No obligation to answer
It is the established practice of the House, as it is in the House of Commons, that Ministers cannot be required to answer questions. Outright refusal to answer questions is relatively rare, being restricted largely to questions dealing with clearly sensitive and confidential matters such as security arrangements, Cabinet and Executive Council deliberations, and communications between Ministers and their advisers. Further, if a Minister does not wish to reply to a question on the Notice Paper ultimately he or she may choose simply to ignore it (despite any reminders given in accordance with standing order 105—see page 572). The question then eventually lapses on prorogation of the Parliament or dissolution of the House.
Occasionally Ministers reply to questions in writing by stating, for example, that the information sought by a Member is unavailable or that the time and staff resources required to collect the information cannot be justified. Ministers have refused to answer questions in writing which a public servant had admitted to preparing. A Minister has declined to supply information which was considered to be readily obtainable by other means—for example, a Minister has suggested that a Member use the resources of the Parliamentary Library rather than those of his department. Ministers have also stated that the question or part of the question sought, for example, a legal opinion or an answer to a hypothetical situation, and a substantive reply has not been given.
The fact that a question which contravenes the standing orders appears on the Notice Paper from time to time is no reflection on the Speaker or the Clerks, as it is not always possible for them to understand the full implications of questions—only the Minister or his or her staff may have this knowledge. Ministers in replying to such questions generally recognise this situation and are careful in their answers that they do not reflect on the Speaker by suggesting, through implication or otherwise, that he or she has been negligent in permitting a question.
Answers to questions put to Ministers representing Senate Ministers
When a question without notice is addressed to a Minister in his or her capacity as Minister representing a Senate Minister, the Minister provides, if possible, a substantive and immediate answer. If the Minister cannot do so, but wishes the question to be answered, he or she undertakes to seek an answer from the responsible Minister and to pass it on to the questioner. In the case of questions in writing the question is also directed to the Minister representing the Senate Minister in the House but the answer is prepared under the authority of the responsible Minister. When the question and answer are printed in Hansard, the answer is prefaced with a statement along the following lines: ‘The Minister for …[the responsible Minister in the Senate] has provided the following answer to the honourable Member’s question: …’
Answers to questions without notice
Ministers’ answers to questions without notice are given orally and immediately. There is no prohibition on a Minister reading an answer. When a Minister is occasionally unable to provide an immediate substantive answer, he or she may either undertake to supply the Member with the requested information in writing at a later date or suggest that the Member place the question on the Notice Paper. When the former option is taken, a Minister will usually treat the question as if it were a question in writing and will deliver a copy of the reply to the Clerk in order that the question and answer may be printed in Hansard.
Although Ministers have not normally been permitted to answer questions which have been ruled out of order, answers have often been permitted, for example, when the Minister or third parties have been criticised and the Minister has sought an opportunity to refute the criticism.
More than one Minister has answered a particular question without notice in the case of shared responsibility. In 1970 a question was directed to and answered by the Minister for the Army. Upon completion of the answer the Minister for Defence indicated that the subject of the question lay more within his ministerial responsibilities and proceeded to add to the information already supplied. A Minister has also answered a question addressed to another. In 1987 the Treasurer responded to questions directed to the Minister Assisting the Treasurer on Prices, saying that questions should not be directed to a Minister Assisting when the Minister was in the House. It is in order for the Prime Minister, who has overall responsibility for the Government, to add to the answer to a question addressed to another Minister, but a Minister may not add to an answer by the Prime Minister unless requested to do so by the Prime Minister.
Addition to or correction of an answer
Ministers may seek and be granted the indulgence of the Chair to add to or correct an answer given to a question without notice asked on that day or on a previous day. A Minister will generally seek indulgence for this purpose immediately after Question Time, but may also do so at other times of the day—between items of business or even on occasion so as to interrupt debate.
Alternatively, the additional or corrected information may be given in writing to the Clerk, who will treat it in the same manner as an answer to a question in writing. A revised answer to a question answered in the previous Parliament has been presented as a paper. A Minister, providing additional information by indulgence, has added to an answer given by another Minister. A Minister has added to an answer he had given while in a previous portfolio. In answering a question Ministers have provided additional comment and information on another question asked of them earlier on the same day, or on an earlier day. A Minister has also by leave added to an answer given the previous day. In the case of additional information, the Minister may choose simply to write directly to the Member concerned.
Content of answers and relevance
The standing orders and practice of the House have been criticised in that restrictions similar to those applying to the form and content of questions do not apply to answers. For instance, Ministers have not been prevented from introducing argument into their answers. Although it has been claimed that the standing order provision that ‘questions cannot be debated’ should be read as meaning a prohibition of debate in answering, as well as in putting, a question, it has not been interpreted by the Chair in this way.
The main provision in the standing orders which deals specifically with the form and content of answers to questions is the requirement that an answer must be directly relevant to the question. Only one point of order regarding relevance may be taken during an answer.
The requirement for ‘direct’ relevance was inserted in the standing orders in 2010. This gave the Speaker greater authority in what has long been a difficult area. Although the interpretation and application of the provision has remained challenging, the requirement for direct relevance, rather than the former requirement which was merely for relevance, means that the Speaker can now require answers to be less wide-ranging.
The interpretation of ‘relevant’ has at times been very wide. Although the test of relevance has been difficult to apply, especially before 2010, Ministers have been ordered to conclude their answers or resume their seats as their answers were not relevant, or the Speaker has withdrawn the call and called the next question. The Chair has also upheld points of order or intimations contesting the relevancy of a Minister’s answer, for example, directing a Minister to ‘come to the question’ or ‘return to the question’. The insertion of the requirement to be ‘directly’ relevant has given the Speaker more scope to direct Ministers in this way.
Even though a question may invite a ‘yes or no’ type of answer, Members cannot demand that an answer be in such terms. Further, the Speaker has indicated that, where a question has a preamble or a quotation of some breadth or length, it is not reasonable for a Member to conclude with a short sharp question and to then claim that the answer should be limited to the contents of the conclusion.
Although a Minister has been directed that he ‘should not engage in irrelevances, such as contrasting the Government and [the opposition party]’, it has also been ruled that ‘It is relevant to contrast the action of the Government with another point of view’. While a question must not ask a Minister about opposition policy (see page 758), comments on opposition policies in a Minister’s answer have been permitted on many occasions when they have been regarded as relevant to the question asked. However, the Speaker has been critical of debate of such matters in answers and has deprecated the practice of referring in detail to opposition policies; and has withdrawn the call, directed Ministers to return to the question, to bring their answers to a conclusion, or to resume their seats when they have continued to criticise the Opposition.
Speakers have noted that the standing orders concerning questions and answers did not provide a complete statement of the rules governing Question Time—for example, the sub judice rule and the prohibitions on the use of offensive words, imputations, etc. apply to answers. However, Speakers have not accepted that the provisions of standing order 75, dealing with irrelevance and tedious repetition in debate, apply to answers. Similarly, requests for the Speaker to intervene as permitted by standing order 92 have not been upheld in respect to answers. It is considered nevertheless that the Chair has sufficient authority to deal with irrelevance or tedious repetition in answers.
From time to time Speakers have indicated that responsibility for tightening standing orders relating to answers should be a matter for Procedure Committee consideration. In fact over the years the Procedure Committee has more than once made such recommendations. In 1986 it recommended that standing orders be amended to provide that answers to questions must be relevant, not introduce matter extraneous to the question and should not contain arguments, imputations, epithets, ironical expressions or discreditable references to the House or any of its Members, or any offensive or unparliamentary expressions. The Procedure Committee of a later Parliament (1992) while not in favour of such strict provisions, nevertheless recommended that the relevant standing order be amended to read ‘The answer to a question without notice (a) shall be concise and confined to the subject matter of the question, and (b) shall not debate the subject to which the question refers’. No action was taken by the House on either of the recommendations. In revisiting the subject in 1993 the Procedure Committee of the 37th Parliament concluded that, however much the requirements of the standing orders were to be tightened up, relevance would continue to be a matter of opinion, and that significant change in the nature of answers would depend more on changes of attitudes than on changes to rules.
Length of answers
The duration of each answer is limited to three minutes. From time to time motions have been moved that a Minister giving a lengthy answer be no longer heard. This motion has also been moved since the introduction of the time limit on answers.
Answers and the authority of the Chair
The above paragraphs relating to answers to questions without notice reflect the attitudes of successive Speakers over a number of years. However, it is important to recognise that, as a consequence of a lack of provisions in the standing orders relating to answers, the Chair has a considerable degree of discretion in developing the practice of the House in this area. Thus the Chair may assume the authority to make a ruling or decision which the Chair thinks appropriate and then leave it to the House to challenge that ruling or decision if it does not agree with it.
Answers to questions in writing
An answer is given by delivering it to the Clerk, who must supply a copy to the Member who asked the question and arrange for both question and reply to be printed in Hansard. In addition the Clerk arranges for copies to be supplied to the press. Answers are neither read nor presented to the House. Answers delivered to the Clerk after the prorogation of the Parliament or dissolution of the House are not accepted. In these circumstances the Minister concerned may supply the answer directly to the questioner and, if he or she wishes, to the press. However, it has been considered that absolute privilege might not attach to the distribution of copies of the answer, and the answer would not be published in Hansard (and see Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987).
Answers received by the Clerk after the last sitting of a session or Parliament but prior to prorogation or dissolution are published if they are received in time to be included in the final weekly edition of Hansard for that session or Parliament. Answers which miss this deadline are not published in the Hansard of the next session or next Parliament.
Occasionally Ministers supply interim answers to questions in writing. Interim answers are published in Hansard but the relevant questions are not removed from the Notice Paper until they are fully answered. The following guidelines are used in determining an interim, as opposed to a final, reply. Any answer which makes a real attempt to supply the information sought in a question is considered fully answered. An answer to a question seeking information about an area outside a Minister’s administrative responsibilities is considered fully answered if the Minister replies that he or she is having inquiries made and will provide the information. Similarly an answer to a question seeking information about various matters both within and outside a Minister’s responsibility is considered fully answered if an answer is supplied to those parts within the Minister’s administrative responsibility. An example of such a question would be one seeking statistical information on activities of the Australian Government and overseas governments within a field for which the Minister is responsible in Australia. However, if the question concerns matters wholly within a Minister’s administrative responsibility, a reply that the Minister will provide the information at a later date is insufficient and the question remains on the Notice Paper. Technically, a statement by a Minister that he or she refuses to answer a question, with or without reasons, is considered to fully answer the question. Answers have referred to the cost of obtaining information sought in a question or a part of a question as not being justified, in the opinion of the Minister, and the information has not been provided.
A Minister has answered a question in writing on behalf of another. The answer to a question in writing may refer the Member to the answer to another question if relevant. This approach should be adopted if, for example, an answer applies equally to two questions. It is unacceptable to give a single reply to two (or more) separate questions. However, a single whole of government response ‘on behalf of all Ministers’ is acceptable from one Minister or the Prime Minister in response to the same question addressed to all Ministers.
Supplementary answers adding to or correcting information contained in earlier answers to questions in writing are themselves dealt with as answers to questions in writing. The original question number is used for identification. A revised answer to a question has been presented as a paper.
If a Minister relinquishes a portfolio before an answer has been published in Hansard, it is returned to the former department or to the new Minister. The answer should then be re-submitted under the new Minister’s name if he or she is satisfied with it, or alternatively the answer resubmitted may be prefaced ‘The answer provided by my predecessor ( …) to the honourable Member’s question is as follows: …’.
In 1975 an answer to a question was submitted by a Minister who had resigned as a Member. The answer was not accepted because, while the Minister could continue to act in his executive capacity, he could no longer act in his parliamentary capacity. The Minister resigned from the Ministry soon afterwards and an answer to the question was submitted by his successor.
From time to time answers have not been printed in Hansard because of their extreme length and the difficulties which would be created in producing Hansard. The answer recorded by Hansard has been along the following lines:
The information which has been collated for the honourable member is too lengthy to be published in Hansard. A copy of the reply is filed in the Table Office of the House of Representatives where it can be read or a copy of it obtained.
This practice was first approved by Speaker McLeay in 1966 and has been continued under subsequent Speakers. In such cases the Member who asked the question is given a copy of the full answer.
It is not in order for a Minister to supply an abbreviated reply to the Clerk for publication in Hansard and a full reply to the Member concerned, even if a further copy of the full reply is placed in the Parliamentary Library or the House of Representatives Table Office. Any decision to exempt an answer from publication in Hansard lies with the Speaker, not Ministers.
Hansard’s objective is to publish on the first day of a period of sittings answers to questions in writing which are provided during a non-sitting period. However the volume of answers is sometimes so large that some answers must be held over for publication in subsequent issues of Hansard.
As noted earlier, there is no obligation on Ministers to answer. Members’ expectations that Ministers will or should provide answers are not always realised. If a reply has not been received 60 days after a question first appeared on the Notice Paper, the Member who asked the question may, at the conclusion of Question Time, ask the Speaker to write to the Minister concerned, seeking reasons for the delay in answering. Any response to the Speaker’s letter is forwarded to the Member concerned.