the Senate are obliged to answer questions with a promptness and accuracy appropriate to ministerial responsibility.

The motion was debated but not voted upon (29/3/1973, J.82).

On 10 April 1973, the Leader of the Opposition gave notice that, contingent upon any minister asking, on any day of sitting during question time, that further questions without notice be placed on the Notice Paper, he might move: That questions without notice be further proceeded with. A similar notice of motion was given in the 1974 session. These notices were not used.

President O’Byrne confirmed the restoration of the traditional practice when, on 11 July 1974 (SD, p. 81), he stated that after the minister in charge “asks that further questions without notice be placed on the notice paper the Chair regards itself as bound by practice to call on the next business”. The question of a minister’s right to terminate question time was raised next in 1979, when President Laucke stated that the practice of question time being terminated by the Leader of the Government requesting that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper was well established and had been recognised by successive Presidents (SD, 22/3/1979, p. 879).

The practice was considered in 1980 by the Standing Orders Committee, which confirmed in its report to the Senate (PP 50/1980) that it was a long‑established practice for question time to be terminated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate asking that further questions be placed on notice. The basis of the practice, the committee reported, is that it is competent for ministers to ask that any questions be placed on the Notice Paper and that ministers, in any case, are not bound to answer questions. The committee did not consider that it ought to recommend any change in the practice.

On 25 June 1992 the Opposition successfully moved a motion, for which the Opposition Leader had on the Notice Paper a special contingent notice of motion to suspend standing orders, to extend question time that day. Time was extended to enable five further questions to be put to ministers by Opposition senators (25/6/1992, J.2614-5).

On 19 October 1999 question time was extended on several days in response to a refusal by a minister to produce a document in accordance with an order of the Senate (19/10/1999 J.1931-2).

Although the government can end question time by asking that further questions be placed on notice, question time is an item in the Senate’s routine of business, and, as such, cannot be dispensed with except by a decision of the Senate to alter the routine of business which explicitly or implicitly has that effect.

For the effect of censure motions on the duration of question time, see above, under Ministerial accountability and censure motions.

The history of the time limits on questions and answers is of interest. On the initiative of the Opposition, a special order was agreed to on 14 September 1992 (J.2745) to limit the asking of questions to one minute and the answering of questions to two minutes during question time. The motion also limited the asking of supplementary questions to one minute and answers to them to two minutes. The motion further specified that time taken to make and determine points of order should not be regarded as part of the time for questions and answers. This action was taken after Opposition complaints about the length of some ministers’ answers, and a general discontent with the conduct of question time. The order was expressed to apply only to the remainder of that week. The operation of the order during the week resulted in a significant increase in the number of questions asked and answered, but also caused an increase in the number of supplementary questions. On 6 October 1992 (J.2816) these procedures were again adopted for the following two weeks but with an amendment moved by the Australian Democrats to extend the time for answers to questions to four minutes. They were adopted again (3/11/1992, J.2931) for the first two sitting weeks of November with the limits to answers to questions and supplementary questions reduced to three minutes and one minute respectively. On 24 November 1992 (J.3076) these procedures, together with those concerning motions to take note of answers after question time (see the section on motions to take note of answers below), were renewed as sessional orders. The procedures were incorporated into standing order 72 in February 1997.

The chair seeks to call senators to ask questions so as to achieve an appropriate allocation of questions among parties and independent senators. By custom the chair observes an order for the allocation of questions agreed to by senators. In its second report of 1995, the Procedure Committee endorsed the principle of proportionality, that is, that the allocation of questions between the various parties, groups and independent senators should be as nearly as practicable in proportion to their numbers in the Senate (PP 284/1995). The allocation of questions, however, is not governed by any rule of the Senate. For an unsuccessful attempt to change the allocation and specify it in an order of the Senate, see 5/3/2003, J.1539.

The Leader of the Opposition, when seeking to ask a question, is accorded priority over all other non-government senators (ruling of President Mattner, SD, 26/9/1951, p. 5). The call is given to senators who have not asked questions before calling any senator for a second time (SD, 24/10/1951, p. 1035; 3/5/1973, p. 1276).

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