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Tuesday, 27 May 2003
Page: 15039


The SPEAKER (3:18 PM) —I was asked a number of questions on 15 May 2003 concerning the flexibility under the standing orders for a question asked of a member in their capacity as chair of a House of Representatives standing committee to be transferred to a minister. The member for Werriwa stated that standing order 143, which provides for questions to be addressed to private members, does not provide a flexibility of the kind that occasionally occurs under standing order 144, Questions to ministers. House of Representatives Practice states at page 521 that a minister:

may also transfer a question to another Minister and it is not in order to question the reason for doing so.

It also states that the Prime Minister may transfer a question to a minister directly responsible for a matter without any direct statement, request or overt action. However, the authority for transfer of this kind is—and I emphasise—the practice of the House. There is nothing explicit in standing order 144 to authorise it, nor is there a standing order or practice to discourage it. On this ground, there is no difference between standing order 143 and standing order 144.

On the last sitting day, the member for Macquarie transferred a question asked of him in his capacity as Chair of the Standing Committee on Education and Training to the Minister for Education, Science and Training. The question asked the committee chair for information relating to the committee that was on the public record, such as whether the committee was undertaking an inquiry into a certain matter and whether the committee had received certain evidence, which I understood to be evidence that the committee had authorised for publication. The question went on to ask for confirmation of certain expenditure reductions in the budget which, substantiated or not, quite clearly did not fall within the responsibility of the committee chair. The question then asked for information about the future of the committee inquiry and about meeting schedules. The last two matters in the question seemed to me to relate to committee matters not authorised for publication and not yet reported to the House. It would have been out of order for any member to provide information on the last two matters, and this was partly my reason for indicating to the House that there were constrained areas in which a question of that kind could be asked.

As the question was based on an allegation of expenditure reduction and the committee chair was not accountable to the House for the portfolio budget details, the question was transferred and the minister answered that part of the question that related to the minister's portfolio responsibilities. I would not have considered it to be in order if the minister's reply purported to accept responsibility for published committee matters or to attempt to canvass unauthorised committee matters. However, the minister's reply did not contain any such elements. Consequently, I do not agree with the assertion made by the member for Werriwa that the transfer of the question constituted a blurring of the separation of powers or with the member for Brand's contention that for the minister to answer the question would be evidence of a breach of privilege in revealing the internal workings of the committee not authorised for publication. The minister's answer concerned matters the subject of ministerial responsibility and I would have ruled out of order a response from any member that revealed private committee matters. I might add that the last part of the question by the member for Grayndler came perilously close to revealing private committee matters in interrogative form, and it was for that reason that I indicated to the House after he had asked the question that the latter part of the question went beyond constrained permitted areas.

In summary, there is nothing in the standing orders or House of Representatives Practice to prevent a committee chair seeking to transfer a question or part of a question involving ministerial responsibility to the minister concerned. The minister may answer in regard to a matter within his or her ministerial responsibilities, and this may include a question coinciding in subject matter with a current committee inquiry. It is open to a committee chair to respond to those parts of a question pertaining to committee chairs' committee responsibilities. However, as I indicated to the House, there are restraints on what the committee chair could answer. Page 524 of House of Representatives Practice was quoted on 15 May. That publication also states at page 528:

It has been held to be out of order to ask a question ... which refers to proceedings in committee ... not reported to the House.

Page 524 also states:

In any question to a chair of a committee it should be borne in mind that a chair should not make public pronouncements on behalf of the committee unless the committee has been consulted and given its permission beforehand.