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Thursday, 6 May 1993
Page: 310

Senator HILL (Leader of the Opposition) (9.25 p.m.) —If ever there were evidence of a need for a time limit on answers to questions without notice, it was the performance of Senator Collins yesterday and today. This is a very useful reform. It was a reform that the Government resisted with all the vigour it could muster during its last term. I must say that the sort of grudging acknowledgment by the Manager of Government Business (Senator Faulkner) that some form of discipline can be useful is overdue; nevertheless it is recognised and appreciated.

  In the previous session of Parliament, Ministers demonstrated that they were unable to impose self-discipline and provide sensible answers that concentrated on answering the question. Instead, Ministers were making long statements that should have been made after Question Time in the form of ministerial statements. It was really an abuse of Question Time. Ministers, particularly Senator Collins and Senator Cook, were giving us answers that went for many, many minutes. As I said a moment ago, Ministers often failed to even answer the question during such extended periods.

  It became apparent to those of us on this side of the chamber—and, I have to say, to the Australian Democrats—that it was necessary for the Senate to impose some discipline upon Ministers. You will remember, Madam Deputy President, that we carried out a number of experiments to determine the appropriate time for a Minister to adequately answer a question without encouraging that Minister to speak in excess of what was necessary. We had an experience with a four-minute time limit on answers, which is the time limit contained in Senator Faulkner's motion. We also tried three minutes and—Senator Kemp might remind me—I think we had a go at two minutes.

  At the end of the last session, I thought the consensus was that about three minutes is the right length of time. It is an adequate amount of time for a Minister properly to answer a question without encouraging him or her to speak for an unnecessarily long time. It is therefore disappointing that the Government, being dissatisfied with that experiment that worked reasonably well—after we tried three separate periods of time—feels it has to come in here tonight and have another go at extending the period for answering questions to four minutes.

  What we are really trying to do, apart from cutting out the unnecessary expressions of Ministers, is get more questions asked and answered during the time allowed for Question Time. Unfortunately, the record of this Government has been poor compared with that of previous governments. It has taken less questions and therefore answered less questions. The opportunity presented to this chamber to require accountability during Question Time—which some might say is the principal opportunity presented to an Opposition in the Parliament to require accountability—has been unduly limited.

  In addition to the constraint on the time in which a Minister can answer a question, we suggest that a minimum number of questions should be asked and answered. So far, regrettably, that has been rejected not only by the Government—which is not surprising because it objects to answering any questions—but also, surprisingly, by the Australian Democrats. I say `surprisingly' because I cannot understand any argument by which the Australian Democrats would wish to limit their opportunity to ask a reasonable number of questions and to get answers. In fact, because of their very small numbers in this chamber, they have limited opportunity to do so in any event.

  If the Government were required to answer a reasonable number of questions, the Australian Democrats would have the opportunity to ask more and, therefore, presumably, better fulfil their responsibility to the electors who put them here. For some reason that I do not understand, they have been unwilling to accept that very reasonable reform.

  That is a debate for another day, but it brings me back to the principal issue we are debating here—that is, whether our approach, the three-minute option, the more successful of the options, should be re-endorsed tonight or whether the Government should be extended further liberty than that previous time constraint which seemed to operate quite well at the end of the last session.

  I would hope that the Australian Democrats will realise not only that three minutes is an adequate time in which a Minister can answer a question, but also that by constraining Ministers to three minutes they hopefully will again have more opportunity to ask questions themselves. If we add the minutes allowed for asking questions to the four minutes that the Government proposes for answers, plus the two minutes for supplementary questions and answers, we are up to a maximum of seven minutes per question. In an hour—the Australian Democrats can work this out by simple arithmetic calculation—very few questions might be answered if the Ministers decide to take their full time. On the precedent of today, it looks as though these Ministers will take every second that they are allowed to answer questions. I ask Senator Kemp how many questions that would bring us down to.

Senator Kemp —Sixteen.

Senator HILL —No more than 16 questions will be asked in Question Time, eight to the Opposition. The Democrats would be lucky to ask two questions in an hour and I presume that they would want better than that. I presume that the Democrats would prefer the option of three minutes to answer questions than four. Therefore, I move:

  Substitute `three minutes' for the Government's stated period of `four minutes' in part 1(a) of the motion.

I trust that the Democrats will support our amendment, and that the Senate will support the amended motion that will continue the useful reform of providing restraint upon Ministers, but for a more appropriate time than the Government is seeking to implement tonight.