Chapter 11 - Questions seeking information

72    Questions without notice

  1. At the time provided questions may be put to ministers relating to public affairs.

  2. A question may be put to the President in relation to matters for which the President has responsibility.

    1. The asking of each question shall not exceed one minute and the answering of each question shall not exceed 4 minutes.

    2. The asking of each supplementary question shall not exceed one minute and the answering of each supplementary question shall not exceed one minute.

    1. After question time motions may be moved without notice to take note of answers given that day to questions.

    2. A senator may speak for not more than 5 minutes on such a motion.

    3. The time for debate on all motions relating to answers to questions without notice on any day shall not exceed 30 minutes.

Amendment history

Adopted: 19 August 1903 as SO 93 (corresponding to paragraph (1))


  • [11 February 1975, J.497 (questions to chairs of committees adopted as a sessional order – old paragraph (2))]
  • 19 August 1975, J.851 –54, (and see 20 August 1975, J.860 ) (old paragraph (2) adopted after 6 month trial as a sessional order as SO 98A)
  • [14 September 1992, J.2745; 6 October 1992, J.2816; 3 November 1992, J.2931 ; 24 November 1992, J.3076; 6 May 1993, J.101 (adoption of temporary and sessional orders on time limits on asking and answering questions)]
  • [16 September 1992, J.2775–77; 6 October 1992, J.2817–19; 3 November 1992, J.2931 ; 24 November 1992, J.3076; 13 May 1993, J.149 (adoption of temporary and sessional orders on motions to take note of answers)]
  • 13 February 1997, J.1447 (to take effect 24 February 1997) (incorporation of sessional orders relating to time limits for questions and answers (paragraph (3) and motions to take note of answers after question time (paragraph (4))
  • [15 October 2008, J.1030 (temporary order abolishing questions to committee chairs and other senators)]
  • 10 March 2009, J.1657–58 (permanent abolition of questions to committee chairs and other senators, and formalisation of questions to the President – paragraph (2))

1989 revision: Old SOs 98 and 98A combined into one, structured as two paragraphs and renumbered as SO 69; expression streamlined including by adoption of generic terms


Question Time

During Question Time, ministers answer questions from other senators (Photo courtesy of AUSPIC)

The practice of members of legislatures directing questions to ministers has been available in Westminster parliaments since at least the mid 19th century, with perhaps the first recorded question being asked in 1721 in the British House of Lords.[1] The 1854 edition of Rules, Orders and Forms of Proceeding in the House of Commons (now the Manual of Procedure) includes the following rule, which is similar to the standing order eventually adopted by the Senate in 1903:

at [the appropriate time], Questions are permitted to 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 of the House in which such Members may be concerned.[2]

However, unlike in the House of Commons, where notice must be given of all questions, the Senate allowed for questions to be put both on notice (see SO 74) and without notice. It is the latter which has developed into what is referred to now as question time. The first question to be asked without notice was on the second day of sitting, when Senator Millen (FT, NSW) asked the Vice-President of the Executive Council, Senator O’Connor (Prot, NSW) whether an agreement had been reached with the Victorian Government as to rent to be paid for the use of its parliamentary building.[3] Initially, answers were brief and only a few questions without notice were asked each day. Over time, the numbers of questions asked and the amount of time spent on answering such questions increased substantially.[4]

In the 1970s, with the development of the committee system, a practice emerged of directing questions without notice to chairs of committees relating to activities of their committees, in order to inform other senators of the progress of inquiries. Consequently, in its Second Report for Fifty–Sixth Session (PP No. 276/1974), the Standing Orders Committee recommended a new standing order to allow such questions to be put, with a strong recommendation that all such questions be upon notice, unless leave of the Senate was granted. The committee’s recommendation was adopted on 19 August 1975[5] with senators noting during the debate that paragraph (b) was intended to give direction to the President in the same way as the rules set out in SO 73 by requiring the President to have regard to the possible impact of the question on the committee’s work.[6] The practice of asking questions to committee chairs became rare as time passed and none were asked for the duration of the 41 st Parliament.

On 28 August 2008, Senator Abetz attempted to ask a question, without leave, of the Chair of the Economics Committee relating to the presentation of an interim report of the committee, apparently under the assumption that such a question could be asked under SO 71 (1), which then allowed for questions to be asked of senators in relation to business on the Notice Paper of which they had charge.[7] Later that day, the President made a statement in relation to the events and clarified that the asking of questions to committee chairs under SO 72(2) was permissible only on notice, or by leave.[8] During the ensuing debate questions were raised over the utility of paragraph (2) and the provisions in paragraph (1) for the asking of questions to private senators. Suggestions were made that it may be a matter for the Procedure Committee to investigate.[9]

In its First Report of 2008, the Procedure Committee noted that the provisions were seldom used in modern times and that, on the occasions they were used, they had not been used for their originally intended purposes.[10] In addition, the committee noted its belief that question time was now considered principally an occasion to question ministers and that the standing orders should reflect this. The committee recommended an amended standing order be adopted as a temporary order for the remainder of the year (to omit paragraph (2) and remove the latter part of paragraph (1)). After concerns were raised over the limitation of senators’ rights to ask questions during question time of private senators, the matter was referred back to the Procedure Committee.[11] On reconsideration of the issue, the Procedure Committee reiterated its earlier position. The temporary order was formally adopted on 15 October 2008.[12]

In its First Report of 2009, the Procedure Committee observed that the temporary order, having been sufficiently tested, should be incorporated into the standing orders. However, it noted that the Senate should recognise the long-standing practice of allowing questions to be asked of the President in relation to matters of which the President has responsibility and recommended that a new paragraph (2) be inserted to reflect that practice. The recommendation was adopted on 10 March 2009 and the present paragraph (2) replaced old paragraph (2) which had provided as follows:

A question may be put to the chairman of a committee relating to the activities of that committee, provided that:

  1. unless leave of the Senate is granted for the question to be asked without notice, it may be asked only on notice;
  2. the question shall not attempt to interfere with the committee’s work or anticipate its report; and
  3. the chairman shall answer only on behalf of the committee.

At the same time, the capacity to ask questions of other senators in respect of matters of which they had charge on the Notice Paper was removed from paragraph (1).[13]

On 14 September 1992, in an attempt to force the Government to be “disciplined in the answering of questions”,[14] the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Hill (Lib, SA) moved a motion to impose time limits on questions and answers (including supplementary questions) on a trial basis for the remainder of that week. The motion proposed to limit the asking of questions and supplementary questions to one minute and the answering of such questions to two minutes. This motion was agreed to, with an amendment by the Leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator Coulter (AD, SA) to clarify that time taken to make and determine points of order would not be included within the time limits.[15] (Also see SO 197.)

Over the next few sitting weeks, minor variations were made to the time allowed for ministers to answer primary questions.[16] These arose from concerns expressed by the Australian Democrats about the ability of ministers, particularly those representing ministers from the other House, to answer questions within the two minute time limit. Although the Government ceased to oppose the measures, the Manager of Government Business, Senator McMullan (ALP, ACT), noted his belief that the mechanism being put in place was not one that would survive.[17]

During 1992, in the same environment of dissatisfaction over the conduct of question time, opposition senators began to move motions to take note of answers given by ministers. Such motions were moved by leave. If leave was not granted a suspension of standing orders was sometimes sought. In addition, motions were moved, not only to take note of answers given that day but to questions asked days or weeks before. Consequently, debates on such motions could often be lengthy. On 14 September, after a successful motion to limit times for the answering of questions, government senators initially refused to grant leave for moving motions to take note of answers unless the time allowed for speaking to such motions was limited to two minutes. Government senators noted that the new rules limiting answers to two minutes created an imbalance between the times allowed for the ministers to answer questions and the times allowed for senators to take note of their answers.[18] The next day, Senator McMullan moved a motion intended to bring order to the practice of moving motions to take note of answers. The motion, if agreed to, would prescribe that motions be moved only in relation to questions asked that day, that speakers on such motions be limited to two minutes each and debate on all such motions to half an hour. Opposition senators agreed to the principle, but argued that senators ought to be able to take note of answers by right, without the need for leave. In addition, there was disagreement amongst all parties as to individual speaking times and the overall time limit for all such motions on any day. Eventually, an opposition amendment to allow four minutes per speaker was agreed to, but an amendment omitting the requirement for leave was not.[19]

The orders in relation to time limits for questions and answers and motions to take note of answers were readopted with variations on 6 October and 3 November before being adopted as sessional orders on 24 November 1992.[20] Following the 1993 election, an opposition attempt to initiate readoption the sessional orders was unsuccessful,[21] as was an attempt the following day to limit the time for ministers to answer questions to three minutes. The order for time limits on questions and answers, allowing four minute answers, was agreed to on 6 May 1993.[22] A week later the order relating to motions to take note of answers was readopted as a sessional order, as amended, with a time limit of five minutes per speaker.[23] These orders were incorporated into the standing orders, along with a variety of other sessional orders, on 13 February 1997.

Statements have been made by the chair on a number of occasions to clarify the scope of motions to take note of answers. On 1 March 1994, President Beahan gave a ruling to clarify that motions could be moved to take note of any answer given that day, regardless of when the question was asked.[24] This meant that motions moved to take note of additional answers given to questions asked on a previous day, or answers given to questions on notice on that day, fell within the time constraints of the order. On 13 October 1994, Deputy President Crichton-Browne made a statement to clarify that it was within the scope of the sessional order to move a motion to take note of multiple answers given by several ministers.[25]

In its First Report of 2008, the Procedure Committee considered a proposal initiated by President Ferguson in regard to the restructuring of question time. Attached to the report was a discussion paper, circulated by the President, entitled “An Opportunity for Revitalisation”, which once again arose from a concern over the usefulness and conduct of question time, as well as a consideration of the better use of departmental and agency resources in the provision of question time briefings to ministers. The proposal suggested the adoption of procedures used in comparable jurisdictions (such as the United Kingdom and New Zealand), as well as the insertion of a requirement for ministers to be directly relevant in answering questions. As summarised in the committee’s report, the proposals were as follows:

  • All primary questions to be placed on a Question Time Notice Paper by 11 am.
  • Up to 6 supplementary questions following each primary question.
  • Up to 2 minutes for an answer to a primary or supplementary question.
  • Answers to be directly relevant to each question.

Apart from the requirement that all primary questions be placed on notice, a feature of the proposal was to allow supplementary questions to be asked by senators other than the primary questioner. The committee, however, noted that such a change would be a significant one and that further consultation was required. On the presentation of the report, there was wide-ranging debate during which questions were raised about the effectiveness of placing primary questions on notice, the proposed deadline of 11 am and the overall inflexibility of the suggested arrangements.[26]

It was perhaps this environment of impassioned disagreement over question time reform that resulted in the conclusions of the Procedure Committee in its Third Report of 2008.[27] In the report, the committee put forward an amended proposal in what it called “a more limited change to question time”. The modified proposal retained the requirement for ministers to be “directly relevant” in answering questions but abandoned the concept of placing questions on notice for question time, instead allowing for two supplementary questions after each primary question. In addition, stricter time limits were suggested (two minutes for the answering of primary questions while answers to supplementary questions would remain at one minute). The amended proposal also limited the asking of supplementary questions to the senator who asked the primary question. As explained by the chair of the committee (Senator Ferguson) during debate on the adoption of the report, the changes made to the earlier proposals resulted from political considerations raised by individual parties. For instance, the original proposal would have resulted in reducing the number of primary questions available to the minor parties and there was also a concern within the opposition as to the effect of requiring all questions to be placed on notice.[28]

The amended proposal was adopted on 13 November 2008, on a trial basis for the remaining two sitting weeks of the year.[29] Before the end of the 2008 sittings, the procedures were readopted as a temporary order during 2009.[30] At the time, the intention was expressed of having the procedures reviewed by the Procedure Committee early in 2009. In its First Report of 2009, the Procedure Committee indicated that it had further considered the rules but noted that further consultation with senators was required and that the subject would be returned to at a later date.[31]