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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 3907

Mr KEOGH —On behalf of the Standing Committee on Procedure, I present the third report of the Committee entitled `The standing orders and practices which govern the conduct of Question Time', incorporating three dissenting reports, together with extracts of the minutes of proceedings.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Mr KEOGH —by leave-The report that I have just presented is the first major review for a number of years of the procedures of the House for questions without notice. The Committee has worked hard on this inquiry and has been very conscious of the need to table a report prior to the House rising for the Christmas break. I assure the House that the report is the result of some very detailed consideration. Our Question Time procedures have been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny and unfortunately also criticism in recent years, not only during the administration of this Government but also during the time of a number of previous governments. Recent criticism has been focused on the length and relevance of answers and the decreasing opportunity for members to ask questions. These matters came to a head in the House on 20 and 22 October last with Opposition members calling on Madam Speaker to intervene and curtail the length of Ministers' answers. Members' frustration was seen to be directed at the Chair and the Government accused the Opposition of attempting to disrupt matters and casting aspersions on the running of Parliament.

The aim of the Committee has been to bring Question Time back to a real time for questions, a time when members have a reasonable opportunity to seek information and to press for government action by way of questions without notice and a time when the accountability of the Government to Parliament is clearly demonstrated. To achieve this end the Committee has made a number of proposals. The key recommendation is that set out in paragraph 153 where the Committee has proposed that the duration of Question Time remain approximately 45 minutes but that it be extended, if necessary, until a minimum of 16 questions are asked, unless major interruptions occur during Question Time. The background to this recommendation is that opportunities for private members have become severely limited to the stage where an average of 12 questions are asked each day and Opposition back benchers will average only 3.5 questions per year, while the coalition remains in opposition. It must also be noted that the size of the House was increased by 23 members at the last election, thus further proportionately reducing the opportunities for private members in this question period.

What the Committee is proposing is that, rather than impose a time limit on answers that would be difficult to enforce and not take account of the fact that questions on some issues may merit a lengthy answer, the 16 question minimum, which would not include disallowed and immediate supplementary questions-part of our recommendations-would be self-regulating and would discourage unnecessarily lengthy answers. In 1970 an average of almost 17 questions without notice were asked each day that we had a Question Time. This rose to over 19 questions by 1976, but it has now dropped to 12 questions.

This reduction in the daily opportunities for private members to question the Government is obviously unsatisfactory when compared with Question Time in the Canadian House of Commons. In its 45 minute period of questions without notice an average of 38 to 42 questions are dealt with, including supplementaries. Clearly the current situation in this chamber could dramatically change should it be the wish of the House. It is interesting to note that in the past this House itself has dealt with up to 43 questions and answers in 50 minutes.

The Committee has made a number of other recommendations relating to Question Time. In particular, it is proposing that Standing Orders be amended to ensure that questions are brief and confined to a single issue. It has made a number of recommendations regarding the content of questions, including a proposal that the House retain the prohibition on questions without notice which are critical of the character or conduct of other persons. It is proposed that the requirement that answers be relevant to the question be strengthened and it has recommended that Standing Orders be amended to allow one immediate supplementary question to be asked. That proposal restricts the supplementary question to the subject of the original question. In regard to the Committee proposal that the relevancy requirement be retained and strengthened, the Committee also expressed the view that, in the event of any Minister contravening these provisions, the Speaker should direct the Minister to resume his or her seat.

On 6 May this year Madam Speaker wrote to the Committee asking that it consider extending its inquiry to include a number of procedures and practices which have a bearing on members' behaviour in the House and hence the standing and dignity of the House in the eyes of the community. Madam Speaker suggested that a number of other procedures could be identified which were traditionally a source of quarrels between members or where the Chair had difficulty maintaining the standard of behaviour befitting the House. Many of the matters raised by Madam Speaker had already been raised in other submissions to the Committee and had been or were in the process of being considered by the Committee.

However, as a result of Madam Speaker's proposal and others put to the Committee, the Committee has reached conclusions and made a number of recommendations relating to members' behaviour and the role of the Chair, including a revision of the practices relating to members making personal explanations pursuant to standing order 64 to ensure that the Chair has prior notice of their intention and the content of their proposed explanation; a revision of the guidelines that the Chair uses in determining whether words are offensive or disorderly; a proposal that the practice of members seeking to speak by the indulgence of the Chair be discontinued; a proposal that the provision for dissent from rulings of the Chair be removed; and a proposal that the Chair be given the power, not subject to a resolution of the House or a motion of dissent, to order a member whose conduct is disorderly to withdraw from the House for a short period. Those honourable members who follow that greatest football code of all, rugby league, will know of the great success of the sin bin provisions in the hands of the referee in that code. The Committee has also proposed that Standing Orders be amended, where necessary, to remove pronouns importing one gender.

In total, these recommendations are not intended by the the Committee to dramatically change the question period in this House. Our Question Time has evolved into a format which the Committee believes, with one major exception, best suits the adversarial style expected and accepted by both Government and private members. It may be said it is a somewhat peculiar format-I use that description in a serious context-and a format that may not suit other chambers. In other countries it obviously does not, but the Committee believes that it is the format that best suits the adversarial style of this chamber at that particular period of the day's proceedings.

However, the Committee believes that the public perception of our procedures is such that they leave a lot to be desired. Because of the important role this chamber should play in the nation's affairs, the way we conduct our business, particularly during Question Time, should be improved. We firmly believe that the recommendations, if accepted in total, will lead to some improvement. I stress that they must be accepted in total because it is fairly certain that the people responsible for the proceedings from the Government side might see some of those recommendations differently from those responsible for the conduct of the business of the House on behalf of the Opposition. If they look at the recommendations in that narrow fashion it will mean that Question Time probably will remain as it is now but if, with a sense of good will from those responsible on both sides of the chamber, they are prepared to look at the recommendations in total I am sure that the result we should all hope for, and the result that I am sure the people out there in the wider community would really like to see develop from Question Time, will be achieved.

I record my thanks and appreciation for the diligence of the members of the Procedure Committee-members who often at great cost to their own personal commitments made a considerable effort to attend the heavy schedule of Committee meetings we held and to pursue this inquiry with a view to ensuring that we were able to get the report into the House before the House rose. I also record our appreciation of the work done by the Committee secretariat and the recent efforts made particularly by those who assisted in the printing of this report so expeditiously. I trust that the report will receive due consideration over the coming recess and that changes will be implemented early in the autumn sittings next year to enable as soon as possible an effective period of questions without notice.