House of Representatives Committees

Standing Committee on Procedure

THE OPERATION OF STANDING ORDER 143
Questions to Members other than Ministers

Report

Introduction

1. Standing order 143 provides:

2. Following two questions under this standing order in September 1995 to the then Leader of the Opposition, the House voted to suspend the operation of the standing order for the remainder of that period of sittings.

3. The then Leader of the House, Hon K C Beazley, wrote to the Procedure Committee asking it to consider the application of the standing order.

4. The committee's consideration of the matter was interrupted by the dissolution of the House and the general election. On 20 June 1996 the Procedure Committee of the new Parliament resolved to pursue an inquiry into the operation of standing order 143.

5. The committee wrote to the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition to seek their views. Mr Reith and Mr Crean (the Manager of Opposition Business responding on behalf of the Leader of the Opposition) were both of the view that standing order 143 should be retained in its present form. The letters are reproduced in the appendix.

Use of standing order 143

6. Standing order 143 has provided for Members to ask questions of other Members `relating to any bill, motion, or other public matter connected with the business of the House of which the Member has charge' since March 1950. From the time the House adopted temporary standing orders in June 1901 until the House revised the standing orders in March 1950 standing order 92 [1] provided for questions to be asked of both Ministers and private Members.

7. Standing order 143 has not been used frequently. Since the adoption of the provision (as standing order 92) in 1901, Members have, under the standing order, directed questions without notice to Members who were not Ministers on 18 occasions. On 10 of these occasions the questions were put by opposition Members to opposition Members, five of these to the Leader of the Opposition. The following table summarises the information pertaining to each occasion the standing order has been used.

Year Summary Hansard Reference
1903 An ALP Member asked an ALP Member if he had been invited to rejoin the (Protectionist) Ministry. H.R.Deb.(29.7.03)

2747-8

1948 The Leader of the Opposition asked the Chair of the Privileges Committee when he expected the committee to report on a particular matter. H.R.Deb.(18.2.48) 6
1951 A government Member asked the Leader of the Opposition about the rebroadcast of an opposition Senator's speech on Radio Moscow. H.R.Deb.(10.7.51)

1178-9

1952 A government Member asked the Leader of the Opposition about the loyalty and integrity (anti-communism) of opposition Members and candidates. H.R.Deb.(3.6.52)

1234

1953 A government Member asked the Leader of the Opposition about an occasion the opposition refused leave for a Minister to make a statement on the Katyn Forest massacre in the USSR. H.R.Deb.(4.3.53)

503-4

1955 A government Member asked a government Member about the activities of the Commonwealth-State Flood Relief Committee on which he was the Commonwealth's representative. H.R.Deb.(5.5.55)

438

1957 An opposition Member asked the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee whether the Government had requested the Committee to inquire into a particular matter. H.R.Deb.(16.10.57)

1393-4

1972 A government Member asked the Deputy Leader of the Opposition about a private Members' bill (National Service Bill 1971). The Chair ruled that the Member was entitled to ask for information on a specific clause. H.R.Deb.(1.3.72)

410-2

1976 A government Member asked an opposition Member about a private Members' bill he had given notice to present relating to the disclosure of donations to political parties and candidates. H.R.Deb.(25.2.76)

259

1976 An opposition Member asked an opposition Member about a private Members' bill he had given notice to present relating to corporations and securities. The Chair ruled the answer out of order when the Member made points which could be made in the second reading speech. H.R.Deb.(26.2.76)

313-5

1976 The Leader of the Opposition asked an opposition Member about a private Members' bill he had given notice to present relating to the disclosure of donations to political parties and candidates. The Chair ruled the answer out of order when the Member made points which could be made in the second reading speech. H.R.Deb.(16.3.76)

625-6

1982 The Leader of the Opposition asked an opposition Member about a private Members' bill she had given notice to present relating to telecommunications legislation. The Chair restricted the Member's answer to procedural details relating to the drafting and presentation of the bill. H.R.Deb.(6.5.82)

2336-7

1984 An opposition Member asked an opposition Member about a private Members' bill he had given notice to present relating to health legislation. The Chair ruled the answer out of order when the Member made points which could be made in the second reading speech. H.R.Deb.(28.3.84)

928-9

1984 An opposition Member asked the Leader of the Opposition about a private Members' bill he had presented (National Crime Authority Amendment Bill 1984). The Chair ruled that the Member was entitled to ask for information on a specific clause. H.R.Deb.(5.10.84)

1763-4

1984 An opposition Member asked the Leader of the Opposition about a private Members' bill he had presented (National Crime Authority Amendment Bill 1984). The Chair ruled that the Member was entitled to ask for information on a specific clause. H.R.Deb.(9.10.84)

1897-8

1995 An opposition Member asked the Leader of the Opposition to explain sections of a private Members' bill he had presented (Sydney Airport Curfew (Air Navigation Amendment) Bill 1995). The response discussed Government policy and referred to a Government bill on a similar subject which was then before the House. H.R.Deb.(26.9.95)

1692-5

1995 An opposition Member asked the Leader of the Opposition whether he intended to withdraw a private Members' bill he had presented (Sydney Airport Curfew (Air Navigation Amendment) Bill 1995). The answer canvassed the reasons why the bill was not to be withdrawn. H.R.Deb.(28.9.95)

1988-90

1996 An opposition Member asked the Leader of the Opposition for clarification of the intention of a private Members' bill he had presented (Trade Practices (Better Business Conduct) Bill 1996). The answer canvassed the Government's policy. H.R.Deb.(19.6.96)

2252-3

8. On two other occasions (1903 [2] and 1969 [3]) questions were asked of private Members with the indulgence of the Chair who had ruled that the questions did not come within the ambit of standing order 143.

9. In general terms the way the standing order has been applied over the years has been to allow questions to be asked:

10. Rulings over the years have fairly consistently confined questions to private Members and their answers to procedural or factual matters and not matters of substantive debate. Prior to the 1995 instances, rulings had tightly confined questions on private Members' bills and motions to matters of timing, procedure and, occasionally, to brief explanations of a particular clause of a bill.

11. The 1995 questions to the Leader of the Opposition on his private Member's bill complied with all previous rulings on standing order 143. However, in answering the question asked on 26 September 1995 the Leader of the Opposition canvassed wider areas such as the purpose of the bill and the history and motivation behind the Government's formulation of policy on the issue. In answering the question asked on 29 September 1995 the Leader of the Opposition again went well beyond the scope of the question. Both the question asked of, and the answer given by, the Leader of the Opposition on 19 June 1996 were outside the limits which had applied prior to 1995.

12. The standing order has not been interpreted in such a way as to allow questions to parliamentary secretaries. In outlining thhe functions of parliamentarysecretaries in 1987 the then Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, made it clear that they would not be able to answer questions [4]. This position was reiterated by the then Leader of the House, Mr Beazley, when moving a motion in 1990 setting out the application of the standing orders to parliamentary secretaries [5]. (The 1990 resolution was reaffirmed in 1993 by a resolution which continues in force [6].) The committee is of the view that this should be the case and parliamentary secretaries should not be asked questions.

Is any change needed?

13. Questions under standing order 143 are unusual and infrequent. Over the 95 years since federation very little time of the House has been spent on questions to private Members. For two questions to be asked on the same subject within a short period as occurred in 1995 is entirely consistent with the earlier operation of standing order 143. During both 1976 and 1984 three questions were asked under standing order 143 and in each year two questions within a short period related to the same issue.

14. On all occasions prior to 1995 the answers were brief and strictly limited. If the 1996 precedent, when considerable latitude was permitted to both question and answer, remains unchallenged, similar occurrences may be encouraged. There is a danger that standing order 143 could become seen as providing a `normal' opposition opportunity for criticism of government legislation and the debate of alternative proposals, that is, an alternative or additional second reading debate.

15. The committee considered four possible courses of action.

Revise and tighten the provisions of the standing order

16. Standing order 143 could be revised to define more tightly what is permitted in the course of answering a question. In the past, the effect of standing orders 143 and 144 has combined to provide Members an adequate opportunity to question each other on a wide range of matters without unduly consuming the time of the House. It is important to ensure that the capacity to question Members on matters of legitimate concern to other Members and the House is not restricted.

Provide a dedicated time for questions to private Members

17. Mr Beazley, as Leader of the House in his initial letter to the committee, suggested that a dedicated time could be set aside for questions on private Members' business, committee activity and, possibly, the activities of Parliamentary Secretaries. However there are a number of difficulties with setting aside such a period.

18. Most Members who are not Ministers would need to be present in the Chamber for the question period if it were to be a workable and genuine period for questions without notice. There is no way to predict whether sufficient Members would attend such a period and a Member might be able to avoid an unwelcome question by not attending.

19. Another outcome might be that Members would begin to ask each other questions relating to private Members' and committee business which would ultimately come before the House for debate in any event. The regular allocation of time for private Members' business and the operation of the Selection Committee ensure that most items in which there is general interest are brought on for debate. There is little to be gained in encouraging questions on private Members' business which could see perhaps 45 minutes of the House's time expended each week. The committee considers that setting aside a specific period when only 20 questions have been asked of private Members in 95 years is not warranted.

Delete the standing order

20. One argument put forward was that the new arrangements for private Members' business make questions to private Members unnecessary and that the standing order could be deleted.

21. Some Members have responsibilities which are legitimately of interest to other Members and of concern to the House. For example, many Members serve as chair or deputy chair of a committee or on parliamentary delegations and a few serve on the boards of statutory bodies. Members' conduct and activities in these arenas should be open to the scrutiny of other Members and questions are a useful mechanism to enable this.

Leave the standing order unchanged

22. The fourth option considered by the committee was to leave the standing order intact.

Conclusion

23. The committee is of the view that standing order 143 upholds an important concept — that private members must be responsible for the business they bring before the House and should be able to be questioned about it. The provision has been used sparingly over the years and for the most part has not been abused.

24. The committee recommends:

25. The committee is also of the view that the limitations on the scope of questioning of private Members which had traditionally applied should be enforced. Issues of substance and policy are addressed more appropriately in debate (such as a second reading debate on a bill) than in a question without notice. This philosophy is recognised in standing order 144 which provides that questions cannot anticipate discussion upon an order of the day or other matter.



Kathy Sullivan
Chair
12 September 1996

Footnotes

1 92. After Notices have been given Questions may be put to Ministers of the Crown relating to public affairs; and to other Members relating to any Bill, Motion, or other public matter connected with the business on the Notice Paper, of which such Members may have charge.
2 H.R.Deb.(18.8.03) 3728-9
3 H.R.Deb.(10.9.69) 1031-2
4 H.R.Deb.(15.9.87) 43
5 H.R.Deb.(9.5.90) 155
6 That: (1) for the purposes of the procedures of the House, any reference to Ministers shall be taken to include Parliamentary Secretaries, with the exception of references to questions seeking information (chapter XI of the standing orders); and (2) this resolution continue in force unless and until amended or rescinded by the House in this or a subsequent Parliament. (Votes and Proceedings 1993-96/25)

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