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Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Page: 1409

The PRESIDENT (9:31 AM) —Yesterday in question time, Senator Abetz raised a point of order about the application of the relevance rule under the standing orders, as modified by the Senate’s temporary order on question time, which requires answers to be directly relevant to a question. Senator Bob Brown also asked that I look at questions asked in the early part of question time yesterday to assess whether they conformed with standing order 73, which, as all senators know, provides rules for questions.

Regardless of whether the requirement is for relevance or direct relevance, I cannot direct a minister how to answer a question. Provided that an answer is directly addressing the subject matter of a question, it is not within the power of the chair to require a minister to provide a particular answer.

The problem with question time at the moment seems to be that senators have an expectation of receiving the specific answer that they have in mind and, when they do not receive that answer, they raise points of order. I have ruled consistently, as presidents before me have done, that it is not within my power to require a minister to provide a particular answer.

I also wish to address a misconception about the powers of the chair in enforcing the standing orders in the context of requests made to me during points of order to sit ministers down. As all senators should know, the only basis on which a senator with the call may be interrupted is for a point of order or a point of privilege. When a point of order is raised, the chair assesses the validity of a point of order and makes a ruling which is designed to draw an offending senator back within the scope of what the standing orders permit. Provided that a senator is complying with the standing orders, the chair has no basis to withdraw the call except to restore order.

Finally, I remind senators that standing order 73 provides that questions shall not contain arguments, inferences, imputations, ironical expressions or hypothetical matter, among other things, and shall not ask for expressions of opinion or statements of the government’s policy. If senators observed these rules more closely in seeking information from ministers, there might be less cause for dissatisfaction with the answers.