Chapter 19 - Relations with the executive government

Rules for questions and answers

The basic requirements of questions and answers were stated by President Laucke to be:

  • questions must relate to matters for which a minister is responsible

  • questions and answers should be brief

  • requests for statistical information should be placed on the Notice Paper and should not be sought on the floor of the chamber on any occasion

  • quoting should be avoided, except to the degree necessary to make a question clear

  • replies should be confined to giving information, and no debate should be entered into (SD, 21/10/1976, p. 1370).

The following rules for questions are contained in standing order 73:

Questions shall not contain:

  1. statements of fact or names of persons unless they are strictly necessary to render the question intelligible and can be authenticated;

  2. arguments;

  3. inferences;

  4. imputations;

  5. epithets;

  6. ironical expressions; or

  7. hypothetical matter.

Questions shall not ask:

  1. for an expression of opinion;

  2. for a statement of the Government’s policy; or

  3. for legal opinion.

Questions shall not refer to:

  1. debates in the current session; or

  2. proceedings in committee not reported to the Senate.

Questions shall not anticipate discussion upon an order of the day or other matter which appears on the Notice Paper.

The President may direct that the language of a question be changed if it is not in conformity with the standing orders.

These rules apply also to answers. For example, if a question may not ask for a legal opinion, it follows that an answer may not give one.

The rule concerning anticipation is not interpreted narrowly because, if it were, it could block questions on a wide variety of subjects. The practice is to allow questions seeking information regarding matters on the Notice Paper but which do not necessarily amount to anticipating discussion (statements by President Reid, SD, 24/6/1999, p. 6307; 20/6/2002, p. 2312; by President Calvert, SD, 17/10/2006, p. 36).

The rule that questions shall not refer to proceedings in committee which have not been reported to the Senate strictly refers to proceedings in committee of the whole, although the same principle has been applied to other committees. The prohibition, however, is not interpreted narrowly because, if it were, the rule might block questions on a wide variety of subjects under consideration by committees. The working rule is that senators should not be restricted from asking questions on subjects which may be under examination by a committee, provided that they do not refer to non‑public committee proceedings which have not been reported to the Senate (rulings of President Laucke, SD, 26/8/1976, p.354; of Deputy President West, 22/9/1999, p.8654; of President Calvert, SD, 17/10/2006, p. 36). President Laucke stated:

The rules have never been so interpreted as to prevent from being answered a question about a particular area which may or may not have a direct bearing on an inquiry currently proceeding. Otherwise no questions could be asked in the Senate. An interpretation which is not too rigid has to be made in a situation like this. (ibid.)

The conduct of members of either House should not be reflected on in a question (rulings of President McMullin, SD, 12/11/1968, p. 1865; 25/8/1970, p. 154).

It is within the discretion of the President to direct that long and involved questions be placed on the Notice Paper (rulings of President O’Byrne, SD, 11/6/1975, p. 2488; of President Laucke, 22/3/1979, p. 876). See also the section on Questions involving orders for returns, below.

In applying the rule that a question shall not ask for a statement of government policy, in most cases the chair leaves it to the minister to say whether a question involves a statement of government policy. However, it has been ruled that it is in order for a question:

  • to seek an explanation of government policy (SD, 5/12/1989, p. 3879);

  • to ask a minister about the effects of a proposal on the minister’s portfolio (SD, 4/10/1984, p. 1206);

  • to ask about the government’s intentions and the reasons for those intentions (SD, 30/3/1987, p. 1438);

  • to seek clarification of a statement made by a minister (18/2/1991, J.755; SD, 18/2/1991, p. 690).

A question which invites a minister to comment on the policies or actions of non-government parties is out of order unless the question seeks an expression of the government’s intentions in some matter of ministerial responsibility (rulings of President Sibraa, SD, 17/2/1987, p. 73; 30/3/1987, p. 1438; 17/5/1990, p. 554; 26/11/1991, p. 3296; of President Reid, SD, 9/9/1996, p. 3018; of President Calvert, SD, 10/9/2003, p. 14834; 1/3/2004, pp 20291-2; 26/3/2007, pp 34-5).

On 16 February 1956, a senator asked a question without notice in which he made reference to the President of Indonesia and to the government of that country. President McMullin held that the remarks of the senator were not in order, and he ruled that, in the future, such questions must be expressed in terms of appropriate dignity and courtesy (SD, p. 23). This ruling was consistent with the practice in the British House of Commons. On 19 March 1974 President Cormack disallowed a question without notice on the ground that questions may not be asked, or terms used in debate, which reflect on a head of state of a friendly country (SD, 19/3/1974, p. 361). These rulings have no basis in the standing orders, have not been applied since that time, and do not reflect current practice.

The attachment of the names of persons to circumstances in questions, when only the circumstances need be mentioned, is not in accordance with the standing order (statement by President Calvert, SD, 21/8/2002, p. 3467).

The President may direct that the language of a question be changed if it is not in conformity with the standing orders (SO 73(3)).

With respect to questions on notice, the practice is as outlined to the Senate by President Givens on 25 September 1918 (SD, p. 6300): before questions are permitted to be placed upon the Notice Paper, they are examined by officers of the Senate, and anything which, in their opinion, is doubtful is referred to the President for decision. The President may direct the Clerk to alter any question so as to conform with the standing orders. If a question contains material which does not conform to the standing orders current practice is for an officer of the Senate to discuss the matter with the senator who submitted it. The problem is usually resolved at this point by the rephrasing or withdrawal of the question.

A question which does not comply with the rules may not be placed on the Notice Paper (SD, 1/8/1917, p. 625; 10/4/1918, p. 3694; 26/6/1919, p. 10093; 16/7/1919, p. 10718). On 10 April 1918, President Givens disallowed a proposed question upon notice by Senator McDougall because it contained statements and assertions and, in the opinion of the President, was not asked solely for the purpose of eliciting information. The President refused to allow the question to go on the Notice Paper. Soon after the meeting of the Senate, Senator McDougall moved dissent from the ruling of the President. The motion was negatived. During the debate, President Givens held that it was the duty of the President to protect the privileges of senators by preventing the asking of improper questions (SD, 10/4/1918, p. 3694-5).

On 11 May 1950 President Brown ruled that “it is not permissible to quote from newspapers, books or periodicals when asking questions” (SD, 11/5/1950, p. 2419). During the debate on an unsuccessful motion of dissent from this ruling the President stated: “At the moment it is competent for an honourable senator to ask a question based upon a newspaper article, but not to read an extract from the newspaper” (p. 2587). On 15 May 1969 (SD, p. 1270) President McMullin re-affirmed that questions may be based on newspaper reports, but that quotations are not in order. In 1971 President Cormack ruled:

I remind the Senate that it has been ruled on many occasions that, while questions may be based on newspaper or other reports, quotations are not in order. The purpose of questions is to obtain information. Questions should be brief so that as many as possible may be asked within the time allotted. I therefore reaffirm that Senators must frame their questions in such a way as not to contain quotations. (SD, 26/10/1971, p. 1444)

See also SD, 27/10/1971, p. 1472; 25/11/1971, p. 2106‑7; 28/9/1972, p. 1310. In practice the chair exercises a discretion and may allow a senator to make a quotation to the extent necessary to make the question clear.

Senators may amend their questions on the Notice Paper to clarify their terms (ruling of President Givens, SD, 28/9/1922, p. 2788).

Questions with or without notice are permissible only for the purpose of obtaining information, and answers are subject to the same limitation, that is, they are limited to supplying the information asked for by the questions (rulings of President Givens, SD, 17/5/1916, p. 7920; and of President Cormack, 1/3/1973, p. 90). Questions would not only be in conformity with the standing orders, but would be more effective and telling, if they were confined to properly framed questions, and did not contain statements, assertions, allegations, insinuations and other extraneous material (statement by President Calvert, SD, 6/12/2004, pp 36-7). In answering a question, a senator must not debate it (SO 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 the answer must be relevant to the question. (SD, p. 40)

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, SD, 10/12/1908, pp 2985-6).

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. (Second Report of 1994, 10 November 1994, PP 223/1994, p. 3; see also statement by President Beahan, SD, 23/10/1995, pp 2249-50)

Questions may be put to a minister relating to the public affairs with which the minister is officially connected, to proceedings pending in Parliament, or to any matter of administration for which the minister is responsible in a personal or representative capacity (ruling of President Sibraa, SD, 30/8/1988, pp 466-7). This is an overriding rule: that a question must seek information, or press for action within a minister’s responsibility. The chair will disallow any question where it is clear that it is not within a minister’s responsibility. On 18 March 1976, President Laucke ruled that questions must relate to matters within ministerial responsibility. He allowed a question to be put to a minister on the understanding that the minister might reply only in so far as he considered it his responsibility in any area covered by the question (SD, 18/3/1976, p. 621). There are occasions, however, when it is difficult for the chair to decide whether a matter comes within ministerial responsibility; in such cases, according to President Young, “It is the right and responsibility of ministers in this chamber to decide who will answer questions and in whose area of responsibility a particular question lies” (SD, 12/11/1981, p. 2081). It has been ruled that if no minister rises to answer a question it should be placed on the Notice Paper (SD, 2/12/1965, pp 1979-80).

While questions may be asked about ministers’ conduct as ministers, questions relating only to the affairs of ministers’ spouses or relatives are not in order (statement by President Calvert, SD, 4/12/2002, p. 7154).

A minister may reply to a question relating to matters for which the minister is officially responsible in a personal or representative capacity (ruling of President McClelland, SD, 19/2/1986, p. 603) and replies must be confined to those areas of responsibility (rulings of Deputy President Hamer, SD, 3/10/1984, p. 1110; of President McClelland, 17/2/1986, p. 409; and of President Sibraa, 17/5/1990, p. 554). As has been noted, ministers must accept full personal responsibility for answers given on behalf of others, and ministers have been censured by the Senate on this basis (25/5/1989, J.1712; 10/5/1994, J.1641). It has been ruled that it is not in order for a minister “to comment on how a State public servant administers the affairs of a State department” (SD, 23/10/1986, p. 1812). President Sibraa ruled that if the Chair cannot detect any Commonwealth responsibility in an answer it is out of order (SD, 3/10/1989, p. 1590-1).

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” (ruling of President McClelland, SD, 11/9/1985, p. 449). 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 (ruling of President McMullin, SD, 15/10/1953, p. 559). During question time on 18 March 1980, a senator moved that so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent a minister from giving the Senate a complete answer to a question. President Laucke ruled (SD, 18/3/1980, p. 715) the motion not in order as at question time it was the prerogative of the minister to determine the manner in which he replied to a question. Later, and after question time had been concluded, a motion was proposed that so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the moving of a motion that the minister request the Prime Minister for real and complete answers to certain questions; the motion was negatived.

It is also not for the chair to determine whether an answer is correct (SD, 27/9/1988, p. 758; 4/12/1991, p. 4111; 11/12/1991, p. 4615). Challenges to the accuracy of an answer should not take the form of a point of order (SD, 2/12/1991, p. 3742).

Questions may not be directed to, or answered by, a parliamentary secretary in that capacity (order first adopted 3/9/1991, J.1455-6).

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