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Thursday, 6 May 1993
Page: 315


Senator FERGUSON (9.49 p.m.) —I rise to support the amendment moved by my colleague Senator Hill. In the 12 months that I have been in this chamber I have seen a variety of timings for Question Time. When I first came into the Senate, there was unlimited Question Time. We then went to having one-minute questions and two-minute answers that Senator Panizza talked about. I could see that some Ministers were struggling under that time constraint, because it was quite obvious that their staff were well used to preparing five- and six-minute answers and that Ministers were trying to get them through in two or three. We could see the difficulty that that was presenting to some Ministers.

  We then came to a reasonable conclusion of three minutes and one minute. I fail to see Senator Bourne's logic when she says we have the same number of questions whether it is a three minute limit or a four minute limit; therefore, we should go for the four-minute limit. Surely if three minutes is the average, the most sensible thing to do would be to have three minute answers to questions. This would mean that Ministers would then be confined to answering questions in three minutes instead of spending four minutes plus one minute to answer supplementary questions which are sometimes dorothy dixers from their own back bench. This sometimes limits the answers the Ministers give to Opposition backbenchers or shadow Ministers.

  I was told when I entered the Senate that the opportunity for asking questions, particularly from the back bench, was somewhat limited. I came in at a time when lengthy answers were being given by Ministers in response to questions. I think that because of the workings of the Senate up until Christmas time last year there was scarcely a senator on the Opposition side who complained about the number of questions that they had the opportunity of asking. This was because of the time constraints that were placed on Ministers answering questions.

  I fail to see why the Democrats would want to do anything else but get the opportunity to ask more questions than they would have had the opportunity to ask when there were no time constraints or even when there were four-minute time constraints. This also applies to Independent senators.

  The more chances we get to ask questions the more opportunities there are for senators on this side of the chamber, as well as government backbenchers, to ask questions of interest. I think if senators get the opportunity to ask more questions then they are able to raise many issues which are brought to them by their constituents and which they wish to raise in order to get direct answers.

  I believe Senator Hill's amendment is a very reasonable one. Of all the proposals we tried last year—we tried the whole gamut of no time limits and two, three and four-minute answers to questions—it seems that the three minute time limit was the most satisfactory both for Ministers to answer questions and also for Opposition, Democrat and Independent senators to ask a greater number of questions.

  I cannot for the life of me see the logic in Senator Bourne's argument that because there was no difference in the number of questions asked, whether the time limit was three or four minutes, she would go for the higher time limit. This means that there is then the possibility that fewer questions would be asked than there would be if a three-minute time limit were applied to the answers of Ministers. I hope the Democrats will see their way clear to support this amendment so that all senators may be able to meet their obligations in the Senate and have far more opportunities to ask questions on matters they feel are important.

  Question put:

  That the amendment (Senator Hill's) be agreed to.