House of Representatives Factsheet No. 1
Revised June 1996
It is a fundamental aspect of the concept of responsible government as practised in Australia that the Executive Government is accountable to the House of Representatives. The capacity of the House to call the Government to account depends, in large measure, on its knowledge and understanding of the Government's policies and activities. Questions without notice and on notice play an important part in this search for information. Question time is also recognised as having major political significance in terms of testing the Government and individual Ministers.
A highlight of the sitting day
The accountability of the Government is demonstrated most clearly and publicly at question time when, for at least 45 minutes on most sitting days, questions without notice are put to Ministers. The importance of question time is highlighted 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 heightened interest to the news media, the radio broadcast audience and visitors to the public galleries, which are generally full at this time.
Although there is no rule to this effect, all Ministers are expected by the Prime Minister to be present. If a Minister is otherwise engaged on urgent public business, sick, or overseas, the Prime Minister will explain this before questions are called on, and indicate which Minister will answer questions in place of the absentee.
'Are there any questions?'
Question time commences with the Speaker calling on 'Questions without notice' and asking 'Are there any questions?' Several Members from both sides of the House may stand to catch the Speaker's eye, but the first call is always given to an opposition Member. This Member, often the Leader of the Opposition, proceeds to ask his or her question. Subsequent questions follow, Members standing in their places to ask questions, Ministers replying from the Table.
Call of the Chair
The allocation of the call is in fact at the Speaker's discretion but following established practice it is alternated from the left to the right of the Chair, that is, between government and non-government Members. When the Opposition has the call, preference is given to the Opposition Leaders if they seek the call but, apart from this, the Speaker allocates the call between Members as evenly as possible over a sitting period.
Questions may be put to a Minister relating to public affairs with which he or she is officially connected, to proceedings pending in the House, or to any matter of administration for which the Minister is responsible. The underlying principle is that Ministers should answer questions only on matters for which they are responsible to the Parliament. Consequently, Speakers have ruled out of order questions to Ministers which concern, for example, private, party or State matters. Questions relating to the responsibilities of a Minister who is a Senator are addressed to the Minister in the House representing the Senate Minister. With that exception and the further exception of questions to the Prime Minister, questions may not be put to one Minister about the ministerial responsibilities of another. The Prime Minister has of course overall responsibility for the Government, but it is not unusual for the Prime Minister to refer questions addressed to him to the Minister directly responsible.
Of all the proceedings of the House, the question period is the time when the intensity of partisan politics is most clearly manifested. Although the purpose of questions is ostensibly to seek information or press for action, they are, because public attention focuses so heavily on question time, often a vehicle for political opportunism.
Opposition Members are tempted in their questioning to stress those matters which will embarrass the Government. It is common to see a planned series of questions and follow-up questions from opposition Members, especially when there are one or two very prominent issues that the Opposition wishes to pursue. On the other hand government Members are tempted to provide Ministers with an opportunity to put government policies and actions in a favourable light, or to embarrass the Opposition. It is also not unknown for Ministers or their staff to 'plant' questions they wish to be asked among their own backbenchers—these arranged questions are known as 'Dorothy Dixers'.
Questions to private Members and the Speaker
A question without notice of a strictly limited nature may be addressed to a private Member, for example, a Member in charge of a private Member's bill may be asked when the bill is to be introduced or when copies will be available; a committee chair may be asked when a report will be tabled. Questions of this kind are rare. Questions may also be put to the Speaker on matters of parliamentary administration.
Length of question time
The duration of question time, and indeed whether it occurs at all, is within the discretion of the Prime Minister (or the senior Minister present) who may terminate proceedings at any time—even prior to the first question being asked—by asking that questions, or further questions, be placed on the Notice Paper. However, the Government is in these circumstances subject to the pressure of private Members from both sides of the House and public opinion. A Government which frequently refused to allow question time to proceed, or frequently restricted it to less than 45 minutes, would be exposed to considerable criticism. In practice in recent years question time has occurred on 95% of sitting days and has usually lasted between 50 and 60 minutes. When, rarely, question time does not proceed, this usually follows instances of substantial time being spent on such a matter as a want of confidence motion prior to questions without notice being called on.
The purpose of questions is to enable Members to obtain factual information or press for action on matters for which the Minister questioned is responsible to the House. The standing orders contain detailed provisions whose primary objective is to ensure that this purpose is given effect. In particular, they attempt to restrain the questioner from giving unnecessary information or introducing or inviting argument and thereby initiating a debate. In addition to rules specifically applying, the content of questions must comply with the general rules applying to the content of speeches.
However, over the years Speakers have tended to be somewhat lenient in applying the standing orders with the result that, for example, breaches of only minor procedural importance have not prevented questions on issues of special public interest. The extent of such leniency varies from Speaker to Speaker. In addition, some latitude is generally extended to the Opposition Leaders in asking questions without notice and to the Prime Minister in answering them.
A demanding time for the Chair
Questions without notice by their very nature may raise significant difficulties for the Chair. The necessity to make instant decisions on the application of the rules on the form and content of questions is one of the Speaker's most demanding tasks. In addition, points of order often arise in relation to Ministers' answers, and there is often a degree of disorder in the House during question time.
The standing orders and practice of the House have been criticised in that restrictions paralleling 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. The only provision in the standing orders which deals explicitly with answers is the requirement that an answer shall be relevant to the question. Speakers have ruled consistently that provided the answer is relevant and is not couched in unparliamentary language Ministers may answer questions without notice virtually in any way they choose.
The interpretation of 'relevant' has at times been very wide, and in practice the word has been frequently accepted by the Chair as meaning relevant in some way or relevant in part, rather than directly or completely relevant. Nevertheless, although the test of relevance can be difficult to apply, points of order contesting the relevance of a Minister's answer have been upheld and Ministers have been asked to resume their seats as their answers were not relevant. These instances have, however, been rare.
The Speaker has no specific power under the standing orders to require a Minister to conclude an answer on the grounds of its length and in the past has only exercised persuasion. Ministers have been advised that, should a question require a lengthy response, the proper procedure is for the Minister to state that fact and to seek leave to make a statement after question time. However, while offering such advice, Speakers have taken the view that the Chair has no power to require that it be followed.
Number of questions
Since a question time consisting of questions without notice achieved its de facto status, the amount of time involved and the number of questions dealt with has varied considerably. During the early 1930s the record indicates that 18 or 19 questions were regularly 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. In more recent times, from an average of 16 questions asked each question time during the late 1970s, the number declined to an average of 10.5 in 1993. Over 1994 and 1995 the average rose to 13.1.
Question time as it has developed in the Australian House of Representatives possesses two features which, in combination, make it distinctive, the fact that questions are (technically at least) without notice, and the strict alternation of questions between opposition and government Members. A further distinguishing feature is that every Minister is expected to be present for question time each day.
This contrasts, for example, with the situation in the United Kingdom House of Commons, where questions are asked on notice for oral answer. In the Canadian House of Commons, where there is a period in some ways similar to our own for questions to be asked without notice, the vast majority of questions are asked by opposition Members.
Questions on Notice
Members may also seek information from the Government by delivering questions in writing to the Clerk (in practice to the Table Office) to be placed on the Notice Paper. In the case of questions on notice neither the question nor answer is read to the House. There is no restriction on the number of questions on notice a Member may ask, either each day or in total. In recent years, an average of 15 questions has been placed on the Notice Paper each sitting day.
The rules governing the form and content of questions are applied more strictly to questions on notice because of the opportunity to examine them closely. The Speaker is responsible for ensuring that questions conform to the standing orders, but, in practice, this task is performed by officers of the House.
Officials in government departments check each day's Notice Paper for questions and arrange for answers to be drafted for their Minister to consider. When the Minister approves an answer it is forwarded to the Table Office which sends a copy to the Member who asked the question and arranges for the question and answer to be printed in Hansard. In addition copies are supplied to the press.
There is no time limit by which questions must be answered. While most are answered promptly, some languish on the Notice Paper for many months. In an attempt to address this problem the House has adopted a procedure under which, where a reply had not been received after 60 days, the Member concerned can rise in the House and ask the Speaker to write to the Minister involved, seeking reasons for the delay.
Questions remain on the Notice Paper until answered, unless the Member asking the question becomes a Minister or ceases to be a Member. A question may also be withdrawn by the Member at any time. Any questions remaining on the Notice Paper lapse when the Parliament is prorogued or the House is dissolved. In recent Parliaments some eight percent of questions on notice have so lapsed.
By their very nature questions on notice can be more detailed and probing than questions without notice and the answers to them more considered and informative. Away from the hot-house atmosphere of the Chamber, a question on notice attracts less prominence and publicity than one asked during question time and the majority are not openly partisan, tending to focus on administrative detail rather than on wider policy issues.
An Historical Note
In the House of Representatives the practice of Members asking questions without notice developed in a rather ad hoc manner. The original standing order relating to the routine of business referred only to 'Questions on notice'—a period during which Ministers read to the House answers to questions, the terms of which had been printed on the Notice Paper. Questions were placed on notice to be answered on a particular day, either the next or one in the near future, and were commonly answered on the day for which notice had been given. However, from early in the first Parliament questions without notice were also asked during this item of business. In response to a query on the matter the first Speaker made a statement to the effect that although there was no provision in the standing orders for questions without notice, there was no prohibition on them, and if a Minister chose to answer the Chair would not object.
In the early Parliaments relatively few questions were asked whether with or without notice, only two or three usually appearing on the Notice Paper for a particular day and more than eight or nine being unusual. On some days no questions without notice were asked, and on others there were only one or two. By the time of World War I several questions without notice were being dealt with on a typical sitting day and the question period gradually tended to lengthen.
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.
Over the years more and more time was taken up with questions without notice and in order to save the time of the House a standing order was adopted in 1931 to provide that the reply to a question on notice could be given by delivering it to the Clerk of the House, who would supply a copy to the Member concerned and arrange for its inclusion in Hansard. In spite of this, questions on notice remained listed prominently as the first item of business on the Notice Paper until 1950 when 'Questions without notice' replaced 'Questions on notice' in the routine of business under the standing orders. However the somewhat unofficial status of question time continued to be reflected in the absence of any mention of questions without notice from the official record, the Votes and Proceedings, until 1962. Even in 1950 questions without notice were required by the new standing order to be 'on important matters which call for immediate attention'. However, occupants of the Chair found it impractical to enforce this rule and it was dropped in 1963.
Suggestions for further reading
House of Representatives Practice, 2nd edn. A.G.P.S., Canberra, 1989. pp 507-31.
House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure. The standing orders and practices which govern the conduct of question time. Parliamentary Paper 354 of 1986.
House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure. About time: bills, questions and working hours. Report of the inquiry into reform of the House of Representatives. AGPS, Canberra, 1993. Parliamentary Paper 194 of 1993. pp 21-29.
House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure. Question time in the House of Representatives. A discussion paper. House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure, Canberra, 1995.
Uhr, John. Questions without answers: an analysis of question time in the Australian House of Representatives. ASPA/Parliamentary Fellow Monograph, no. 4, 1982.
Last updated: 24 June 1996