Chapter 19 - Relations with the executive government

Questions on notice

Questions at question time are supposed to be without notice. The Standing Orders Committee, in a 1980 report (PP 50/1980), reviewed the long‑established practice of senators giving ministers informal advice prior to question time of the subject on which they proposed to ask questions, so that ministers might obtain information on those subjects. The committee considered that this was an acceptable practice, particularly in a chamber where ministers represent several ministries in addition to their own, and that it leads to a more satisfactory question time. The committee noted, however, that there was a distinction between this practice of giving informal advice of the subject of a question to be asked and the giving of written notice of the precise terms of a question calling for a detailed answer as provided for in the standing order dealing with questions on notice.

A question may be submitted on notice by a senator signing and delivering it to the Clerk, fairly written, printed, or typed. Notice may be given by one senator on behalf of another (SO 74(1)). The Clerk is required to place notices of questions on the Notice Paper in the order in which they are received (SO 74(2)).

Each question on notice is allocated a number and the text of the question is published in the Notice Paper. All questions which remain unanswered appear in the full Internet version of the Notice Paper and those that have remained unanswered for 30 or more days are noted.

A reply to a question on notice is given by delivering it to the Clerk, and a copy is supplied to the senator who asked the question. The question and reply is printed in Hansard (SO 74(3)). A senator who has received a copy of a reply pursuant to this standing order may, by leave, immediately after questions without notice, ask the question and have the reply read in the Senate (SO 74(4)), but this procedure is seldom used. The publication of the reply is authorised on its provision to the senator (SO 74(3)).

A senator who asks a question on notice and does not receive an answer within 30 days may seek an explanation and take certain other actions (SO 74(5)).

This provision, first adopted on 28 September 1988 (J.952), on the motion of Senator Macklin, provides:

If a minister does not answer a question on notice asked by a senator within 30 days of the asking of that question, and does not, within that period, provide to the senator who asked the question an explanation satisfactory to that senator of why an answer has not yet been provided:

  1. at the conclusion of question time on any day after that period, the senator may ask the relevant minister for such an explanation; and

  2. the senator may, at the conclusion of the explanation, move without notice ‘That the Senate take note of the explanation’; or

  3. in the event that the minister does not provide an explanation, the senator may, without notice, move a motion with regard to the minister’s failure to provide either an answer or an explanation.

If an explanation of the failure to answer questions within 30 days is not forthcoming when requested at the end of question time, the motion which is moved may be for any purpose, but is often a motion for an order for the answers and explanations to be tabled by a specified date. The procedure was first used by Senator Macklin on 23 November 1988 and has been frequently used since. The government has complied with orders made under this procedure to table answers by a specified date (23/11/1988, J.1144; 28/11/1990, J.485; 21/2/1991, J.785; 14/3/1991, J.875; 17/4/1991, J.951; 16/6/1992, J.2443; 11/5/1995, J.3289; 12/8/1999, J.1489-90). On one occasion (25/5/1989, J.1712) a minister was censured for the delay in answering.

A statement by a minister that an answer is being prepared, or that a question is under consideration, is not regarded as an explanation of failure to answer the question (rulings and statement by President Reid, SD, 28/5/1998, pp 3377-8).

The practice of ministers leaving the chamber immediately at the end of question time has meant that on several occasions the relevant minister has not been present to give an explanation, despite prior warning being given by the senator who asked the overdue question on notice. Despite requests from the President (see SD, 21/2/1991, p. 1034) the practice continued and on 17 April 1991 the Senate passed a motion expressing its “continuing concern at the lack of courtesy by Ministers in failing to attend the Chamber and to provide adequate reasons for failure to answer questions” (17/4/1991, J.951-2).

If in response to a senator having asked for an explanation of failure to answer a question, an answer is immediately produced by a minister, it is not open to a senator to move the motions otherwise authorised by the order. The rationale of the order is to encourage ministers to answer questions, and once a question is answered the procedure in the order no longer operates in relation to the question. (SD, 2/12/1992, pp 4044-8; 8/12/1992, pp 4391-4; 2/12/1992, J.3190; 8/12/1992, J.3252; ruling of President Calvert, SD, 16/10/2003, p. 16629)

On 16 June 1992, a senator took the unusual step of tabling by leave answers to questions on notice of which he had received copies, and then by leave moving a motion to take note of the answers and debating them (SD, 16/6/1992, pp 3661-2, 3664-6).

Under standing order 74(5), the procedure applies also to questions on notice lodged during estimates hearings. (See Chapter 16, Committees, under Estimates committees.)

When final answers to questions on notice have not been given before the Senate adjourns, government departments and agencies furnish replies in the usual manner to the Department of the Senate which forwards them to the senators concerned. On the resumption of the next sittings, the replies are incorporated in Hansard.

One of the consequences of a prorogation of the Parliament is that all business on the Notice Paper lapses on the day before the next sitting. Thus, questions submitted before the prorogation and not answered before the next sitting need to be resubmitted in order to appear on the Notice Paper in the next session. The Department of the Senate writes to senators whose questions had not been answered, inquiring whether they wish to renew the questions when the Senate resumes. Ministerial departments are advised to answer questions outstanding at prorogation. If the Senate were to meet after a prorogation (see below) a Notice Paper would be issued containing the business before the Senate at the prorogation.

Questions on notice submitted after the prorogation and for which answers have not been received before the Senate sits again appear on the first Notice Paper of the new session with the annotation that notice was given on the first sitting day. For such questions the 30 days, within which ministers must provide an answer or explain why none has been given, is deemed to begin with the first day of the new session.

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