The accountability of the Government is demonstrated most clearly and publicly at Question Time when, for a period (usually well over an hour) on each sitting day, questions without notice are put to Ministers. The importance of Question Time is demonstrated by the fact that at no other time in a normal sitting day is the House so well attended. Question Time is usually an occasion of special interest not only to Members themselves but to the news media, the radio and television broadcast audience and visitors to the public galleries. It is also a time when the intensity of partisan politics can be clearly manifested.
The purpose of questions is ostensibly to seek information or press for action. However, because public attention focuses so heavily on Question Time it is often a time for political opportunism. Opposition Members will be tempted in their questioning to stress those matters which will embarrass the Government, while government Members will be tempted to provide Ministers with an opportunity to put government policies and actions in a favourable light or to embarrass the Opposition.
However, apart from the use of Question Time for its political impact, the opportunity given to Members to raise topical or urgent issues is invaluable. Ministers accept the fact that they must be informed through a check of press, television or other sources, of possible questions that may be asked of them in order that they may provide satisfactory answers.
Some historical features
Although the original standing order covering the order of business of the House referred only to ‘Questions on notice’, in practice questions without notice were answered from the outset. During the first sitting days of the first Parliament the Speaker made the following statement in reply to a query from the Leader of the Opposition as to whether a practice of asking questions without notice should be created:
There is no direct provision in our standing orders for the asking of questions without notice, but, as there is no prohibition of the practice, if a question is asked without notice and the Minister to whom it is addressed chooses to answer it, I do not think that I should object.
The practice of Members asking questions without notice developed in a rather ad hoc manner. It was not until 1950 that the standing orders specifically permitted questions without notice or included them in the order of business, despite their long de facto status.
It was not until 1962 that a reference to questions without notice was made in the Votes and Proceedings. This long term absence from the official record of proceedings is perhaps indicative of the somewhat unofficial nature of Question Time, its features having always been heavily influenced by practice and convention.
From the outset it was held that Ministers could not be compelled to answer questions without notice. Rulings were given to the effect that questions without notice should be on important or urgent matters, the implication being that otherwise they should be placed on the Notice Paper, particularly if they involved long answers. This requirement presented difficulties of interpretation for the Chair and the rule was not enforced consistently. When questions without notice were specifically mentioned as part of the order of business for the first time in 1950, it was also provided that questions without notice should be ‘on important matters which call for immediate attention’. These qualifying words were omitted in 1963, the Standing Orders Committee having stated:
Occupants of the Chair have found it impracticable to limit such questions as required by these words. This difficulty is inherent in the nature of the Question without Notice session which has come to be recognised as a proceeding during which private Members can raise matters of day-to-day significance.
Although it remains the case that Ministers are not compelled to answer questions without notice, the political attention now given to the period would mean that a refusal by Ministers to answer questions would likely attract an adverse reaction (and see similar comments at page 545 relating to the reaction to restrictions on the occurrence or duration of Question Time).
The proportion of the time of the House spent on Question Time and the number of questions dealt with varied considerably. On some days in the early Parliaments no questions without notice were asked, and on others there were only one or two questions. By the time of World War I several questions without notice were usually dealt with on a typical sitting day and the period gradually tended to lengthen. During the early 1930s the record indicates that 18 and 19 questions were able to be asked in the period, and, on one occasion in 1940, 43 questions without notice were asked in approximately 50 minutes. As could be expected the questions in the main were short and to the point, as were the answers.
Prior to the introduction of the daily Hansard in 1955, related questions without notice were grouped together in Hansard in order to avoid repeated similar headings. This meant that, until 1955, the order in which questions appeared in Hansard did not necessarily reflect the order in which they were asked.
There appears to have been a greater tendency in the past to interrupt Question Time with other matters, such as the presentation of documents, statements by leave and sometimes replies to them, motions and even the presentation of a bill, despite rulings that such interruptions were irregular. In addition there have been instances where Ministers, on being asked a question, offered, or were prompted by the Chair, to make a statement by leave on the matter during Question Time.
Duration of Question Time
Question Time is a period during which only questions without notice may be asked and answered. While a Question Time normally takes place on each sitting day, technically it is entirely within the discretion of the Prime Minister or the senior Minister present as to whether Question Time will take place and, if so, for how long. In order to bring Question Time to a conclusion the Prime Minister or the senior Minister present may, at any time, rise and ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper, even if a Member has already received the call or asked a question. The Speaker is then obliged to call on the next item of business. If the Government does not want Question Time to take place on a particular sitting day, the Prime Minister or senior Minister asks, as soon as the Speaker calls on questions without notice, that questions be placed on the Notice Paper. The basis of this discretion of the Prime Minister is that, as Ministers cannot be required to answer questions, it would be pointless to proceed with Question Time once the Prime Minister has indicated that questions, or further questions, without notice will not be answered.
Although having effective control over the duration of Question Time, the Government is, at the same time, subject to the influence of private Members from both sides of the House and public opinion. A Government which refused to allow Question Time to proceed, or restricted the time available for questions, would be exposed to considerable criticism. Question Time has extended, without substantial interruption, for up to 126 minutes. Since 2011, the first complete year of the 43rd Parliament, following the introduction of restrictions on duration of questions and answers, it has been about 70 minutes.
If Question Time is interrupted by such matters as the naming of a Member, a motion of dissent from the Speaker’s ruling, a motion to suspend standing orders or a censure motion, the Government has often not allowed Question Time to continue for a period to compensate for the time lost. When substantial time is spent on such a matter as a no confidence motion prior to questions without notice being called on, it is usual for Question Time not to proceed.
Number of questions
From an average of 16 questions asked each Question Time during the late 1970s, the number declined to about 12 in the years prior to 1996. This reduction was directly attributable to Ministers increasing the length of their answers. In 1986 the Procedure Committee recommended that Question Time continue until a minimum of 16 questions had been answered. Although no action was taken by the House on the recommendation, the Government of the day subsequently adopted an unofficial practice of permitting seven opposition questions each Question Time. In 1993 the Procedure Committee again recommended a minimum of 16 questions. In responding to the report the Government accepted a minimum of 14 (although again as an unofficial target rather than as a requirement of the standing orders). In recent years there have about 19 questions per sitting.
Allocation of the call
The Speaker first calls an opposition Member, and the call is then alternated from right to left of the Chair, that is, between government and non-government Members. With the opposition call priority is given to the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition and, if two coalition parties are in opposition, the Leader and Deputy Leader of the second party. The number of calls given to each Member is recorded and, with the exception of the opposition leaders, the Speaker allocates the call as evenly as possible.
Independent Members receive the call in proportion to their numbers. During the 43rd Parliament the Leader of the House advised that, after five questions, if a non-aligned Member sought the call no government Member would seek it. This practice continued in the 44th and 45th Parliaments.
When two questions have come from one side consecutively, the Speaker may then take two calls in succession from the other side. When there is more than one party in government or opposition agreement may be reached as to the ratio of questions to be permitted to the Members of each party. In special circumstances, when government Members have not sought the call, consecutive questions have come from non-government Members.
As the allocation of the call is within the Speaker’s discretion, the Speaker may choose ‘to see’ or ‘not to see’ any Member. The Speaker’s decision to exercise this discretion has at times been based on a desire to discipline a Member, and the call may be withdrawn if a Member makes extraneous remarks, for example, instead of coming to the question.
In 1986 the Procedure Committee considered the allocation of the call at Question Time. While noting that the majority of questions (54 per cent) were asked by the Opposition, the committee pointed out that the practice of giving priority to opposition leaders meant a consequent reduction in opportunities for opposition backbenchers. However, it concluded that the apportioning of questions within parties was for the parties, and recommended that provisions for allocation of the call remain unchanged.
Questions often refer to answers to earlier questions. However, the practice of alternating the call between the right and left of the Chair has the effect that follow-up questions are not immediate.
There was formerly provision in the standing orders which gave the Speaker discretion to allow supplementary questions to clarify an answer to a question asked during Question Time. The degree to which Speakers exercised this discretion to permit immediate supplementary questions varied.