Question Time: Questions directed to non-government members

In Question Time on 28 May 2013 the Leader of the House, the Hon. Anthony Albanese, moved a Suspension of Standing and Sessional Orders (SSSO) to allow the Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. Tony Abbott, to address the House. The SSSO was moved to provide the Leader of the Opposition the opportunity to answer a question during Question Time – a rare and highly unusual occurrence.

The member for Lyne, Rob Oakeshott, directed a question to both the Prime Minister and with the indulgence of the House, to the Leader of the Opposition, regarding the issue of man-made climate change. The Speaker, Anna Burke, ruled that the Leader of the Opposition would not be able to answer the question and would have the opportunity to address the House after Question Time.

Mr Oakeshott in his supplementary question, again, addressed both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Speaker Burke reiterated that the standing orders do not provide the opportunity for the Leader of the Opposition to answer questions. This prompted Mr Albanese to move a SSSO to allow the Leader of the Opposition to address the House for no longer than three minutes on climate change. The question on the SSSO was put and passed and Mr Abbott addressed the House.

According to Standing order 99, it is possible to ask a question of another Member who is not a Minister or Parliamentary Secretary:
99. Questions to other Members   
During Question Time, a Member may ask a question orally of another Member who is not a Minister (or Parliamentary Secretary­). Questions must relate to a bill, motion, or other business of the House or of a committee, for which the Member asked is responsible.
House of Representatives Practice states that, ‘only rarely are questions directed to private Members, and even then they have often been disallowed for contravention of the strict limitations imposed by standing orders and practice’ (p.551). It goes on to provide a list of examples of questions directed to private members, Leaders of the Opposition and Deputy Leaders of the Opposition, on issues such as party policies, and statements made inside or outside the House, which have been ruled out of order.

Of interest are the instances where Leaders of the Opposition have in fact been asked questions about private Member’s bills they had introduced and who were given the opportunity to respond.

During Question Time on 26 September 1995, Mr Abbott asked the then Leader of the Opposition, Mr Howard, a question regarding a private Member’s bill that Mr Howard had introduced. This question was ruled in order and Mr Howard responded. On 28 September 1995, Mr Abbott again asked Mr Howard another question about Mr Howard’s private Member’s bill. After these two instances, the House voted to suspend the operation of Standing order 143 –the order at the time that allowed for questions to members other than ministers– for the remainder of that period of sittings.

In 1996, after a change of government, member for Watson, Mr McLeay asked the then Leader of the Opposition, Mr Beazley, a question about a private Member’s bill that he had introduced under the now operational Standing order 143.

In 1996, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure inquired and reported on the operation of Standing order 143. It concluded that the Standing order should be retained as, ‘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.’ The report also provided a list of the 18 occasions which Standing order 143 had been used.

Standing order 99 provides a tighter ambit by which private Members may be asked and respond to questions during Question Time. In yesterday’s instance, Mr Oakeshott’s question did not meet the requirements of the Standing order, prompting a SSSO to allow for Mr Abbott to respond.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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