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Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Page: 1489


Senator LUDWIG (Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (3:50 PM) —This area of the standing and sessional orders has been raised by the coalition on occasions. I will not go through the history, as Senator Abetz has done so, but fundamentally one of the areas this came from, as the Deputy President would be aware, was experience overseas. I say, by way of example, that when you—in my words—cherry pick part of the outcomes from overseas jurisdictions, include them in the current rules and then try to interpret them in the fashion that you seek to you will trip yourself up. In this instance, with due respect to Senator Abetz, I think he has done that. In one respect, it is a furphy—or at least a hollow argument—to say that past precedent should not be taken into account at all in relation to these matters, if I understood his argument correctly. If I did not, then I will correct the record.

As I understood it, the import of this issue was that it is a new matter that we have to address from the rules without reference to previous principles that have been enunciated in this place. I take issue with that, if I am correct about that from the argument that is put in part by Senator Abetz. If you look at past precedent from Odgers in respect of this matter—on page 500 of chapter 19, ‘Relations with the executive government’, it says:

Questions with or without notice are permissible only for the purpose of obtaining information, and answers are subject to the same limitation, that is, they are limited to supplying the information asked for by the questions.

                …            …            …

In answering a question, a senator must not debate it … Thus an answer should be confined to giving the information asked for, and should not contain any argument or comments. An answer must also be relevant to the question.

It is one example of where past precedent can be referred to to guide and to assist in looking at the sessional orders today. Odgers further states:

… in answering a question:

the Minister should confine himself to points contained in the question with such explanation only as will render the answer intelligible. In all cases the answer must be relevant to the question.

Going on from that the Procedures Committee in 1994 observed—I think this is instructive for those participating in this debate—as follows:

It is clear that, in answering a question, a minister must be relevant to the question. It is for the President to make a judgment whether an answer is relevant to a question. If the answer is not relevant, the President requires the minister to be relevant.

That is, that it is within the ability of the President to rule on that. Odgers goes on at page 501 to say:

It is not the responsibility of the chair to tell ministers how they should respond to questions: ‘That is purely a matter for Ministers, provided their answers are within the standing orders’

It goes further:

It is also not for the chair to determine whether an answer is correct … Challenges to the accuracy of an answer should not take the form of a point of order.

We do seem to have a continuing interest from the opposition in taking a point of order. It is clear—if I can remind those opposite—that when they do rise to their feet to take a point of order, it is not for the chair to determine whether an answer is correct. Challenges to the accuracy of an answer should not take the form of a point of order.

Therefore, in this debate it is permissible to go back and have a look at the precedent in this place. What the precedent tells me is this: it appears that the opposition, in—and I will use the polite form—criticising the President’s ruling in question time, should be, in fact, looking at the nature of the questions they ask. If the opposition declines to use question time for questions, if the opposition does not wish to use question time for questions seeking information—as I think the precedent does demonstrate—and instead uses the forum to try to make political points then they should also accept the President has a different role.

Opposition senators interjecting—


Senator LUDWIG —I afforded your leader the opportunity to provide his statement without interjection and I would ask for the same respect because we are dealing with a matter. For many years presidents have restated the reality that they cannot direct ministers to provide answers that the opposition want to hear. Ministers are required to be directly relevant to the question, not to provide the answer that the opposition in this instance want to hear. The precedent which I have averred to supports that position. In reality the opposition may be dissatisfied with responses by government ministers—that proposition is longstanding. I have no doubt when in opposition I was also most likely persuaded that the then government’s responses to my questions did not satisfy them.

The Senate has developed procedures for the opposition to express their dissatisfaction. The take note period after question time is one response. It provides limits on the time to respond to answers, which was another approach to ensure that could occur. Regardless though of these changes the opposition does need, in my view, to recognise that the President cannot second-guess the answer that the opposition want to hear and ensure that a minister provides that and only that response. This will not be the case. The Procedure Committee has examined this issue, as those in the chamber would be aware, and they would have had the opportunity of looking at the Procedure Committee report in this area. It has determined the rules for question time. Quite frankly, it is time that the opposition stopped complaining about a process when it is one that was brought in by them and acceded to by us to achieve a purpose where you only take half a rule not a full rule in dealing with this issue.

Of course, in using the New Zealand model, you have now adopted a hybrid of that and implemented that. It comes without the opportunity of providing notice to the government of the nature of the question that is being asked. That would afford the opposition the ability for the minister to deal with the question that was asked in a way that at least the opposition might find a little bit more adequate. But that was not adopted by this house; that is recognised and I am not arguing for it now. I am simply saying that in this instance the ruling that the President provided was correct. The position that the President provided remains correct. It is not the case—as has been made by Senator Abetz—that the ruling is incorrect.

What the President has done is rely on past precedent, look at the current wording and ensure that the provision that he has made is both relevant and timely to respond to the issue that was raised by Senator Abetz. It is time for the opposition to, quite frankly, understand the nature of the ruling and understand and apply the standing orders of the Senate as included within that sessional order.