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Questions without answers: an analysis of Question Time in the Australian House of Representatives



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QUESTIONS WITHOUT ANSWERS:

An Analysis of Question Time in the Australian House of Representatives

John Uhr

Parliamentary Fellow 1980 and 1981 Parliamentary Library Canberra

SECTION ONE

SECTION TWO

SECTION THREE

,SECTION FOUR

SECTION FIVE

CONCLUSION

APPENDIX

7•7.g7

Questions Without Answers

PAGE

PREFACE I

INTRODUCTION Why Study Question Time? 4

Parliamentary Procedure Generally 10

British Background and Australian History 16

Commentary on Standing Orders 29

Statistical Analysis of 31st Parliament 51

Question Time and Parliamentary Pol itics 59

Proposed Reforms 75

87

Standing Orders Regulating Question Time 92

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PREFACE

Questions without Answers has been completed as part of

the terms of my Parliamentary Political Science Fellowship for

the two years 1980-81. The original intent of the Fellowship was twofold: to give researchers in political science some practical

work experience of Australian federal parliamentary affairs, and

to give them an opportunity to use the facilities of the

Commonwealth Parliamentary Library to prepare a research report

on some aspect of the Commonwealth Parliament. I was most

fortunate to be the first Fellow to hold the award for two years

- the Library Committee having agreed in late 1980 to offer me an

extension of another year, and thereafter to employ Fellows on

two year contracts.

As with previous Fellows' reports, this report is not

the sole product of my Fellowship. My work experience has taken

the same form as has that of all previous Fellows - through an

attachment to the Legislative Research Service and, in my case,

to the Law and Government Group of that Service, with whom I

wrote some thirty papers. The Parliamentary Librarian has also

very generously allowed me both time and the Library's

extraordinarily helpful facilities to prepare other papers for

• academic and public service conferences or for publication.

Among those papers are "Democratic Theory and Consensus",

Politics (May 1981); "Australia's Political Culture and Altman's

Cultural Politics", Australian Quarterly (Autumn 1981);

"Commonwealth Parliamentary Chronicle", Federalism Bulletin (August 1981); Parliament and Public Administration , background paper prepared for Annual Conference of Australian Institute of

Public Administration, November 1981; and "Parliamentary Reform

in Canberra", Australian Quarterly (forthcoming Spring 1982).

This report was begun in 1980 before it was known that

• there was to be an early election. The early rising of the.31st

Parliament interferred with my planned interviews of Government

• and Opposition House leaders and whips, although it did provide a special opportunity to observe a Parliament before and after a

general election. Consequently, this report was put aside for

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some time into 1981, when the interviews were conducted, with the

writing done in between other assignments later in the year. The

Parliamentary Librarian requested that I confine my interviews to

present parliamentarians and not to survey the views of any

interested outsiders.

According to the terms of the Fellowship, the research

report is meant to be no more than thirty pages. With this in

mind, the Librarian and Library Committee quite correctly steered

me away from too ambitious a study, and suggested that I begin

with the parliamentary basics - the often neglected way in which

politics moulds parliamentary procedures and behaviour, with

reference to possible reforms. Although Question Time is an

obvious topic for research, little has yet been completed on it

in Australia. This report is intended to help fill in some of

the research gaps, and to suggest paths for future research.

Time and opportunity were unavailable in the preparation of this

report for full examination of the behind the scenes preparation

for Question Time by Ministers and Opposition spokespersons. Yet

if one has to begin somewhere, it is best that one begin with the

basics, even if one risks producing an annotated and illustrated

Standing Orders. Indeed, the boundaries and limitations of this

report are probably those of a political commentary on the

Standing Orders regulating Question Time, examining the

characteristic styles of parliamentary politics nurtured by the

Standing Orders and those political forces which mould them.

Many people have given generously of their time in

assisting my inquiries. Among the foremost have been Mr. Harold

Weir (formerly Commonwealth Parliamentary Librarian) and Mr.

Hillas MacLean (Acting Parliamentary Librarian), Mr. Trevor

Lawton (formerly Director of the Legislative Research Service)

and Dr. George Webb (Head, Legislative Research Service). Ms.

Jan McDonald (Head, Legislative Reference Service), Ms. Vivian

Wilson and especially Ms. Frances Cushing were, as ever,

unfailing in their pursuit and capture of research quarry. Ms.

Mary McKenzie (formerly Head, Law and Government Group,

Legislative Research Service) has been unrelenting in her good-natured goading towarding sharper analysis. The statistical

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information in section 3 was prepared with the help of the House

of Representatives Table Office and the Statistics Group of the

Legislative Research Service. I must take this opportunity to

thank Mrs Edith Cavanagh, Ms Sue Woods and Mrs Ann Pooi for their

patience and skill in typing this and many other papers. I would also like to thank Mr. John Porter and Mr. Bernard Wright of the

House of Representatives, who supplied me with some of the

background information that went to make up the House's recently

published House of Representatives Practice. The sooner we see the completed version of Mr. Wright's history in progress of the

House's Question Time, the better off we will all be.

A word on the title: the practice in the Australian

national parliament in Canberra is for the Speaker to ask members

if they have any questions without notice, as distinct from

written questions that members place on the notice paper (hence

called questions on or with notice) to which Ministers supply

written answers published in Hansard. One veteran Australian

member - Mr. Charles Jones of Newcastle - recently put it to the

Speaker that Question Time should more accurately be described as

a session of questions without answers rather than questions

without notice. Mr. Jones' suggestion neatly summarises two

perennial criticisms of the Australian federal practice: first,

that many questions are not really without notice since Ministers

are quite often given advance warning of a question from.a

backbencher with whom they may be in collusion; and second, that

Ministers often fail to give an adequate or full answer to many

of the other questions - and as will be shown, there is little in

the Standing Orders to compel a Minister to do so.

This paper asks more questions than can be answered in

brief compass. Mr Jones' appellation may therefore be lifted to

sit at the head of a preliminary study of Question Time. One

hopes that such a study can help define the basic structure which

subsequent analyses may complete. The obvious area for further" study is the internal mechanism which the political parties use

to prepare for and capitalize on Question Time. Another obvious

and related area is the public service's function in anticipating

and following up questions without notice, and the way in which

these activities and the important pre Question Time departmental

briefings for Ministers supplement the bureaucratic routines for

answering - perhaps "dealing with" is more accurate - written

questions on notice. These important areas are beyond the reach

of the current requirements for the Fellowship Report - which

might be a cause for complaint but for the fact that so little

attention has been given to the parliamentary basics, especially

to the way in which procedures themselves influence parliamentary

behaviour.

May 1982

INTRODUCTION

Why Examine Question Time?

The order of business in the Australian House of

Representatives is carefully regulated by Standing Orders. The

Ministry knows exactly when Question Time will take place and,

given the way Standing Orders have been moulded by the ruling

executives of each party when in power, the Ministry knows that

apart from Question Time there are few procedural opportunities

which an Opposition can employ to 'interrupt the government's

program. Question Time is the only occasion when all members of

the House are likely to be present together; yet it is also an

occasion when private members and Ministers have divergent, often

contradictory, expectations of what will happen.

• The House's parliamentary day begins with the reading of

a prayer by the Speaker. 1 With the cessation of prayers, the

members take their seats, while petitions are presented and read

by the Clerk. This business can take anything up to ten minutes

as the Clerk reads out an abstract of each petition presented.

1. The routine of business is regulated by Standing Order 101, which is actually silent on this aspect of the day's beginnings.

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• Few members pay great attention to the content of the petitions

as they are read, and Speakers often have to interrupt the Clerk

to call upon members to cease conversing. To the observer, five

or six members stand out during this preliminary to Questions -all preparing either themselves or their party colleagues for the

imminent Question Time.

The Speaker sits in a raised chair, equidistant from the

Leaders of the Government and the Opposition, each of whom sits,

usually alone, at the table below the Speaker. Whereas the

Speaker is silent, casting an ear toward the Clerk and an eye

around the chamber, the two Leaders are perhaps receiving last

minute advice from their colleagues, discussing forthcoming

business, reading over prepared notes, or scribbling hasty memos

to cover almost forgotten contingencies. In addition, there are

the very visible party whips, who frequently spend petition time

moving about the backbenches, reminding members of promised

questions, coaxing the reluctant with the offer of questions of

which a Minister already has notice, and tempering the eager with

a warning about who has first call. Petitions are the prologue to

questions. Perhaps the best description comes from Speaker

Snedden, who sees it as "the time of the day when the members are

talking with each other; they've come together from different

committees. They've got things to say to each other •.. they

like that short period in which they can adjust and familiarise

for the day ...'2.

After petitions are read, the Speaker asks if there are

any notices of motion. This is the members' first opportunity to

speak, and some have developed an energetic, if predictable, art

of bouncing to the feet to await the Speaker's invitation to read

their notice of motion. Although only a few members usually give

such notices, the procedure can operate either as a pressure

siphon, letting off pent up energy as members cheer or groan at

their colleagues' pet interests, or as a low-keyed rehearsal for

- 2. ABC Radio, Canberra, 11 March 1981, Parliamentary Library Transcript, p.22.

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Question Time in which members can practise the parliamentary

arts of reading, writhing and trickmanship.

Question Time follows, with the Speaker asking if there

are any questions without notice. In response to the Speaker's

question, rarely fewer than half a dozen members rise to the

feet. In some State Parliaments, the members must attempt to

catch the attention of the chair with the cry of "Mr. Speaker".

In Canberra, the members rise in their places, silently awaiting

as the Speaker decides who shall get the call. By convention, the first question is posed by the Opposition, usually by the

Opposition Leader. The questions then alternate between the

Opposition and Government parties: of the, say, twenty questions

asked, ten will come from the Opposition, with the rest shared

among the Liberal-National Country governing coalition parties in

an approximately 2/3:1/3 arrangement.

The chamber is at its most rambunctious during this

forty five minutes of questions. The Opposition might direct its

first three or four questions at one Minister, or to a group of

Ministers who share responsibility - or vulnerability - for a

certain policy area. Nobody could envy the Speaker's task of

maintaining order during questions. While the Opposition pose

their questions_- the shadow spokespersons briskly walking to use

their Leader's microphone, the Opposition backbenchers rising

from their seats - the Government backbench examine the

opportunities for interjections. The shorter the interjection

the less likely is a Speaker to silence interjectors - unless

they cross the threshold tolerance separating the amusing from

the abusive. The Government's questioners in turn face identical

obstacles, and if the questions themselves do not sufficiently

reveal the fact that very few members are really seeking

information, the interjections do. Those Members who come into

the chamber to ask questions usually do so because they have

something to say, and not because they are genuinely seeking

information. There are exceptions, of course, yet most

non-government questioners are more likely to be seeking

information to confirm a suspicion or allegation than information

which reveals the state of public administration. For the latter

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purpose, written questions placed on the notice paper are more

relevant, and are very heavily used. If one puts to one side the

Dorothy-Dix questions and the compliant government questioners3,

most questions are designed to reveal how little a Minister • really knows. And those questions which seek to prove that a

Minister really does know something usually do so in the context

of alleging that the Minister is withholding that knowledge or

information from the chamber.

Question Time has often been described as Parliament's

greatest piece of theatre, full of rehearsed set-piece

confrontations interspersed with fiery improvisations. By

calling it a theatrical act, Question Time is understood as a

play to the galleries, especially to the press gallery which

disseminates the message to the public at large. It is also

understood as a contest between Government and Opposition 'for

publicity of a headline variety: politics as simplified into

knowingly deceptive slogans. It is undoubtedly true that

Question Time includes a great deal of play acting, most

memorably summed up in the Opposition's not unfrequent greeting

of an unusually histrionic Minister for Foreign Affairs with the

jocular command: "Give us your angry look, Andrew!"

The most seasoned press observer (drama critic?) of

Question Time, Mr. Mungo McCallum, employs a sporting rather than

theatrical metaphor. This is most apt, given a recent political

promise to put sport back on the front pages. It also recognises in a way that more of us can appreciate that there are rules,

that a certain type of definite yet versatile skill is required

by the players, that umpiring is itself a controversial art, that

there are winners and losers whose fortunes depend upon a

combination of solid defence, bold attack and luck. The sporting

metaphor also recognises something that is not revealed in the

theatre metaphor: that although Question Times can be prepared

for through the parliamentary equivalents of net practice and the

3. At Westminster these are called "inspired questions". The Australian name comes from an old newspaper column purporting to answer queries on personal problems supposedly written by members of the public and addressed to Dorothy Dix.

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like, it cannot really be rehearsed. Ministers simply do not

know who is going to lead the attack (now sometimes complicated

by open disagreements among Government ranks) or what form it

will take. This unpredictability injects Question Time with a

great deal of serious political passion which tends to be

minimised in the theatre metaphor.

Why examine Question Time? There are two interesting

approaches used by those who have had to answer this question.

First, there is the somewhat official answer couched in terms of

Question Time being the real test of accountability and

ministerial responsibility. Thus, insofar as Westminster-styled

governments revolve around notions of direct accountability of

the executive to the legislature, Question Time can be seen as

the traditional locus of accountability in action. The second

answer is less direct: indeed, from the absence of any series of

analytical studies of Question Time in the Australian House, one

can infer that academically there has not been great support for

the former answer. Many political scientists would argue that

the traditional answer is misleading precisely because Question

Time does not operate as a real test of ministerial

responsibility, which may be better studied through an

examination of the more recent work of the Commonwealth

Parliament's committees. In this view, while there may be good

reasons for studying Question Time - to know more about political

theatrics, to examine styles of Opposition leadership, to examine

specialisation among private members, to analyse the special

publicising efforts of minor parties in a coalition, to witness

the stealth of deposed Ministers and Opposition spokespersons, to

examine the media's process of selecting leading political

stories, to consider members' sources of information - an

examination of ministerial responsibility in action is generally

not high on the list.

As a result of these divergent answers to the question

"Why examine question time?" we have a situation in which

traditional claims made/about "the clear manifestation of the

accountability of the Executive to the Parliament which this

period displays" - or again that "the accountability of the

Government is demonstrated most clearly and publicly at Question

Time" 4 - are simply not supported by modern scholarly

examinations. Gordon Reid's estimate is typical: "...the

procedures for oral questioning are remarkably innocuous";

Question Time is in fact "a dull show". 5 In many ways the

situation would be easier if one could say that the scholarship

clearly contradicted rather than failed to support the

traditional claims. However, the situation is as awkward as it

is because there are so few scholarly examinations of Question

Time. One really does not know whether the traditional claims

are true or false: the academic parliamentary studies have

presumed, perhaps wisely, that other procedures are now more

effective in enhancing accountability of the executive. The

situation described by David Butler in the early 1970s remains

largely unaltered: "Nothing substantial seems to have been

published on question time, with all its ramifying consequences

for private members, for ministers, for departments".6

This report is intended to help fill the gap noted by

Butler nearly a decade ago. As such, this report supplements the

earlier reports by Howard and O'Grady, to which reference will

frequently be made. Much still remains unexamined. The focus

here is on the political use of parliamentary procedures, a focus

which may appear quaint and slightly irrelevant to the outside .

and casual observer of Australian politics. The in-party process

of Ministerial and Opposition preparation for Question Time

4. Short Description of Business and Procedures, House of Representatives (Canberra, , p.15: and H ouse of Representatives Practice (Canberra 1981), p.479. See also J.R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice (5th ed. Canberra,

1976) p.214. See also the valuable discussion on Question in the First Conference of Presiding Officers and Clerks-At-The-Table of the Parliament of Australia, Parliamentary Paper No.47, 1968, esp.pp.6-28; and Sixth Conference of Presiding

Officers and Clerks, Parliamentary Paper No. 235, 1974, esp. pp.101-11. • 5.. G.S. Reid , "Parliament and the Bureaucracy", in Parliament, Bureaucracy, Citizen : Who Runs Australia? , (Sydney 1972),

p.1 See also pp.53- .

6. D. Butler, The Canberra Model (Melbourne, 1973), p.9. Cf. however, J. Howard, Question Time: Myth or Reality?" Public Administration (Sydney), 31 (December 1972) 4, pp.363-75; and T. O'Grady, "Question Time in the McMahon Era", The Pieces of

Politics , ed. R. Lucy (Melbourne, 1st ed., 1975), ch.32.

deserves separate study, and only through it could one develop a

fully balanced appraisal of how the leading participants use

Question Time. A study of procedures, however, can also show how

Question Time uses the participants. Parliamentary procedures

not only reflect conscious plans about the most efficient use of

parliamentary power, but they also mould the way parliamentarians

approach their work, even when that work is critical of the

parliamentary process itself.

Parliamentary Procedure Generally

'Parliamentary reform in Australia has a growing number

of adherents and supporters who have not ignored the

possibilities for altering the practice of the House's Question

Time. Although section five will be devoted to exploring a

number of proposed reforms, it is worth reflecting at the outset

on the principles which ought to guide any study of parliamentary

procedure. What is parliamentary procedure: what is its place

in the political system? Amongst the first statements of the

principles governing modern democratic procedures is one by

Thomas Jefferson in the early days of the United States' new

administration. When Jefferson was Vice President of the United

States from 1797 to 1801, he composed a Manual of Practice for

his guidance in his constitutional office of President of the

Senate. In it Jefferson states that settled parliamentary

procedures are important for two reasons: first, as basic

shelters and protections to the minority against the powers.of

the parliamentary majority; and second, as rules constructed to

make the most productive use of the deliberative function of

parliaments.

Jefferson, of course, was both unfamiliar with a

Question Time and also dedicated to an explicit separation of

executive from legislative power. The United States'

Congressional system presents an alternative model of executive

accountability, one which depends on the capacity of the

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legislature's various committees to call individual Ministers and

their senior officials to appear before them. 7 Both

Congressional and Westminster systems recognise the need for

questioning, scrutiny and accountability. It may be that the

procedure as developed in Washington is more closely related to

Jefferson's second ambit of procedure - the deliberative function

of representative assemblies - and that the Westminster procedure

is more closely related to the first of Jefferson's reasons,

which he formulated as follows:

... as it is always in the power of the majority, by their numbers, to stop any improper measures proposed on the part of their opponents, the only weapons by which the minority can defend themselves against similar attempts from those in power are the forms and rules of

proceeding which have been adopted as they were found necessary, from time to time, and become the law of the House, by a. strict adherence to which the weaker party can only be protected from those irregularities and abuses which these forms were intended to check, and which the wantonness of power is but too of hen apt to

suggest to large and successful majorities.

The political tradition informing the Australian

approach to procedure can be seen from Standing Order number one,

which provides a general rule for the conduct of the House's

business: "In all cases not provided for hereinafter.., resort shall be had to the practice of the Commons House of the

Parliament of the United Kingdom... in force for the time being,

which shall be followed as far as it can be applied". 9 The

standard authority of the time on Westminster procedure was

Erskine May's Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and

Usage of Parliament, 10 first published in 1844. May's

7. Consider K. Bradshaw and D. Pring, Parliament and Congress (London 1973), esp. chp.8; and John B. Stewart, Ihe Canadian House of Commons: Procedure and Reform (Montreal 1977).

8. Manual of Parliamentary Practice in L. Fess ed., House Manual and Digest (Washington , p.95. 9. "For the time being" presumably refers to the time "at the establishment of the Commonwealth" as stipulated in ss.49 and

50 of the federal Constitution which provides for the powers and regulations of the new Parliament. 10. The Tenth Edition, London, 1893, was the one current at the time of the drafting of the Commonwealth Constitution.

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Parliamentary Practice is a parliamentarian's guide to

parliamentary usage: it is a practical exposition of the

development of those usages and, despite its massive weight, it

makes little impression on the general principles of procedure.

Although its various editions include the latest in developments and usages, it is never explicit on the overarching principle

defining which new procedures are to be welcomed as consistent

with the parliamentary purpose, and which are abberations. One

could reconstruct an account of the cause of procedure from May's

Parliamentary Practice but it would require an effort of tedious

extraction from the early sections on parliamentary privileges.

For whatever reason, May (and his editors) prefer to deflect our

attention from any open consideration of the nature of procedure

through an immersion in the role and minutiae of usages. 11 We

will return to May's influence on the Australian Question Time in

section one when briefly-examining the development of the

Australian practice.

Many of the gaps in the theory of parliamentary

procedure left by May were filled by Josef Redlich, a Viennese

professor of law and political science. 12 Redlich drew heavily

upon Jeremy Bentham's 1791 Essay on Political Tactics to develop

a theory of English parliamentary practice which would have

relevance to all the Anglo-American variants of what he termed

"the English model". Redlich saw Erskine May as a typical "pure

empiric" - one who, in describing the currently developed system,

presumed that the system was theoretically sound. Redlich was

less of an apologist for the evolving status quo, and therefore

his work provides something of a guide to the critical appraisal

of parliamentary procedure.

Redlich briefly lists the leading political principles

which ought to guide the development of parliamentary procedures.

The first and most fundamental is the principle of publicity:

11. For more explicit examinations of the political purposes of Westminster procedures, see the essays in S.A. Walkland (ed.) The House of Commons in the Twentieth Century (Oxford 1979) 12. Josef Redlich, The Procedure of the House of Commons: A Study

of its History and Present Form, trans. by Ernest Steinthal, (London 1908), esp. volume 2, pp.175-201.

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all proceedings ought to be carried out in public, and at

publicly prescribed times or in a known and logical sequence of

events. Only in this way will a representative assembly gain and retain the confidence of the public. In this way the elected

members can be seen to be doing - or not doing - that which they

promised; and the members can benefit from hearing the expressed

wishes of the interested public. The second principle is that of

the impartial presiding officer - a principle Redlich found

developing in the Westminster Speaker: "the very incarnation of

parliamentary impartiality". 13 A third principle concerns

freedom of parliamentary speech, which is jeopardised by all the

various devices for limiting the time for considering any matter:

the opposition must have, at the very least, "several chances of

prolonging a debate".

Redlich attempted to itemise the parliamentary

principles which, while honouring the democratic value of

majority rule, guarded the fuller public interest by protecting

the legitimate rights of the minority to express its view before

the public - and before the full logic of majority rule had its

way. Unanimity of opinion or will "can only seldom be obtained";

yet the procedures governing the formation of the parliamentary

will can be organised so that elected bodies deserve the title of

deliberative assemblies.

Redlich criticised Bentham for ignoring the possibility

of irreconcileable political parties; he also criticised May for

covertly supporting the so-called parliamentary reforms of the

mid-nineteenth century, under which "by slow degrees the rules of

procedure were made more subservient to the needs of Government".

Indeed, the Standing Orders had become "a means of asserting

power". 14 Redlich's solution was less instrumental than

Bentham's and placed final responsibility for the quality of

parliamentary affairs in the cultivation of appropriate

conventions, to which we will briefly return in the Conclusion of

this paper.

13. Redlich, The Procedure of the House of Commons, p.187. 14. Redlich, The Procedure of the House ofCommons, pp.194-5.

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A more modern, formidable, and politically explicit

account of parliamentary procedure is presented in Stewart's

recent book on the Canadian variant of the Westminster system,

which provides something of a contemporary model for our present

purpose. 15 Stewart takes pains to begin his book by explaining

the basic principles of procedure in relation to the political

functions of the Canadian House of Commons. The political

context gives procedure its distinctive character and weight as

an influence on parliamentary behaviour. In a way that is

relevant for studies of Australia's House of Representatives,

Stewart first dismantles a myth about political purpose and

procedure: the Canadian House is not "the legislature". The

political facts are otherwise: the House is not a legislature

because the executive in fact dominates its procedures and

determines its program. The passage of legislation is not the

House's primary function. Under the Westminster system of

responsible government, the House's primary (although not the

sole) function is not so much to govern or legislate but to

support a government - "to do that government's business as

expeditiously as possible".

In Stewart's account, this does not mean that the House

should supinely submit to executive fiat. In outlining the

House's political functions, Stewart lists as basic that which

holds that "the House can prevent the clandestine exercise of

power by the government". Thus the ministry is required to

provide information on its policy and administration, which it

can decline only at risk of arousing grave suspicion. According

to Stewart, responsible government works best when the party in

government is opposed by an organised minority party whose object

is not to improve the government's administration but to replace

it as the governing party. The "hallmark of Contemporary

Responsible Government" is provided by those political procedures

which promote the "public testing of governance", with the

Government and Opposition as "institutionalised adversaries".

15. Stewart, The Canadian House of Commons: Procedure and Reform, esp. Ch. one. Stewart is a professor of political science who was a parliamentarian from 1962 until 1968.

15 -

Although Stewart is a supporter of parliamentary committee

system, part of his purpose is to restate Westminster procedures

as desirable alternatives to the Congressional committee system,

with its much looser party alignment. Question Time can thus be

promoted as a procedural reinforcement of the institutionalised

adversary system which he and many others see as the heart of

Responsible Government.

Thus "the procedures should promote the thorough

examination in public of the government's administrative and

legislative activities". This, for Stewart, means the acceptance of strong party government, with a recognised Opposition keeping

the majority true to its promised word and in general accord with

the expressed public will. Parliamentary procedures should

protect the "vital tension" which arises from the attempt to

balance the House's primary function - supporting the government

and the executive's legislative program - with its important

other functions - involving the public scrutiny of the executive,

most fruitfully by the minority party in Opposition.

There are, of course, other approaches to the study of

parliaments, and none is more rigorous than the social science

analysis of "legislative behaviour", as parliamentary politics

has come to be called. While each approach opens up new areas

for research, each new perspective also brings with it the

dangers of ignoring the more traditional views. The nagging

defect of many studies of "legislative behaviour" is the degree

to which they abstract themselves from the parliamentarians' own

view of political realities. One can become so abstracted from

the participants' own perception that instead of clarifying or

refining the participants' view, one ignores them or treats them

as raw data to be processed through the latest social scient

treatment plant.

Max Weber's name is often invoked by those dedicated to

the socially scientific treatment of politics. However, Weber

himself was remarkably clear on the limits of the social

=[=

sciences. In his most extensive essay on parliament, 16 he foreswore "the protective authority of any science". In seeking

a superior alternative to the traditional "solid legal studies of

the rules of procedure", Weber turned to explicitly "political

analyses of the actual operations" of Parliaments.

The present essay attempts to proceed along the same

path identified by Weber, between the narrow world of

parliamentary procedure and the vast and somewhat distant fields

of sodial science. Further of Weber's comments will be

considered in section 6, in relation to proposed parliamentary

reforms of Question Time. No less than the modern parliamentary

reformer, Weber sought ways of making parliaments more positive

and constructive political institutions. His beginning point is

a question which has been repeated so often this century that few

can contemplate an encouraging answer: given the preponderance

of executive and bureaucratic power, must parliament remain "a

mere•dragchain, an assembly of impotent fault-finders and

know-it-alls?" It is difficult to think of a description more

appropriate to Opposition and Government postures during Question

Time.

SECTION ONE: BRITISH BACKGROUND AND AUSTRALIAN HISTORY

Commonwealth Origins

The relevant history of Question Time in the Australian

House of Representatives can be traced through the influences on

those Standing Orders by which successive Parliaments have

regulated Questions Without Notice. The United Kingdom

background is very important ,, not because the Australian

Parliament is a replica of that at Westminster (which it most

certainly is not), but because. the inaugural Parliament which met

in 1901 under the direction of the new Commonwealth Constitution

operated under the influence of British parliamentary procedures.

16. Max Weber, "Parliament and Government in A Reconstructed Germany", in G. Roth and C. Wittich eds., Economy and Society (New York, 1968), Appendix 11, esp. pp.1381, 1408, 1416.

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The House of Representatives was originally led by those who

thought that they were fabricating in Australia the Westminster

apparatus of Responsible Government. The practical operation of

the House was to show that in many respects the Australian

Parliament was in marked contrast to the Westminster original.

The early emergence of the party-political character of the

Australian Speaker is perhaps the most transparent sign of

deviation - in the direction of strong executive predominance of

the business of the legislature, and nowhere more strongly than

in its lower, more popular chamber.

Yet on the surface, the Australian House seemed earnest

in its dedication to the spirit as well as the form of

responsible government - the open and public accountability of

the ministry to the Parliament. It was of course understood that

in a system of cabinet government, it was the cabinet and not the

legislature as a whole which ruled. The cabinet was dependent

upon the support of the Parliament, and in particular that of the

lower chamber, for its survival and long-term prosperity. Even

in an era of strengthening party loyalties, that support was

conditional - on the executive's readiness to comply with the

House's scrutiny process. It may be true that the emergence of

the rigid party system permitted the governing party or coalition

parties coldly to-put up with, rather than warmly to comply with,

this scrutiny process. However, it should also be remembered

that all parties (especially when within striking distance of the

Treasury benches) understood the first, if not the only, function

of Parliament to be the support of a government and the ready

passage of its legislation.

The scrutiny of the executive by the legislature has a

mighty rhetorical ring to it, yet few modern observers would

think the House's Question Time to be a sufficient guarantee of

this great claim. While it would be an overstatement to say that

the founding fathers saw a question time procedure as the primary

guarantee of ministerial responsibility, such a statement is not

all that far from the historical truth. The Australian House imported the procedure for questions which had emerged at

Westminster in the late nineteenth century; as the new century

- 18 -

emerged, the Westminster Parliament developed many supplementary

procedures to help give substance to responsible government.

Although the Senate was eventually to develop a viable system of

parliamentary committees, the House until very recently remained

firm in its dedication (or pretense) to the overwhelming

efficiacy of Question Time.

Subsequent sections of this paper will examine the many

cracks which have emerged in this overwrought facade of

responsible government. The question here is: why did the

House's Question Time develop in the way that it did? Much of

the answer has to do with the initial Australian

parliamentarians' selective focus on the Westminster practice of

questions and the twists which that procedure was given in

Australia. It is regrettable that while the House's system of

all oral questions being without notice is often claimed to be a

significant variation of the Westminster procedure, there is no

historical record of how this variation came about. The

following notes gather together the core of what is presently

known. However, much more intensive historical work is required

to put flesh on the bones of this, as with so many other, aspects

of Australian parliamentary studies.

Within a month of its opening, the 1901 House of

Representatives adopted provisional Standing Orders "which owed a

great deal to British example" as mediated by the particular

example of the South Australian House of Assembly, from which the

House derived its initial, temporary Standing Orders. 17 The

South Australian Standing Orders had been adopted for use by the

series of Federal Constitutional Conventions of 1897-98, which

had first met in Adelaide. Furthermore, the first Speaker

elected by the new Commonwealth House was a South Australian,

Fredrick Holder.' $ The Standing Orders devised for the

17. G. Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law: 1901-1929 (Melbourne, 1956), p.9. 18. Combe, A Century of Responsible Government in South Australia .(Adelaide, 1957),,p.136. See also J.A. LaNauze, The Making

of the Australian Constitution (Melbourne, 1972), p.110.

- 19 -

regulation of the questioning and answering of Ministers are

remarkably akin to those then in use at Westminster. "Questions

may be put to Ministers of the Crown relating to public affairs",

although "no entry shall be made in the journals of the House

respecting any question asked without notice, nor of any reply

thereto" (from original Standing Orders 118 and 119). The manner • of and occasions for posing the questions differed, as it still does, in the Australian Colonies from Westminster. Despite this,

the Australian Colonies and emerging Commonwealth shared the

Westminster understanding of the type of question and questioning

considered politically legitimate. Before traversing the procedural ground, it will be useful to highlight this common

political orientation to the parliamentary questioning of the

Ministry.

Westminster Background

The precise origins of parliamentary questions are lost

in the incomplete records of British parliamentary history.

Regular questioning did not really emerge until after the first

of Reform Acts in the 1830s and the introduction of a more

popular and accountable Ministry. Parliamentary questions

certainly existed in the eighteenth century, and their origins

• reveal their importance as the great exception to the cardinal

principle of parliamentary debate: indeed, the first nine

editions of Erskine May's classic Parliamentary Practice (1st

edition, 1844) treat questions as privileged exceptions to the

rule that parliamentary speech must always be directed to a

motion before the chamber. Questions to ministers were

originally granted as indulgences of the House, and were policed

to ensure that, as exceptions, they carried no debate. Only by

the time of May's 10th edition o f 1893 - which was the one still

current at the time of Australian Constitutional Conventions and

the first years of the Commonwealth Parliament - had

• parliamentary questions gained the status of rights to be

protected, as distinct from privileges to be indulged.

The earliest questions were concerned with the

parliamentary program or the government's-intended business. Not

till the mid-nineteenth century did the House of Commons set

aside a fixed time of the parliamentary day for questions - after

private business was completed and the government Orders of the

Day were about to begin either for discussion or in substance

i.e., at that point in the program when Ministers might be

expected to be present. Questions thus "preceded Public Business

and had had precedence over it" - a situation with the potential

for a'full 'clash between on ever-lengthening question time and an

even more urgent program of government business.

What was the emerging character of questions? May's

first edition of 1844 states simply that "questions should be

limited, as far as possible, to matters immediately connected

with the business of Parliament, and should be put in a manner

which does not involve argument or inference". A question, that

is, could not be matter for a substantive motion but could only

seek information, and even then only on matters within the sphere

of a minister's acknowledged responsibility.

The great catalyst to the formulation of orders

regulating the content and scope of questions was the activity of

Irish members in the 1880s. The more nationalistic of these

members began the first real organised campaign of questions.

Paradoxically, these first orchestrated question times concerned

"what were to most Members were local and trivial happenings"

e.g. village postal services on a particular day. These annoying

questions were "asked mainly to harass the Chief Secretary for

Ireland and partly to call attention to the need for a separate

Irish Parliament to deal with such matters" 19 • The general

situation was well recognised by Erskine May who, as a Commons

Clerk, although not sympathetic to the cause of the Irish members

promoted question time as a kind of parliamentary safety value

dissipating an Opposition's most clamorous energies. He may have

reflected the opinion of all those who believed in strong party

government with his recommendation of the "great advantages

arising from putting questions; [that] they often avert debate,

19. D.N. Chester and N. Bowring, Questions in Parliament, (Oxford 1962), pp.41-8. See also Ivor Jennings, Parliament (2nd ed, Cambridge 1969), pp.99-100.

- 21 -

while they serve the purpose of debate; the object of the Member

in putting the question is expressed in the question

itself...". 20 The occasional discomforts of some Ministers was a price worth paying to ensure the speedy and uninterrupted passage

• of the House's serious business - legislation, preferably in the

unamended form and manner as devised by Cabinet.

The Westminster practice of having to give written

notice for all oral questions did not begin until the time of

Irish members' campaign in the 18 r 80s, and was designed to eliminate the traditional oral notice which these members had

perfected as a time consuming obstruction. Thus it is probable

that the Australian practice of oral questions without any notice,

is not so much a deviation from as unreconstructed Westminster.

Giving oral notice developed in Westminster much earlier in the

nineteenth century, as a means of assistance to the Minister in

order to obtain fuller information in the answer. The need for

oral notice disappeared in the 1880s with the rise of the anti-obstruction reforms, including the Westminster requirement for

written notice. Perhaps the Australian practice reflects a

determination of this time to separate questions on notice from

` those not requiring any notice. The British parliamentarians had

already discovered the use of supplementaries as effective

questions without notice. The Australian practice may reflect an

honest acknowledgement that these oral or supplementary questions

are the "political" questions most in demand by Oppositions, and

that therefore the House's Question Time should be devoted solely

to them - whether as a safety valve or not, we cannot be sure.

The Westminster approach to questions at the time of the

framing of the Australian Constitution is reflected in the 10th

edition (1893) of Erskine May. 21 The new Australian Commonwealth

tended to apply the basic Westminster guidelines to all

questions, including those without notice. Even today, one

20. See R. Borthwick "Questions and Debates", The House of Commons in the Twentieth Century, ed. S.A. WalkLand(Oxford, 1979), p.476. 21. A Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of

Parliament, 10thedition (London), , pp. - .

- 22 -

notices how little has changed in Australian Standing Orders

since the Westminster practice of the 1890s - or perhaps more

pointedly, to notice how old are the regulations and conventions

governing the Australian question period.

According to the 1893 May, questions to Ministers should

relate to parliamentary proceedings on matters of administrations

for which the Minister is responsible. A question may seek the

Ministry's intentions, but not an expression of Ministerial

statement on policy matters. Ministers may refuse to answer

questions. The purpose of questions "is to obtain information,

and not to supply it to the house". Questions may contain

statements of relevant facts only if they can be authenticated;

arguments, inferences, imputations, epithets and ironical

expressions are not permitted. Answers should be confined to the

points asked - "though a certain latitude is permitted to

Ministers of the Crown". Further questions (i.e.

supplementaries) are permitted, although attention must be given

to the "inconvenience that arises from an excessive demand for

further replies".

The distinctive British practice of dividing questions

between those starred which sought an oral answer and those

unstarred which sought a written answer did not develop until the

early twentieth century - until after the beginnings of the

Australian House. The British practice of written notice for

both types of questions was not made permanent until embodied in

Standing Orders changes of 1902 and 1906. The spirit of these

changes is nicely captured by the words of their promoter,

Commons Leader Arthur Balfour:

Questions are becoming - indeed have become - something of a scandal. They take up the best hour in the day; they refer, for the most part, to very trifling subjects; they given rise to constant friction between the Chair and the Irish Members - very destructive to

the dignity of Parliament; and, in the hope of supplementary questions asked without notice, they are constantly made the vehicle for calumnious attacks on individual s.22

22. Quoted in D.N. Chester and N. Bowring, Question in Pail iaiueric , N.^o.

- 23 -

This is a classic expression of the typical executive or

ministerial view of questions. It is worth pointing out that as

early as the first decade of this century, British House Leaders

such as Balfour recognised that a regular oral question period

enables "the Government, by way of question and answer, to make

statements on subjects with regard to which anxiety is felt out

of doors". 23 To use the 1908 language of May's great successor,

the "chief object" of oral questions is to provide an occasion

for public explanations of political events:

... it is permissable to frame questions so as to draw from the Government statements of their intentions or plans as to particular matters of public concern. Further, they are often arranged by the Government

itself; so as to give them an opportunity of making announcements in a somewhat informal way.24

Commonwealth Developments

There are a number of other political factors which

helped shape the path of the Question Time in the Australian

House. One can presume that Australian parliamentarians fully

appreciated the manner in which Governments and Oppositions have

different, often contending, perspectives on what can be gained

from oral questions. What they could not change was the

existence of bicameralism in the Australian Parliament. House

members had to accept the fact some Ministers would be drawn from

the Senate, where they would face their own Question Time, beyond

the immediate reach of the Leader of the Opposition. Governments

were probably not slow to learn that one effective way to defuse

an energetic Opposition spokesperson is to locate the "shadowed"

Minister in the other chamber. The existence of bicameralism,

the need for all governments to draw upon Senators for the

Ministry (either to build up regional representation or simply to

.placate a potentially very troublesome upper chamber), and the

opportunities open to Governments to switch sensitive Ministries

23. ibid., p.57.

. 24..Redlich, The Procedure of the House of Commons , volume 2,

pp.241-2.

- 24 -

away from damaging criticism - all of these political factors

helped to condition the House's Question Time.

Members of the House have also had other procedures to 0

use either to augment or bypass Question Time. Admittedly these

parliamentary devices may be meagre in comparison with, say,

regular Opposition or Supply Days or committee inquiries in other

Westminster systems. Other avenues have however existed:

ranging from the rarely effectual (presenting petitions and

giving notice of motions which in the nature of things will never

be debated), to the occasionly useful (speeches during the

adjournment debate). In between have been a number of devices

capable of bringing pressure to bear on a Government to give an

account of its actions. One thinks of the seasonal opportunities

in Address in Reply debates, and in the Budget and Supply

debates.

There have also been more regular opportunities: the

fortnighly alternation of grievance debates (when not displaced

by Government business) and general business debates; the

responses to Ministerial statements (when given sufficient

advance notice by Governments); and perhaps most importantly,

the daily item that follows Question Time - the discussion of a

matter of public importance (MPI). The MPI device is quite

useful. It is a "discussion" and not a debate because no vote is

taken on the matter raised. It is one of the Speaker's few areas

of discretionary power, for it is the Chair's responsibility to

choose from among those proposed the matter which "is the most

urgent and important" (S.O. 107). By strong convention, the

Speaker almost invariably chooses the Opposition's proposal.

Oppositions also have at their disposal censure or want of

confidence motions, which "take precedence of all other

business", including Question Time (S.O. 110).

One final conditioning factor has been the party-political character of the Australian Speakership. The

Australian Speakership changes hands with changes in Governments

- 25 -

"the Chair being part of the spoils which fall to the victors".25

Many Australian Speakers have happily controverted the supposed

Westminster convention of Speakers' withdrawing from party-political activities. The classic illustration of-the Australian

approach is the Littleton Groom saga of 1929, where the Speaker

refused to vote with the Government in a tight committee stage

division, and consequently lost his party's pre-selection before

the next election. More recently in 1974, Speaker Cope tended

his resignation under pressure from his party to suffer for an

unannounced flight of independence. 26

Each of these factors - bicameralism, the range of other

parliamentary devices, the party-political character of the

Speakership - has conditioned the House's Question Time. The

members have grown to expect and accept the limitations imposed

by these conditions. The general political context is important,

for Question Time is affected by the political use to which these

other procedures and devices are put.

Until a full history of the Australian Parliament is

written, we are unable to state with any certainty the

development of that political context. One can, however, give a

general impression, and perhaps deduce that the House's Question

Time has become more acrimonious as party discipline has

tightened over the years. Forty years ago ex-Prime Minister

Billy Hughes looked back over the first forty years of the

Parliament. He claimed that in "the early years... the

legislature was then a deliberative body"; subsequently, it

became "a mere machine for registering Government decisions",

25. L.F. Crisp, Australian National Government, (4th ed., London, 1978), p.280 and see generally pp. - ; and G. Reid, "Australia's Commonwealth Parliament and the 'Westminster Model'", Journal of Commonwealth Political Studies, 2 (May

1964), pp. -10 . Note the judgement of G. Bolton, "The Choice of the Speaker in Australian Parliaments", Parliamentary Affairs vol. 15, 1962, p.358: "The older non-Labour groups must bear the responsibility for making the Speakership a party crime". 26. Fred Daly, From Curtin to Kerr (Melbourne 1977), pp.207-9; G.

Freudenberg, A Certa in Grand uer (Melbourne 1977), pp.309-313.

- 26 -

with private members controlling less and less of its business -those on the Government side becoming "voting machines", those in

Opposition becoming protest machines.27

A cursory examination of old Hansards reveals that

Question Time as it is currently known was fairly much in place

soon after World War One. It does not appear that before the

1920s the House regularly experienced a great number of punishing

questions. The pre-1920 House certainly had a regular

questioning of Ministers, but it was then quite short, often

conversational in its use of supplementaries, and usually

productive. Members received the information they sought, which

very often concerned the Government's intended program of

business. The questioners displayed more annoyance at the

Governments' unrevealed plans than anger at Government policies.

Occasionally hints of exasperation emerged, as members and

Ministers parried over contentious policy issues. For example,

in 1910 Sir John Forrest (former Premier of Western Australia)

asked the Labor Prime Minister (Fisher): "When will the public

accounts for the quarter ending 30th June be laid on this table?"

Fisher's answer: "As soon as they have been balanced...".28

On a cursory count, Question Time in 1910 had about

seven to nine questions, mostly to the Prime Minister, but often

to the Ministers for Home Affairs and Post Master General's

Department. By the mid-late 1920s, the number of questions had

doubled, with de facto supplementaries in clear evidence. By the

mid-1930s, the number of questions had risen often to thirty a

day. The answers had become shorter and noticeably curter, and

the questioners' motives less purely informational. Prime

Ministers are prominent among the answers, but they are far from

predominant.

27. W.M. Hughes in National Building in Australia (Sydney, 1941), p.243-4. For one State history see Hawker, The

Parliament of New South Wales, (Ultimo 1971), esp. pp.91,287. 28. Debates, vol. LV, 10 July 1910, p.400.

- 27 -

0

The recent House of Representatives Practice frankly

acknowledges "some vagueness in the procedural history of

Question Time, its features having always been heavily influenced

by practice and convention". 29 From 1901 until 1950, the House

did not officially recognise questions without notice in its

Standing Orders: and not until 1962 did the Votes and

Proceedings of the House make any reference to questions without notice. However, the practice of Question Time since 1901 had

been a mixture of Ministers' oral answers to questions on notice

and, more hesitantly, Ministers oral answers to questions without

notice. Although the original Standing Order recognised and

protected only the former, rulings from the Chair extended the

same protection, and constraints, to questions and answers

without notice.

It seems that successive Speakers protected questions

without notice on the condition that they were important or

urgent - a difficult requirement to enforce consistently. A

major review of Standing Orders in 1950 sought to cement the

existing understanding with the written qualification that

questions without notice should be limited to "imporant matters

which call for immediate action". This regulation was no less

difficult to enforce consistently; the next major revision in

1963 eliminated the qualification because:

Occupants of the Chair have found it impracticable to limit such questions by these words. This difficulty is inherent in the nature of the Question Without Notice

session which has come to be recognised as a proceeding which private Members cal0raise matters of day-to-day significance.

The last major House debate on the Standing Orders

regulating Question Time was in-1963 in response to the 1962

Standing Orders Committee Report. 31 On behalf of the Labor Party

29. p.480. 30. Report , Standing Orders Committee, 28 August 1962, p33. Quoted in House of Representative's Practice, p.481. 31. House Hansard , I May 1963, pp. 93-930.

- 28 -

in Opposition, Mr E.G. Whitlam gave general support to the

Report, which settled the shape of the relevant Orders right up

until the present. However, the Report did recommend even

further curtailing the freedom of questioners, and this was quite

openly opposed by Mr Whitlam. The Report proposed further

clauses to S.0.144 which would have prevented questioners from

using "precise extracts from newspapers" et cetera, and

"discourteous references to a friendly country or its

representative". 32 The Government eventually deferred

consideration of these two proposed amendments.33

Some critical attention was directed to the Report's

failure to recommend a guaranteed length of time for questions

without notice. 34 It was suggested that no Opposition could do

its job of "always hammering the Government, asking questions,

seeking information", unless a full hour were set aside for oral

or without notice questions, especially those of a more urgent

nature which would lose their impact upon being deferred. The

member for Wannon (Mr Malcolm Fraser) resisted such suggestions,

claiming that members who genuinely wanted information - as

distinct from publicity - should place their questions on notice

for written answer. Similarly, members could seek interviews

with Ministers in their offices; Mr Fraser concluded that those

who failed to use these alternatives were probably "looking for

publicity" for themselves.35

Attention was also drawn to the liberties permitted

Ministers in the length of their answers - "Ministers .... read

prepared statements in answers to questions from Government

Members - this happens no matter what party is in government."36

Prepared statements ought to be made by leave at some other time,

when the Opposition can properly debate them. Yet despite these

32. Standing Orders Committee Report, 28 August 1962, p.32; House Hansard , 1 May 1963, pp.896,925. 33. House Hansard, 1 May 1963, p.927. 34. House Hansard, 1 May 1963, pp.918-9 (Mr Duthie, Labor). 35. House, Han sard , 1 May 1963, p.920. 36. House, Hansard, 1 May 1963, p.925 (Mr O'Connor), see also

p.926 (Mr Makin).

- 29 -

and other protests, the Standing Orders Report was adopted, and

the form of Question Time struck for the next twenty years. The

same criticisms continue to be expressed.

SECTION TWO: COMMENTARY ON STANDING ORDERS

The current Standing Orders regulating Question Time

have operated since the revisions of 1965, which were briefly

examined above in section one. Question Time is increasingly an

angry scene, with Oppositions appealing to the Speaker's chair on

matters in which they allege that Governments have breached the

relevant Standing Orders. Such appeals are often followed by

open Opposition complaints either that the Standing Orders are

too flexible to guarantee ministerial responsibility or that the

Speaker has been too lax in enforcing the Government's adherence

to the Standing Orders. The frustrations of being in opposition

are such that often both complaints are voiced in the one

protest, even though the two complaints point in quite different,

perhaps contradictory, directions. The primary focus here is on

the Standing Orders themselves, and on the type of parliamentary

behaviour which they encourage. As far as possible, this section 0 will abstract from the functional analysis of how the different

parliamentary groups - Ministers, government backbenchers,

Opposition spokespersons and backbenchers - use Question Time, in

order to focus more clearly on the preliminary structural

analysis of the ground rules of this parliamentary procedure.

Standing Orders are rules designed to regulate

parliamentary behaviour. In common with most rules, the Standing

Orders regulating Question Time have a fair degree of

flexibility, and can be applied by the Speaker either strictly or

laxly. In common with most umpires, the Speaker's concrete

application has all the potential advantages of flexibility. Yet

while a Speaker's adjudicative power gains little praise when

prudently used to keep an important or urgent matter under public

questioning, great attention is given to those instances in which

a Speaker allegedly "lets a Minister off the hook".

- 30 -

Speakers have repeatedly claimed that they are servants

of the House, and that their position is less that of a judge.

than that of an umpire. To quote Speaker Snedden: "The Speaker

in maintaining the Standing Orders is equally limited by them".

Most judges, however, would argue in a similar way about their

relationship with the law - and while this relationship may

contain and minimise a judge's discretionary power, it does not

dispense with that power. So too do Speakers possess a

discretionary power. The real question concerns the character of

the laws which they maintain. It is true that the Speaker is the

servant of the House and, so far as Standing Orders permit, must

obey the properly expressed will of the chamber. Things would be

much simpler and easier if the House were not so clearly divided

between Government and Opposition. In Australia in particular,

executives have dominated the development of parliament's

Standing Orders; hence Speaker Snedden's related warning and

clarification about the limits of his office's discretionary

power: "The Standing orders are specifically designed to enable the governing party to maintain the initiative and facilitate its

control over the business of the House and debate".37

Given the executive's dominance of the Australian

Parliament, its Standing Orders and its Speakership, one would

expect that a strict application of the laws governing Question

Time would assist a Government and hinder an Opposition. The

relevant Standing orders are contained in chapter 11 of the

Standing Orders, entitled Questions Seeking Information . 38 It

will be useful to indicate the bearing of those Orders pertaining

to questions without notice (numbers 142 to 147, and 151 to 153),

by briefly giving instances of the conditions to which they

refer.

37. Sir Billy Snedden, "Ministers in Parliament - A Speaker's Eye View" in P. Weller and 0. Jaensch eds. Responsible Government in Australia (Richmond 1980), p.69. See also Snedden, ar famen s Changing Trends", Law Under Stress (Perth

1979), p.7. 38. Standing Orders, House of Representatives, as last revised 22 February, 1978 (Canberra, 1980). Chapter 11 is attached as an appendix to this report.

- 31 -

The overall design deserves some comment. The "general

rules" regulating questions (e.g. "questions should not

contain..." such and such, and "should not ask Ministers..." for

such and such) are far more detailed and explicit than those

regulating answers ("An answer shall be relevant to the

question"). Furthermore, there is no compulsion on a particular

or indeed any Minister to answer; another may do so in his or

her place, or alternatively no Minister need respond. Once tha

awful choice (to answer or not to answer) has been made, the

Minister's answer must remain relevant to the question, which

itself must be duly circumscribed to meet the Standing Orders'

requirements.

The following illustrations are representative of the

type of parliamentary conditions which the Standing Orders

encourage. The examples have no authoritative or official

status, and have not been culled from any precedents file. They

have been chosen from a range of similar instances observed

during the closing stages of the Thirty First Parliament in 1980,

and the opening stages of the Thirty Second Parliament in 1981.

• Re 5.0. 142 : Questions may be put to a Minister relating to

public affairs with which he is officially

connected, to proceedings pending in the House, or

to any matter of administration for which he is

responsible.

This order has been held to mean, for example, that

requests for details of the income tax return of a Minister

(including a Prime Minister) are out of order, since the request

relates to a personal matter for which the Minister is not

officially responsible to the House. 39 In contrast, questions on

the government's tax policy and its administrative details would

be in order. Disagreements between Ministers and members of

• their own party - which, when publicised, can of course be

embarrassing to a Government - have also been held to be out of

39. See House Hansard, 11 September 1980, pp.1160-1. On the general difficulties see G.S. Reid, "Parliamentary Politics", Politics , 2 (May 1967) 1, p.84.

- 32 -

order. As the Speaker ruled: "I am very anxious that there not

be in the Parliament the necessity for any member to answer for

what happens in private consultation within his party".40

Consider another-occasion, in which the Leader of the

Opposition asked the Prime Minister about (1) a Minister's

possible involvement in facilitating a party chairman's intended

overseas visit, and (2) the party chairman's conduct. Here the Speaker's ruling was that the Prime Minister was responsible for

(1) but not (2). 41 While the Prime Minister is responsible for Ministers' conduct, he is not responsible for that of private

members, presumably because the latter carry no commission to act

as agents of the government. It is possible that, as the Speaker

intimated, the Minister for Administrative Services may be

responsible "in some way relating to remuneration or allowances

or expenses paid" to members on official parliamentary (as

distinct from party) business.

During the period immediately before the 1981 New South

Wales State election, a government backbencher asked the Minister

for Health to comment on the State Government's political

advertisements which, inter alia, criticised current Commonwealth

Government health funding arrangements. The question was ruled

out of order because the member "was seeking information which is

not relevant to the Minister's portfolio" i.e. the Minister was

"not responsible for advertisements placed by a political

party" 42

Re S.O. 143 : Questions may be put to a Member, not being a

Minister or an Assistant Minister, relating to any

bill, motion, or other public matter connected with

the business of the House, of which the Member has

charge

40. House Hansard , 4 March 1981, pp.414-5, concerning the Minister for Transport's response to the Holcroft Report. 41. House Hansard, 26 May 1981, pp.2519-21. See also the subseque nt Matter of Public Importance debated at pp.2522-33. 42. House Hansard , 10 September 1981, pp.1154-5.

- 33 -

The only recent example of this extremely rare practice

occurred when the Leader of the Opposition put a question to an

Opposition backbencher concerning a draft private member's

bill. 43 The backbencher had already given notice of motion to

bring on the bill for debate during a forthcoming general

business period. The Speaker advised that the member's answer

could only canvass what and when he or she intends to move, not

why, nor indeed enter into any debate on the merits of the

proposed legislation.

Re S.O. 144 : The following general rules shall apply to

questions... [1] Questions should not contain

statements of facts or names... unless they... can

be authenticated....

This limitation on questioning is apparently designed to

minimise members use of unsubstantiated press reports of

possible Ministerial misconduct or incompetence. One can readily

imagine a private member orchestrating a political assassination

of a Minister, perhaps by "planting" baseless allegations in a

compliant newspaper or media agency and then raising the

allegations during Question Time, under protection of

parliamentary privilege and with all the accompanying national

media coverage. This is an extreme example; yet a strict

application of Standing Orders would invalidate any question

based on media reportage which the questioner could not

authenticate. In practice, almost all questions - particularly

Opposition questions - are based upon media reports. Typically

they begin with some such formulation as: "Is the Minister aware

of the report in todays... [press or radio program]?" A strict

application of the Standing Orders could bring Question Time to a

halt. The usual compromise involves members being prepared to

vouch for the accuracy of the media report, if in the Speaker's

opinion the media report is of both dubious accuracy and

potentially harmful consequence, This compromise seems to suit

all members: private members know that they can draw their

43. House Hansard 6 May 1982 p.2336. This was also the first question asked to a woman in the House for at least three decades.

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intelligence net fairly widely, and Ministers know that in cases either of inaccuracy or gross impudence, they can appeal to the

Speaker to have the allegation ruled out of order.

As an illustration of the complexities that can bedevil

a Question Time, consider that of 4 March 1981, referred to

above. The deputy Opposition whip opened proceedings with a

question to the Minister for Transport, based upon a press report

of disagreements between the Minister and a group of vocal

government backbenchers over the Holcroft Report's

recommendations. The question was ruled out of order on two

counts: first, it concerned non-parliamentary matters for which

the Minister was not responsible to the House; and second, the

questioner was not in a position "to vouch for the accuracy of

{ the statement". 44 The latter is the relevant, and difficult,

point. The questioner was, in effect, asking the Minister to

confirm or deny a reported intra-party breach over air transport

policy. Yet the Standing Orders demand that questioners

themselves be in a position to confirm or deny reported

statements; and the only private members who could vouch for the

accuracy of this, as with most reported incidents in which the

Opposition may be interested, are government backbenchers.

Although there are occasions when government backbenchers are

willing publicly to question and goad a Minister, 45 in the great

majority of cases government members prefer to conduct their

really serious questioning of Ministers within the closed-door

environment of the party room.

The March 4 incident did not rest there. The Leader of

the Opposition challenged the Speaker's "somewhat free

interpretation of the Standing Orders". He claimed that the questioner should not have to vouch for the accuracy of the

reported statement, since this is precisely what the question

seeks to find; hence it should be the Minister's responsibility

to authenticate or deny the statement. In this view, a question

is in order if someone in the chamber is in a position to

44. House Hansard , 4 March 1981, p.415. Cf Erskine May, 10th edition, pp.238-9. 45. See bQlow, section four pp.54-6.

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authenticate a report. Within minutes of this protest, another

dispute arose over press reports. A government backbencher asked

the Prime Minister if he had "noted the remarks attributed to the

Soviet Ambassador" calling for normalisation of Australian-Soviet

relations, and what response the Government would give. 46 Before

the Prime Minister could finish his first sentence, an Opposition

point of order was raised: "Can the right honourable gentleman vouch for the authenticity of the Press reports?" It should be noted that the point of order was whether the Minister - as

distinct from the questioner - could so vouch. The Speaker's

tersely, although correctly, noted that if members wished him "to

apply that rule I can assure them that very few questions will be

in order". The Speaker elaborated his ruling thus:

... I have permitted the asking of questions based on newspaper reports simply because almost every honourable member seems to base his question upon a newspaper report.... It is only when a questioner makes a

statement arising out of a newspaper report as to which there is clearly controversy that I call for the member to vouch for the accuracy of the report.47

And in relation to the question to the Prime Minister, the

Speaker contended that if he were to ask the questioner to vouch

for the accuracy of a report upon which he, like most, could not

speak authoritatively "it would stifle discussion in this

Parliament on matters of major national issue which ought

properly to be ventilated". The test, that is, was twofold: so

long as the reported matter concerned a "major national issue"

and the questioner did not augment the report so as to arouse

"controversy", the question was in order.

Re S.O. 144 : [2] Questions should not ask Ministers (a) for an

expression of opinion (b) to announce the

Government's policy, but may seek an

explanation regarding the policy.., and its

application.

46. House Hansard , 4 March 1981, p.416. 47. House Hansard , 4 March 1981, p.417.

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(a) At first glance, it is odd that a member is not

permitted to ask Ministers for their opinions on matters of

public importance. The rationale for this part of the Standing

Orders would seem to be that as Question Time is of limited

duration, it should not be wasted by allowing or inviting

Ministers to express opinions on public matters or indeed on

Opposition statements, criticisms or promises policy in their

policy area. It is possible to imagine Ministers soliciting

questions which would allow them free rein to do battle against

oppositions, both across the chamber and within their own party

ranks. To this extent, the deal arranged under Standing Orders

is not totally stacked in favour of the executive. 48 The rules

militate against the practice of Ministers weaving their chosen

political fabric with a string of "what I believe is..."

statements. In a strictly parliamentary sense, Ministers are not

responsible for what they believe in, or what opinions - however

fascinating or decimating - they hold. Ministers are responsible

for the administration of government policy, and the rules of

Question Time are designed to focus parliamentary, press and

public attention on matters of policy and its administration.

Practice does not always follow theory. While the idea

behind this Order is to cut off a range of answers at their

source (i.e. at the question itself), what can a Speaker do if a

properly framed question is answered with an expression of

opinion? As will be shown in greater detail below, 49 the

Standing Orders do not prohibit an answerer from expressing

opinions, so long as they are somehow "relevant" to the question

posed. Ministers are often tempted to parade their opinions

during Question Time: it is all part of the endless political

campaign for the confidence of the electorate, and the temptation

to express opinions on the weakness of Opposition policies is

well-nigh impossible to resist. It may well be foolish to expect

Ministers from any party to forego Question Time's opportunities

for party politicking. Like most parliamentary procedures, the

48. House Hansard , 4 March 1981, p.417. 49. Consider e.g. House Hansard , 10 September 1980, p.1077.

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good operation of Question Time is a matter of balance - between

what can reasonably be hoped for in the best circumstances and

what can reasonably be avoided in more normal circumstances.

From a Speaker's point of view, if the rules unwittingly permit

opining through the back door: "That is the Standing Orders. [A Speaker] can only interpret them as they exist".50

From 1950 until 1965, Standing Orders stated, in part,

that questions should not ask Ministers for an expression of

opinion, to state the Government's policy or for a legal opinion.

When Mr Holt introduced the revised Standing Orders in 1965, he

complained that the 1950 Orders:

[do] not make it clear that although a Minister may not be asked to announce the Government's policy, questions seeking an explanation to clarify policy and its

application, and questions to ascertain whether a Minister's statement in the House expresses policy, are in order.51

(b) The prohibition against asking a Minister to announce or state government policy follows from the above comments. This

rule is designed to prevent irresistible soapbox temptations from

passing with reach of Ministers. As the rationale for this rule

is identical to that just mentioned, so too the flaw in this rule

is identical: although questions may not invite Ministers to

mount the policy rostrum, a Minister may legitimately do so in

answering a question. For instance, an Opposition question to

the Treasurer on possible future interest rates was interrupted

by the Speaker with the lenient comment: "... the question,

strictly interpreted, does ask for an announcement of Government

policy. I call the Treasurer to deal with the question as he

chooses but he is under no obligation to announce Government

50. House Hansard , 4 December 1980, p.381. 51. House Hansard 31 March 1965, p.478. See also Mr Speaker's comments, House Hansard , 27 September 1960, p.1329.

- 38 -

policy". 52 The Minister's answer was not surprising: "... it

remains an objective of this Government..." - and so on to an

elaboration of policy.

Re S.O. 144: [1] Questions cannot be debated. Questions should not contain.., arguments, inferences,

imputations, epithets, ironical expressions;

or hypothetical matter.

[3] Questions cannot refer to debates in the

current session...

[4.^Questions cannot anticipate discussion upon an

order-of the day or other matter.

Question Time is intended to facilitate "questions

seeking information" to use the title of the relevant chapter of

Standing Orders. Question Time is not meant to be a debating

procedure under another name. The seeking of factual information

should be quite distinct from the use of information or opinion

in debating a Government's legislative program or general policy

direction. The long list of items which questions may not contain (S.O. 144[1]) is entirely consistent with the subsequent

prohibition on debate or anticipating debate (S.O. 144[3] and

[4]). It is useful then to treat them together.

How much one can get away with in a question depends

greatly upon who one is: the Leader and Deputy-Leader of the

Opposition are treated more indulgently by Speakers, perhaps in

tacit counterbalance to the explicit advantages granted to

Ministers by the Standing Orders. Even in cases of open breach

52. House Hansard , 27 November 1980, pp.124-5. That is, the stipulation for relevance in an answer does not apply to strictly illegitimate questions which are protected under the Speaker's discretionary indulgence. No such similar comments interrupted the subsequent question from the National Party Whip to the Minister for Primary Industry requesting details of Canadian and Australian policy on grain embargoes to the

Soviet Union.

- 39 -

I

of the rules of questioning, the two Opposition leaders will more

often than not simply be asked to withdraw their not-so-veiled

accusations. Whereas other members would find their questions

ruled out of order, the Opposition leaders can attempt to do the

damage, knowing that very often their words, even if withdrawn,

will be printed in Hansard - and heard over radio, certainly

directly if not during the evening rebroadcast. 53 The other infractions of Standing Orders appear in Hansard as a "Disallowed

Question" - with no indication as to its contents - and not aired

at all in the edited radio rebroadcasts.

The major import of the list of questioners' don'ts is

that in a question one cannot make inferences or imputations

about lapses of a Minister's conduct or character. Such matters

are more properly dealt with as ` substantive motions, such as

censure or no confidence (see S.O. 153). For instance, the

Opposition Leader recently asked the Defence Minister why he had

not "more accurately" stated to Parliament the basis of a

government program, and why he sought "to mislead by colouring

the presentation of [the true facts] - -". 54 Of course, the

Speaker intervened: one can ask questions for information, but

one "cannot make an accusation as part of a question". To give

another example of an accusation censured but not eradicated: an

Opposition spokesperson stating, within a question; "will [the

Prime Minister], in the interests of honest electioneering - a

novel concept for him -". 55 Once again, an enforced withdrawal,

which left the slur in the immortal black ink of Hansard.

Re S.O. 151 : ... At the discretion of the Speaker supplementary

questions may be asked to elucidate an answer.

Effectively used supplementaries are often said to be

the key to the success of questions in the Westminster

Parliament; and in Canberra, the Senate prides itself on the

liberal use of supplementaries during its Question Time.

53. See House of Representatives Practice , 684-5. 54. House Hansard 12 March 1981, p.709. Compare the severer fate of Mr r Dawkins, 10 September 1980, p.1078. 55. House Hansard , 11 September 1980, p.1156 (Mr Keating).

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Although supplementaries are explicitly permitted in the House,

they are almost never resorted to. The members rarely claim this

privilege, primarily it would seem because of the widespread

support for the convention that the Speaker should call questions

in regular alternations between Government and Opposition. To ask a Speaker to exercise discretionary power to permit

supplementaries would impose a very heavy burden on that

officeholder. 'Given the intense inter-party rivalry, what was

granted as a privilege to one party would soon be claimed as a

right by the others.

There is also a widespread if somewhat intangible

sentiment in the House that the various party executives get more

than their fair share of the action and attention at other

parliamentary times. As will be seen below, 56 this sentiment has

effectively hampered Opposition, especially Labor executives in

their attempt to mount regular concerted and well-focused attacks

during Question Time. In the Australian Senate, the number of

backbenchers is greatly reduced, and the powers of the party

executives in that chamber are less dominating. These different

Senate conditions have permitted the growth of a convention in

which the Opposition frontbench may use supplementary questions.

A true supplementary question should follow immediately -;

upon the termination of the Minister's answer, and should be

posed by the original questioner. One difficulty with analysing

Question Time is that this situation does in fact happen,

although the questioners rarely announce that their second ,..,

interrogative is a supplementary. A further difficulty is that

while supplementary-type questions do occur although, as it were,

unannounced and therefore without the presumed protection of the

relevant Standing Order, members often claim they are asking

supplementary questions when exploring further avenues raised by

earlier - often some days earlier - questions. Before examining

the former or defacto supplementaries, it is useful to clarify

and set to one side these latter or pretended supplementaries.

56. See'below, section four part c.

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In the last weeks of the 31st Parliament when all

members had the forthcoming elections in mind, both Government

and Opposition organised and marshalled their Question Time

performances more carefully than was usual. On one such day, the

Opposition began with a series of questions (interrupted, as is

the convention, by Government questions) on the possible

reintroduction of national military service. The Opposition spokesperson on defence was followed first by the Deputy

Opposition Leader, and then by the Opposition Leader, all asking

similar questions. Whereas the two former questions were

addressed to the Minister for Defence, the Opposition Leader

addressed his to the Prime Minister, claiming it was

"supplementary to those questions asked earlier". 57 Used in this

sense, supplementary indicates an organised attempt to pose a

series of closely related questions either on a single matter or

to a single minister, and indeed often both. Supplementaries

thus deployed take no recognition of the relevant Standing Order

and are indicative of a concerted political. attack, a mode of

parliamentary behaviour which will be more closely examined in

the following part. 58 Even on those occasions when Oppositions

have not orchestrated a plan of attack, it is not uncommon to

hear one of the Leaders announce that he has "a question

supplementary to the last question I asked", as though a line of

attack is being prepared on the run. 59 And such purported

supplementaries, of course, may relate to a question asked many

minutes earlier. Perhaps these questions are more accurately

described by members when they refer to them as ones that "follow

on" or "follow up" questions previously asked.60

What then of the other category, that of the defacto

supplementary? It is best to illustrate the situation in mind

through the example already referred to, concerning the

57. House Hansard 17 September 1980, p.1367. • 58. See below, section four pp.50-3.

59. For example, House Hansard, 10 March 1981, p.561; 26 March 1980, p.1207; 26 February 1981, p.235. 60. For examples, House Hansard, 11 September 1980, p.1163; 26 August 1980, p.687; eeccember 1980, p.299.

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Opposition's series of questions to different Ministers on United

States B52 flights in and out of Darwin. 61 In the course

of this series of questions, the Opposition Leader asked the

Minister for Foreign Affairs about the formal agreement between

the two nations, hoping to uncover the exact written terms of the

agreement, especially as they related to US "assurances" that

their aircraft would not carry nuclear weapons. The Minister's

answer was thrice interrupted, not by hectoring or disruptive

exchanges, but by questions seeking clarification on the answer

as partially given. All questions came from the Opposition

frontbench - which may be relevant to the Speaker's indulgence,

since the exchange between Minister and questioners was among

proximate members thus allowing it to take a conversational mode.

It was a useful exchange, bearing in mind the stated purpose as

"questions seeking information", and therefore an exchange which

any Speaker would be hesitant to interrupt. On other more

disruptive occasions, a Speaker's usual response is to remind the

questioner that since the House heard his or her question in

silence, he or she should then "extend the same courtesy to the

Minister" 62

Re S.O. 152 : A question without notice may be put to the Speaker relating to any matter of administration for which

he is responsible.

The Speaker is in the position of a Minister in regard

to his responsibility for the administration of the Department of

the House of Representatives, one of the five departments

administering services and facilities for parliamentarians. The

President of the Senate is likewise responsible for the

administration of the Department of the Senate. Both Presiding

Officers have joint responsibility for the administration of the

three remaining departments - Hansard, Parliamentary Library and

Joint House, the latter being concerned not only with the

catering facilities, buildings and grounds but also the servicing

of two major joint parliamentary committees, those of Public

61. House Hansard , 12 March 1981, pp.705-10. 62. See e.g., House Hansard , 4 March 1981, p.419.

- 43 -

Accounts and Public Works. fi3 Members appreciate the contribution

each of these departments make to the performance of their work,

so that a Speaker can expect to receive questions relating to the

supervision of any four of those departments - that of the Senate

being the exclusive responsibility of the President of the

Senate.

This Standing Order was recommended in the Report of the

1962 review, apparently in order to ground and protect the

existing conventions in more permanent form. 64 However, the number of questions to the Speaker has never been great. Indeed,

in 1980 when events in the Parliamentary Library provoked an

unprecedented interest in a parliamentary department by

parliamentarians, that interest found expression in questions on

notice to the Prime Minister and Leader of the House.

Speaker Snedden thought it inappropriate for members to

seek information from the executive on matters within the

responsibility of the Presiding Officers. Accordingly, in February 1980, the Speaker announced revised procedures for

questions on notice, one effect of which was to increase the

range of oral questions to the Speaker. 65 The revised procedures

are claimed by the Speaker to be consistent with his frequently

proclaimed desire to see Canberra adopt the Westminster

conventions regarding the independence of the Speaker. However,

it is probable that this particular change came about only with

the active concurrence of the executive - which could have very

little to gain by accepting continued responsibility for turmoil

within , the parliamentary departments. Under the current practice, questions on notice can be put to the Speaker if they

63. House of Representatives Practice , 485-6; Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, p.217. 64. Standing Orders Committee Report, p.33. 65. House Hansard 28 February 1980 p.499. See also House of

Representatives Practice , pp.485-6.

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constitute a "request for detailed information". 66 And

oral questions may be put to the Speaker if they concern

information on the relevant Parliamentary Departments and require

"less detailed" answers on a matter considered urgent. Such

questions are now put to the Speaker after the close of Question

Time, as though they are matters either especially relevant to

the Speaker - or particularly irrelevant to the Ministry, many of

whom leave the Chamber upon the conclusion of Questions.67

66. As an example of such a request and a reply consider the following excerpt, not exactly taken at random, from a question by Mr P. Milton (Lab.) on 1 April 1981:

(1) Who is the current Parliamentary Fellow in Political Science in the Parliamentary Library?

(2) Is this a full-time position?

(3) Is the Parliamentary Fellow readily available for consultation by Members of Parliament?

The Speaker's answer (12 May 1981) stated:

(1) Dr John Uhr

(2) Yes.

(3) No. The purpose of the Fellowship is two fold: (a) to give a practical experience to a political scientist through a period of attachment to the Legislative Research Service:

(b) to have the opportunity to study Parliament at work and to undertake a research project related to the interests of Parliament.

During the work on the research project, the Fellow would not normally be readily available for consultation by Members of Parliament. When attached to a Group of the Legislative Research Service, availability for consultation would depend on distribution of work-loads and the allocation of duties by the relevant Group Director.

(4) The Fellow occupies shared Office accommodation located at the rear of the ground floor of the central library block. 67. It is possible that the executive was not pleased with the, albeit slow, trend in which questions to the Speaker occupied

an increasing proportion of very valuable public relations time.

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The questions which are directed to the Speaker fall

into broadly two categories: informational resources for

Parliament; and matters of grave procedural import, e.g.

• potential privilege cases. The first category has an important

bearing on Question Time, even though the questions to the

Speaker actually occur after Questions in the order of

parliamentary business.

Consider the example of 17 April 1980. First, the Leader of the Opposition asked a question about some of the

groups within the Legislative Research Service, wondering if any

proposed re-organisation would - for whatever reasons -jeopardise the research and information necessary for the

"effective functioning of this parliamentary chamber". The

Speaker responded that his policy was to develop the whole

Prliamentary Library into "an intellectual resource unit" for

Parliament. The Speaker also acknowledged that by necessity,

Opposition parties used such services far more frequently than

did governments, so that he planned "to make the Library

responsive to the Opposition".

Further Opposition questions (then and since) tested the

limits of that policy. An Opposition backbencher sought computer

data information banks-within Parliament House in the event that

the Research Service were relocated outside the building.

Another Opposition frontbench question sought a commitment to

consultation between the Presiding Officers and Parliament on

matters affecting the availability of the Research Service.68

The second category of questions concerns important

matters of parliamentary procedure. That the operations of a

Privileges Committee can arouse questions should come as no

surprise, given that it is the Speaker's duty to decide on the

evidence for a prima facie case for hearing by the Privileges

Committee. 69 Perhaps. more surprising is an Opposition frontbench

68. See also House Hansard 1 April 1980, pp.1506-7. 69. See e.g. Mr Steele Hall to Speaker, House Hansard 24 September 1981, p.1731.

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question calling for reform of Question Time itself. 70 Speaker

Snedden's answer that "a number of reforms of the Standing Orders

should be brought to account" will be examined in further detail below in section five.

Re S.O. 153 : ... Notice must be given of questions critical of the character or conduct of other persons.

As the full wording of this Order indicates, special

care must be taken when asking questions of "those persons whose

conduct may only be challenged on a substantive motion". This

category includes the Ministry, and supplements the injunction in

S.O. 144 against "inferences" and "imputations", dealt with

above. The appropriate place for a challenge of the conduct of a

Minister is in a censure motion, which is a substantive motion.

But what protection is afforded other public officials

who have been commissioned by a government to undertake a public

task? Judges, commissioners, permanent heads of public bodies

and government departments, senior government officials and the

like are for the purposes of Question Time "other persons".

Their actions can only be questioned through written questions on

notice, and they are therefore immune from treatment through

questions without notice. Once on the Notice Paper, the question

is transmitted to the Minister's department, where a written

answer is prepared for the Minister's review and approval,

eventually to be published in Hansard . A recent ruling holds

that even a question which reflects on a deceased person must be

put on the Notice Paper.71

Re 5.0. 145 : An answer shall be relevant to the question.

and 5.0. 146 : A question fully answered cannot be renewed.

Standing Order 145 (and its cognate) have been held over

for examination because they are certainly the most controversial

70. Mr Hurford to Speaker, House Hansard 12 September 1981, p.1467. 71. House Hansar d, 26 February 1981, p.235.

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of the Orders regulating Question Time. The character of

"relevance" is exceedingly contentious; and from a perusal of

typical answers one might reasonably wonder if any more than a

few questions are ever "fully answered" and therefore discharged

from the private members' available store of ammunition. Time

after time, Opposition members rise on points of order to contend

that a Minister's answer has not been relevant. In section four,

attention will be given to the range of answering styles

Ministers can adopt. Here the focus is on the black letter

requirements - on what constitutes a relevant and therefore

complete answer. The allegedly irrelevant answers can range from

either the short, curt one word answer, through the provocatively

challenging, to the long, rambling and often intentionally

boring. Each form serves a political purpose, which will be

examined in section four. Here the aim is to comment on what

might be called the minimum legal requirement, leaving the maxims

of political advantage for subsequent examination.

We have seen that the Commonwealth inherited the 1890s

Westminster doctrine which included that "a question fully

answered cannot be renewed". 72 Erskine May concedes the

difficulty of obtaining a full answer: supplementary questions

are permitted to help overcome this difficulty. The 1962 Report

successfully proposed that a new Order be introduced: "An answer

shall be relevant to the question". 73 This would seem to be an

attempt to establish the view of Erskine May that "an answer

should be confined to the points contained in the question, with

such explanation only as renders the answer intelligible, though

a certain latitude is permitted to ministers of the Crown".74

The Commonwealth's approach is peculiar: the original

Standing Orders did not prohibit oral questions without notice;

and despite the absence of more positive encouragement, the

Commonwealth pursued a practice of oral questions without notice.

72. A Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, 10th edition London, 1893), p.240. 73. Report, Standing Orders Committee, 28 August 1962, p.32. 74. ibid, pp• - .

- 48 -

Yet notwithstanding the positive encouragement to supplementary

questions, in practice the Commonwealth circumscribed their use,

thereby denying access to one means of policing irrelevant

answers. Perhaps then it is not surprising that eventually a

Standing Order had to be framed explicitly commanding that

answers be relevant to the question.

One can begin with a small but positive example. A

Tasmanian government backbencher sought to ask the Minister for

Administrative Affairs (who happened also to be a Tasmanian) for

information on energy projects in the Tasmanian south-west.75

After initially being ruled out of order, the questioner

eventually succeeded in posing the question in such a way that

the matter was arguably within the responsibility of the

Minister's portfolio. The Minister's answer ventured across the

cleaved ground of the Opposition's policy, which - according to

some versions - was not fully in accord with that of its related

party in power in Tasmania. The Opposition spokesperson on

environmental matters raised the objection that any such comments

made by the Minister were irrelevant to the question, which asked

for the Government's possible acquisition of state land. The

Speaker upheld the objection-and asked "the Minister to deal with

the question in a relevant way".

As the Minister proceeded he once again made comments

about the Opposition's policy, in order to contrast it with that

of the Government. The Speaker entertained another similar

objection, which he this time dismissed, because it would seem

that second time around the Minister expressly linked the topic

of the question with Opposition policy: if he strayed off

course, he at least had the benefit of a leash. Upon being again

asked to rule on the relevancy of the answer, the Speaker

explained that the Presiding Officer "must apply tests". The

Minister's answer passed, since it met the prime condition of

being related to the responsibility of his department, as is

consistent with S.O. 142.

75. House Hansard, l0 September 1981, pp.1153, 1155-7.

- 49 -

W]

W

The abovementioned test has the advantage of freeing a

Speaker from much of the burden of adjudication on protests of

irrelevance. To this extent it supplies a consistent and therefore useful standard, although of course it permits a

technically responsible Minister to advance any number of

technically irrelevant asides. The great danger is that members,

particularly those in Opposition, incline to the view that

"Question Time and much of the parliamentary procedure becomes

low farce if questions are not answered by Ministers". 76 The Speaker, of course, is not to blame. His duty is to apply the

Standing Orders and "... when an answer is given, provided the

answer is relevant, no member of the House can demand that it is

in the form he wishes it to be given". The Standing Orders "do

not require any Minister to give an answer to the satisfaction of

the questioner".77

It appears that a relevant answer can cover terrain

which would be out of order if originally highlighted by a questioner. For example, it is out of order for a government backbencher to ask a Prime Minister: "Is it true that the

promises made by the Opposition would cause great hardship to the

Australian taxpayer?" 78 The Prime Minister is not responsible

for Opposition policy; yet in answering related questions on

taxation policy, a Prime Minister "is entitled to make comment on

that aspect if he chooses". The test is whether the comments are

linked to that part of the question which is in order, requesting

information on taxation, a policy matter for which the Prime

Minister is held responsible. The resultant situation has been

described by an Opposition leader in these words:

We can ask a question. We are tightly restricted.., as to the length of the question, the relevance of the matter and the content of the matter, but a Minister can

76. House Hansard, 30 April 1981, p.1809 (Leader of the Opposition). 77. House Hansard, 28 May 1981, p.2740 (Mr Speaker); 11 September 1980, p.1151 (Mr Speaker); 26 March 1981, p.954. 78. House Hansard , 20 August 1980, p.487.

- 50 -

range as widely as he wants and be as irrelevant as he wants and, quite frankly, be - 79

And here the Speaker interrupted to point out that of course

Standing Orders do not permit answers to be irrelevant, whatever

else they might permit.

As proof of the existence of a true standard and test of

relevance one should note that Speakers need not wait for a

protest before issuing warnings about lapses of relevance.

Indeed, Oppositions have often complained that Speakers are too

reluctant to use those "certain discretionary powers" at their

disposal to regulate "procedure and decorum". 80 Answering a

question about rises in the standard of living, a Treasurer

recently made observations on Opposition claims about recent

declines in living standards. The Speaker called upon the

Minister "to remain relevant , to the question". 81 The Minister

took the warning, and complied with the letter of the ruling by

drawing upon Opposition budget speeches instead of policy

statements. He was thus able to continue his counter-attack

against Opposition allegations in a manner consistent with the

reigning interpretation of relevance. In other circumstances, a

Speaker can simply state a judgment rather than issue a warning,

thereby preventing a Minister from developing what is typically a

highly partisan observation on the capabilities of the

Opposition. Such judgments take the form of "Order! The

Minister now is not being relevant to the question", 82 not always

said with the sterness evident in the printed report.

The whole issue of relevance is clouded by the way in

which every party in Opposition resorts to points of order to put

their own partisan view, or to soften the damage of a

79. House Hansard, 20 August 1980, p.491; see also Hon. Mr L. Bowen, ecember 1980, p.381. 80. e.g. House Hansard, 20 August 1980, pp.491-494; 10 September 1980, p.1073 . 81. House Hansard , 11 September 1980, pp.1158-9. 82. e.g. House Hansard , 4 December 1980, p.373.

C-,

- 51 -

Government's attack by interrupting the flow of media-directed

invective. This is to enter on tactics. The final word on the

regulations themselves should be left to a Speaker who, often

faced with a series of quite refined and highly barbed points of

order, has no choice but to remind Members that: "The answer

given by [the Minister] may be construed by the House as not

being an answer to the question asked but the answer was

relevant. The House will make its own judgment as to the value

of the answer".83

SECTION THREE: STATISTICAL ANALYSIS OF 31ST PARLIAMENT

What happens during Question Time? The examination in

section two answered part of this question by reference to the

formalities of standing orders. The subsequent section will

answer another part by reference to the informal party political

manoeuvres which give Question Time its vivid political colour.

A third partial answer can be presented through an examination of

the statistical dry bones which are faithfully recorded each

sitting day by the House of Representatives Table Office.

Statistics do not, of course, catch everything - many of

the subtle, finer-elements slip through the reference grid.

However, it is possible to examine the statistical record in

search of pointers to features which might deserve closer study.

This section will briefly give a statistical account of who did

what during Question Time in the 31st Parliament. The statistics

reveal a profile of those members most actively involved in

Question Time, although questions of real political weight and

influence can not be answered from the statistics themselves.

Once again, many more questions than answers have been raised.

The first feature to note is that Question Time is not

held on every sitting day. During the 31st Parliament, there

were twelve sitting days on which more pressing parliamentary

83. House Hansard , 12 May 1981, p.2225. Butler notes that "parliamentary custom, indeed, allows ministers almost complete freedom to duck questions that fall within their responsibility and to answer ones that are outside it", The Canberra Model , p.51.

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matters took precedence over Question Time - twelve days out of

201 sitting days. In section four some attention will be given

to the executive's reasons for not holding Question Time. The

Table Office's relevant book entry reveals the occasion if not

the rationale: typically, censure or want of confidence motions

moved by Oppositions against either the Prime Minister or another

Minister took precedence over oral questions - in eight out of

the twelve occasions. The other events included two long

condolence motions for deceased, eminent former House members,

(23.5.1978; 1.5.1979) and two major motions, one for the

immediate suspension of Standing Orders, (9.3.1978) and one of

dissent from a ruling by the chair (7.6.1979).

In the 189 days in which Question Time was held, a total

of 2,799 questions were asked - at an average of about 15

questions per Question Time. To move from the statistical

average to the typical, usually between 16 and 18 questions were

asked. On occasions this fell as low as 12 (rarely less), and only rarely did it climb higher than 20. It is noteworthy than

as the life of the Parliament neared its end with the approaching

general election, the number of questions fell - from the typical

16 to 18, down to 11, 10, 12, 12, and 13 in the last five sitting

days. Pre-election Question Times are the rowdiest, and are

punctuated by frequent interruptions and points of order. During

the 31st Parliament, the number of disallowed questions was about

70, with a question usually being disallowed once every two days.

How long does Question Time last? Rarely shorter than

45 minutes, and only on a handful of occasions longer than 50

minutes. The shortest was eight and a half minutes (14.11.1978), the longest 99.5 minutes (26.9.1979).

Who asks most questions and to whom? The Leader of the

Opposition (Hon. W.L. Hayden) was the individual member who asked

the greatest number of questions (323 or just over 11 per cent of

the total). The top ten questioners were as follows:

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Hon. W.L. Hayden (ALP) 323 questions

Hon. L.F. Bowen (ALP) 139

Hon. P.J. Keating (ALP) 43

B.O. Jones (ALP) 40

C.J. Hurford (ALP) 38

F.L. O'Keefe (NCP) 38

Hon. T. Uren (ALP) 38

J.J. Brown (ALP) 36

Hon. M. Hodgman (Lib) 34

P.S. Fisher (NCP) 33

A number of brief comments are in order. The numerical

dominance of the Opposition leader and his deputy is

extraordinarily strong: between them they account for just over 16 per cent of all questions without notice. They are thus able

to set the tone for much of Question Time, especially as many of

the topics covered by their own questions are duplicated (often

at the Opposition leader's or executive request) by other

Opposition questioners.

From this top 10 list one could think that Opposition

dominates Question Time, at least in the posing of questions (and

related time consuming points of order). Actually, the full

statistics reveal that while a few Opposition spokespersons

dominate the Opposition's allocation of questions, the total

number of questions is spread fairly evenly between the parties

of Government and Opposition. The Australian Speaker carefully

alternates the call between Opposition and Government parties.84

This practice has been severely criticised by some Opposition

leaders, because when the two forces are, as is often the case,

closely balanced, this practice grants the ordinary Government

backbencher more questions than the ordinary Opposition

backbencher. The difficulty is quite clear: once the Ministry is deducted from among the list of possible Government questioners,

the situation can easily arise in which the number of Government

backbenchers is quite fewer than the Opposition-questioners.

• Although the actual figures for the 31st. Parliament do not bear

84. Consider House of Representatives Practice , p.449.

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this out, one must remember that since 1975, the coalition's

majority has been unprecedentedly large - so that during the 30th

Parliament, for instance, the reverse complaint could have been

made, when 94 Goverment backbenchers shared questions euqally

with 44 Opposition members.

Returning to the figures for the 31st Parliament, one

notes that three Government party backbenchers are in the top

ten: one is from the majority Liberal Party (Mr. Hodgman) and

the other two are from the minority coalition partner, the

National Party (Mr. O'Keefe and the.party whip, Mr. Fisher).85

Lest it be thought that Mr. Hodgman's alacrity with questions

earned him his recent place in the Ministry, it should be

remembered that Mr. N.A. Brown posed a modest tally of 19

questions during the 31st Parliament, and now has a more senior

portfolio. Mr. I. Wilson has also made the Ministerial ranks

from a score of 19, with Mr. J. Moore being accepted with an even

lower score of 13. The geo-political realities of State

representation in Cabinet would have to be taken into account

well ahead an individual member's Question Time score - although

this is to do scant justice to the National Party's most recent

Minister, Queenslander Mr. T. McVeigh, who asked a healthy 28

questions.

On the Opposition-Labor side, it is interesting to note

the party's refusal to re-elect a number of prominent (in

question posing terms) shadow spokespersons at the beginning of

the 32nd Parliament: e.g. Mr. Cohen, Mr. Klugman (28 questions

each). The less prominent also fell (e.g. Dr. Cass, 18

questions). Among the newly elected shadow team were a number of

prominent questioners (e.g. Dawkins with 26, B.O. Jones with 40,

Blewett with 30, West with 28, Kerin with 29). It is also worth

85. Hard on the' heels of these leaders are the Labor Whip and Deputy Whip with 32 and 31 questions respectively, then a group of members with between 28 and 30 questions each: Messrs Armitage, Blewett, Young, Cohen, Howe, Willis,

Holding, Kerin,. Klugman, West (all Labor), and Goodluck, Jull, Yates, Burr (all Liberal), and Braithwaite, Corbett, McKenzie (all National Party): making 10 Opposition and 7 Government members.

55 -

noting the achievement of Labor's Barry Jones, the only

Opposition backbencher included in the top ten.

Another possibly useful feature to note is the

comparatively low number of questions posed by chairman of

parliamentary committees. It is quite possible that parliamentarians in such positions (in the Commonwealth

Parliament they are all Government members) have learnt that

better information comes from other sources, and that for them

more useful information can be gained directly from parliamentary

committee inquiries. Perhaps also chairmen have a status that

both gains easier access to Ministers (although, in professional

party advancement terms, not necessarily to the Ministry) and

also inclines them away from being seen as posers of compliant

questions, which many Government party questions are. Chairmen

of the following committees maintained a lower than average

Question Time profile: Public Works (Mr. Bungey with 14),

Conservation and the Environment (Mr. Hodges with 20),

Expenditure (Mr. K. Cairns with 24), Public Accounts (Mr.

Connolly with 17), Aboriginal Affairs (Mr. Ruddock with 20). It may be relevant that the higher profiled Mr. K.. Cairns was a

former Minister.

Two further features should be noted: to whom do

questioners, especially the Opposition frontbench, put their

questions? And, overall, which Ministers and departments receive

the most questioning•attention? They will be briefly dealt with

in turn.

The Opposition frontbench deserves more serious

examination than has been given it in Australia' 86 Question Time may be only a small part of their work, yet it is often their

most public demonstration of their ability to hound the

Ministerial quarry. Some do this better than others, and one would like to know how party preferment is affected by Question

• 86. Consider M. Punnett, Front Bench Opposition , (London 1973) esp. part three.

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Time performances. It is needless to repeat that these notes are

only a beginning.

First, to take examples of Opposition spokespersons who

have retained shadow portfolios from the 31st through into the

32nd Parliament. Consider two examples: Mr. Morris, the

spokesperson on Transport, and Mr. Willis, the shadow Treasurer.

Of Mr. Morris's 25 questions, 15 went to the Minister for

Transport, the balance going in ones and twos across the

Ministerial board. Of Mr. Willis' 29 questions, 21 went to the

Treasurer, 6 to the Prime Minister, and sundry others to lesser

lights. What if an Opposition's Ministerial target. is in the

Senate, a situation which faced Hon. Paul Keating, whose policy

area has remained energy and national development. Mr. Keating

certainly retained his party status in the 32nd Parliament: yet

of his 43 questions, nearly half (19) went to the Prime Minister,

with only 10 going to the House Minister who represented the

absent Senator Carrick, Minister for National Development.

Another 9 went to the Minister for Trade and Resources, leaving a

small number of questions to be spread about as emergencies or

ministerial embarrassments arose.

Second, what of those three Opposition shadow

spokesperson who were not re-elected by their party caucus to

shadow positions at the beginning of the 32nd Parliament? Had

they been less than dogged in their shadowing of their allocated

Ministry? Dr. Cass was the Opposition spokesperson on

immigration: of his 18 questions, 10 went to the Minister for

Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, the rest being spread in low

numbers across the Ministry. Mr. Cohen's area was Sport and

Recreation. Of his 28 questions, 5 went to the Prime Minister

and Employment Minister respectively, 3 to Science and

Environment and Transport respectively, with the balance of 12

questions being spread fairly evenly across other Ministries.

Mr. Klugman's area was health. Of his 28 questions, 18 went to

the Minister for Health, with 3 to the Prime Minister and the

balance, once again, spread fairly evenly in low numbers.

- 57 -

Third, what of the newly-elected Opposition

spokespersons? Within the Labor Party, the party caucus

(including Senators) elect the leader who then has responsibility

for the allocation of shadow portfolios. The question arises as

to whether interest and proven competence are rewarded with a

Ministerial target closely related to these established

interests. (Backbench members may, of course, anticipate the imminent decline of a certain party spokesperson, and

consequently tailor their parliamentary questions to that

person's relevant policy area).

Two examples will suffice. Dr. N. Blewett was allocated Dr. Klugman's health area in the new Parliament. In the old

Parliament, of Dr Blewett's 30 questions, eight went to the Prime

Minister, seven to the Minister for Health, four to the

Treasurer, with no more than two to any other Minister. One

could say that Dr. Blewett exercised a prudent choice of two main

Ministerial targets in selecting the Prime Minister plus a

leading policy area, while spreading the balance usefully across the board, not neglecting to focus repeated attention on the

Treasury. Mr. Dawkins assumed Opposition responsibility for the

education policy area in the new Parliament. Of his 26 questions, few if any were directed to the Minister for

Education, with indeed no more than three or four going to any

one Minister.

One final feature deserves note. Which departments

and/or Ministers receive the most (and least) attention and

questioning? The Table Office statistics sensibly record which

Minister answered, rather than to whom the question was

originally put. Yet is is a not uncommon practice for the Prime

Minister, for example, to refuse to answer a question on a

specific (not necessarily controversial) policy area and to

direct another Minister to answer the question. There are often

useful political reasons for so doing, and some of these will be

examined in section four. The following figures adopt the Table

Office practice of mentioning which Minister finally answered,

and they may therefore slightly distort one's impression of the

Opposition's focus of interests.

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With the bicameralism of the national Parliament, not

all departments have Ministers who are members of the House of

Representatives. This does not prevent House members from posing

questions to those Ministers via their representatives in the

lower chamber. However, the existence of Ministers in the Senate

does mean that the Senate's own Question Time concentrates on the

policy areas of the Ministers from that particular chamber, so

that the Opposition might, for instance, marshall its questioning

of legal affairs solely in the Senate, where the Attorney-General

currently sits. The following statistics would not indicate such

an interest and, to that extent, would be deceptive.

Much of this analysis would be easier if there was a

permanent allocation of portfolios to the Senate. Fortunately,

during the 31st Parliament, the portfolios for the following five

departments were always directly held by a Senator-as-Minister.

Dealing with these departments first on acount of their special

status, one notes the following number of questions (and

percentages of total House only questions) asked:

DEPARTMENT QUESTIONS %

National Development (and Energy) 99 3.5

Aboriginal Affairs 51 1.8

Finance 26 0.9

Attorney-Generals 20 0.7

Social Security 10 0.4

Total 206 7.4

The more relevent list concerns those departments

directly administered by a Minister from the House of

Representatives. Using the same format as above, the list is as

follows:

- 59 -

DEPARTMENT QUESTIONS %

Prime Ministers 675 24.1

Treasury 306 11.0

Trade and Resources 163 5.8

Primary Industry 153 5.5

Transport 153 5.5

Foreign Affairs 146 5.2

Defence 129 4.6

Health 138 4.9

Post and Telecommunications 122 4.4

Industry and Commerce 91 3.2

Business and Consumer Affairs 85 3.0

Employment and Youth Affairs 70 2.5

Industrial Relations 58 2.0

Immigration and Ethnic Affairs 45 1.6

Home Affairs 33 1.1

Administrative Services 27 1.0

Housing and Construction 24 0.9

Education 16 0.6

Science and Environment 15 0.5

Productivity 14 0.5

Capital Territory 12 0.4

Special Trade Representative 12 0.4

Total 2487 88.8

In addition to the questions asked of Ministers

representing Senate Ministers, questions were also asked of the

Speaker (24 - 0.7 per cent) and of the Leader of the House (5 -0.2 per cent). No questions were addressed to private members.

'SECTION FOUR: QUESTION TIME AND PARLIAMENTARY POLITICS

A. Legitimate Political Speech

This section continues the analysis of what actually

happens during Question Time. While the Standing Orders define

the legitimate arena of conflict, and while the statistics reveal

those most active in the conflict, only a empirical analysis of

Question Time can present the political reality of this most

public of parliamentary procedures. This section will examine a

set of characteristic parliamentary actions, attempting to

identify the political purpose served by each action. The

•1

consequences of these manoeuvres for the stated principles of

Question Time will be the focus of the discussion of

parliamentary reform in section five.

An attempt has already been made to put Question Time in

the context of the House of Representative's parliamentary day.

Extended reference has also been made to the Standing Orders

regulating the conduct of business of Question Times. There is a

further contextual element to consider: the legitimacy of

political speech in the House is subject to a number of

overarching principles which also apply to Question Time. These

principles are protected by a series of Standing Orders which,

although not included with those previously examined in section

two, effectively complement them. Whereas the Standing Orders

which regulate "Questions Seeking Information" address form , a

number of earlier Standing Orders address the basic issue of

content . These primary Standing Orders have been well examined

in the recent House'of Representatives Practice under the rubric

of "control and conduct of debate", 81 to which this brief

exposition is heavily indebted.

All Members, including Ministers, must address the Chair

when speaking. It has actually been held to be out of order for

a Member to turn his or her back to the Chair and proceed to

address his or her own party members. This regulation attempts

to minimise the danger of those elements of partisan incitement

which in fact most often flare up during Question Time. The

rationale for speaking through the Chair informs the related

practice of Members mentioning other Members by reference to

their electoral divisions - or Ministerial or parliamentary

office - rather than their personal names. Following Westminster

practice, the House thereby attempts to contain that baser side

of partisan politics which focuses on personality to the

detriment of debating the merits of policy.$8

87. House of Representatives Practice, (Canberra 1981) ch.13. 88. i 1 ., pp.450, 460.

- 61 -

Until 1965, Members were not permitted to read speeches.

One of the reasons behind the changed Standing Orders in 1965 was

the recognition and acceptance that Ministerial statements should

be as precise as possible. Many members - including Ministers -had established a conventional defence against the charge of

reading prepared speeches, in which they simply claimed they were

consulting or referring to "copious notes". The 1965 change,

however, did not authorize the reading of prepared statements by

Ministers during Question Time, and it is not difficult to see

why. 89 The reason has less to do with Dorothy Dixers than with

the widespread bipartisan support for the sentiment that one

leading indication of a Minister's control over his or her

department is the ability to speak on one's feet in defense and

explanation of one's department. Accordingly, during Question

Time, Ministers must be prepared for action brought under

Standing order 321, which provides that any publJ 4^jment

quoted from by a Minister shall be tabled upon request. There

are exceptions which may relieve Ministers of some of the pain of

over exposure. Upon receiving the request to table the Chair's

procedure is to ask the Minister: "Has the Minister read from

the document?", which clearly implies that it is not the prepared

• document which is in question but the reading from and total

reliance upon it. If the answer is "no", the Chair accepts the

• Minister's word; if the answer is "yes", yet the Minister

indicates that the document in question is confidential, the

Chair again accepts the Minister's word, and no tabling is

required. If the answer is that the Minister was only referring

to prepared notes , then no tabling is required. Tabling is

required only if the Minister admits that he or she was reading

from a non-confidential document. 90 Such admissions almost

always occur under the circumstances least damaging to a

Minister.

89. Any Minister sufficiently keen on arranging compliant • questions to protect an image of self-confident mastery over departmental affairs will also be keen enough to learn the answer by rote before Question Time. This comment does not

apply to all the reasons for Dorothy Dixers. 90. House of Representatives Practice, pp.450-1, 530-1. Consider the two cases in House Hansard March 1982, pp.1318-20; and 27 April 1982, p.1852.

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On special occasions, Members may be permitted to

address the House on a particular matter by indulgence from the

chair. Although the basis for this in Standing Orders is weak,

the practice has considerable conventional support status.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in Canberra the Speaker's indulgence is

most notably bestowed on the executive. One effect of this is

that the executive is permitted to supplement or even correct

answers given earlier to a question without notice, and even to

answer questions which have been actually ruled out of order.91

Private members must have resort to other devices - to the making

of personal explanations or protests against alleged

misrepresentations. Although these also involve the indulgence

of the Chair, they tend to occur at regular, established times -'

soon after Question Time. In making an explanation, a Member may

not enter into a general debate: the alleged misrepresentation

(often claimed to happen by Ministers in answer to a question)

can be briefly corrected, and that is all.92

The only other general principle which informs the

specific conduct of Question Time concerns the prohibition on

offensive or disorderly words. 93 These prohibitions are

contained in Standing Orders 75 and 76, which reflect the House's

desire that the Chair determine whether allegedly offensive

language is in fact so. Traditionally, the matter was more

clearly subjective: words that were regarded by any member as

offensive had to be withdrawn on the voicing of the complaint.

The Chair is now the judge of disorderly language, with the

punitive power of "naming" a Member who refuses to withdraw. The

House accepts May's classification of unparliamentary language,

and for present purposes one should note that this includes the

misrepresentation of another's language and, presumably,

91. House of Representatives Practice , pp.445-6. 92. One of the . reasons for personal explanations being permitted soon after Question Time is that, when a personal explanation is made in rebuttal of a misrepresentation made in a question

or answer, the question and answer are excluded from any rebroadcast of Question Time". House of Representatives Practice, p.445. 93. ous F se of Representatives Practice, pp.459-60.

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political beliefs. The traditional means of honouring the letter

and not the spirit of this injunction was to misrepresent the

views of a specific group, faction or -party without actually

naming any parliamentarians. It seems that the advantage of this

ploy was that it made it more difficult for any one Member to

gain standing - to use an approximate legal term - to raise the

• complaint before the chair. To his credit, Speaker Snedden

recently broadened the injunction against a species of

provocative action which had often disrailed Question Time:

... I think that if an accusation is made against members of the House which, if made against any one of them, would be unparliamentary and offensive, it is in the interests of the comity of this House that it should

not be made against all as it could not be made against one. Otherwise, it may become necessary for every member of the group against whom the words are alleged to stand up and personally withdraw himself or herself

from the accusation... I ask all honourable members to cease using unparliamentary expressions against a group or all members which would be unparliamentary if used against an individual.94

B. Length of Ouestion Time

Before examing the questioners' repertoire, it is

appropriate to mention one general advantage enjoyed by the

answerers. The Ministry not only holds the pursestrings, it also

holds the stopwatch which regulates the flow of business through

the House. In drastic circumstances, Question Time can be

abandoned altogether - to make way for the early venting of

Opposition censure or lack of confidence motions. Statistics on

this were included in section three. 'In less extreme

circumstances, the Ministry still retains the advantage of.

timing, for the length of Question Time is not specified in any

Standing Order. To put it otherwise, Standing Orders permit the

Ministry to cut off, curtail or guillotine Question Time at any

time to suit their convenience. This programing power confers an

immense advantage on the government of the day which, while

• epitomising, their relative superiority over an Opposition, rarely

94. House Hansard, 12 March 1981, pp.709, 715, quoted House of Representatives Practice , p.461.

- 64 -

receives the attention it should as a symbolic statement of the

reality of parliamentary politics.

It may be true that Governments know more of what they

expect from Question Time than do Oppositions. The latter are

searching for misdemeanours and mistakes; yet their broadsides

are often less effective in helping to form community opinion

than a Government's broadcasts of just how well it is doing.

Governments have immense resources for cultivating the media,

which is usually more interested in ready copy than making

criticism. A Government's task in Question Time ought to be much

easier: give short notice to unfriendly questions, and give

maximum length to friendly answers. Hence the temptation to cut

off Question Time after one has loosened the tongues of a few,

well-trusted Ministers. The question of timing is important:

although the questions might be alternated and shared fairly

evenly by Government and Opposition, Government answers dominate

the proceedings, the radio broadcasts and the Hansard column

inches.

Question Time is usually concluded by an act of the

Prime Minister, who rises to ask the Speaker that all further

questions be placed on notice. The question really asks the

House if it agrees with the Ministry's timetabling. It is not a

question which the Speaker ever actually puts to the House, and

there is rarely a protest. Within a month of the general

election of October 1980, a government backbencher raised a point

of order with the Speaker over the way the reading of pre-election notices of motion had, in his view, eaten into Question

Time which "is supposed to last for one hour". 95 The Speaker

reminded the member that "it has been the practice of the

House... to have questions without notice for 45 minutes, not for

one hour". On another noisy occasion, the Speaker referred to

the limited nature of his own influence and stated quite

succinctly the relevant power relations determining this and many

other parliamentary procedures: "I indicate to members on the

Opposition benches that if the noise continues I will suggest to

95. House Hansard , 17 September 1980, p.1373 (Mr Yates).

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the Prime Minister that further questions be put on the Notice

Paper".9b

C. Questioning Arts

One of the most surprising things about recent

Oppositions is how infrequently they plan for an organized series

of questions to one or a group of Ministers. By custom, the

Speaker permits the Opposition Leader to pose the first question

of the day. The instances in which the Leader does not

personally take advantage of this custom are far from infrequent,

and can prefigure a more keenly orchestrated series of questions

than is usual. A particular shadow spokesperson may have a

series of questions which, almost always with the assistance of

other Opposition questioners, he or she will proceed with. lYet

even on those increasingly rare occasions when the Opposition

presents a concerted attack, the momentum is maintained for only

about the first three or four of the Opposition's questions.

After that, the way is open to the Opposition backbench to enter

the fray with its own questions, be they ever so parochial.I

The current Opposition Leader has frankly acknowledged

and defended the norm of a diffusely focused Opposition attack.

Mr. Hayden reportedly believes that Ministers are so well briefed

that they can not be "outwitted or conned into giving damaging

answers and it is best to concentrate on trying to reform the

parliamentary system so that it provides more productive work for

MPs". 97 As Opposition Leader, Mr. Hayden has rejected the i conventional wisdom and ceased the search for the perfectly,

organized series of questions. In an interesting comment on the force of the media's search for good copy, Mr. Hayden commented:

You can't organise question time every day. That's sheer nonsense. I feel we [the Opposition] would be better off having many, many fewer organised question times, in spite of the impatience and protests which manifest themselves in criticisms in the major daily

newspapers. We have just to perservere with the simple

96. House Hansard 18 March 1982, p.1127. 97. Australian Financial Review , 30 October 1981, pp.3, 16.E

recognition that we operate at different levels. And

while the major dailies might not be interested in questions on parochial matters, they're absolutely crucial for the electorates concerned.98

There are exceptions to every rule, and Oppositions can

not afford to let some Ministers off the hook too lightly or to

keep some policy areas too much in the dark. Reference has •

already been made to one organised Opposition attack: on the

government's policy of allowing U.S. B.52 bombers permission to

land in Darwin. 99 In this case the Opposition devoted six of its

seven questions to the one issue, with different Members posing

questions to a range of Ministers. The display was typical of

the type: first Mr. Bowen (spokesperson on foreign affairs) to

the Prime Minister, then Mr Hayden to the Foreign Affairs

Minister; then Mr Hayden to the Defence Minister, twice; (then

the exceptional question); then Mr Morrison (former Defence

Minister) to Foreign Affairs Minister; and finally Mr Hayden to

the same Minister. No chinks appeared in the Government's armour

- if disagreements or misunderstandings among Ministers be the

appropriate chink. Question Time faded away with the

Government's quickly mounted counterattack against the Opposition

for retreating from a bipartisan foreign policy.

Opposition attacks upon a single Minister vary according

to both the severity of the alleged infraction and the seniority

of the Minister. On Budget Day 1980, the Opposition began

Question Time with a series of questions on breaches of the

s n o i t s e u of s e i r e s The h T

100 1

Broadcasting and Television Act. q

involved the following combatants: Opposition backbencher to

Minister for Posts and Telecommunications; Opposition Leader

twice to same Minister; another Opposition backbencher to the

same Minister; concluding with another Opposition backbencher to

the Prime Minister asking for the resignation of the relevant

98. Interview with Michelle Grattan. Acme, 4 August 1981. See also O'Grady, "Question Time in the McMahon Era", p.394; Butler, The Canberra Model, p.24; and on the ALP's executive decision to go slow on organised Question Times, Jenni Hewitt Sydney Morning Herald , 20 August 1981, p.12. 99. House Hansard, 12 March .

100. House, aans ^ard, 19 August 1980, pp.17-21.

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Minister. The same style is well represented in the attack on

health policy of May 1981, 101 where once again neither the Leader

nor the Opposition spokesperson necessarily held the centre' stage

of attention. The sequence ran: backbencher to Health Minister;

Opposition spokesperson to same Minister; then five different

backbenchers to same Minister.

In neither of these cases did the Ministers allay the

suspicions of their Opposition critics that their administration

was either lax in , pursuit of equity (in the former case) or strict in pursuit of an inequitable policy (in the latter case).

Yet in neither case were the Ministers obviously "caught out".

Each side could claim that it had won the fight, which is as far

as imaginable from being a zero-sum game. However, the rules of

the game do give greater comfort to a Government. To adapt the

language of Mungo MacCallum, 102 with few exceptions the media

reports are more likely to repeat the responses of Ministers

rather than examine the substantive points raised by the

Opposition. One is more likely to see "Minister lashes costly

Opposition health policy" than "Minister concedes difficulties of

transition to unchartered new health policy". To repeat

MacCallum's point, a Government can remain confident that it will

win the battle of the media headlines unless it makes - or admits

to - a series of disastrous blunders.

Far more typical of the current Opposition approach is

to have three or four early questions addressed to one Minister

or one policy area, leaving the balance to be distributed among

the Opposition backbenchers according to their own demands as

mediated by the whip. These latter questions are the parochial

questions, described above by the current Opposition Leader as

crucial to all those marginal electorates upon which the fates of

governments depend. The whip's job is, in large part, to protect

the rights of the backbench during Question Time. This

description is clearly at odds with the traditional picture of

the whip as servant of the party leadership. It is now more

101. House Hansard, 6 May 1981, pp.2024-8. 102. Consider -s end of sitting report, Acme, 11 June 1981.

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accurate to say that the Opposition Whip's office serves as a

communicating link between the party leadership and the

backbench, and as a buffer in rough times, protecting the rank

and file from the less reasonable or too frequent demands by the

leaders.103

A frequently used source of Opposition questions -particularly those posed by the party leaders - is the media, and

most notably the newspapers. Day after day, Opposition

spokespersons will preface questions to Ministers with some such

question as: "Has [the Minister's] attention been drawn to the

report in today's Canberra Times that ...", to be followed by

"Is it a fact that ,,104

Another important media source is the nationwide A.B.C.

current affairs radio program, A.M . One indication of its status

is that even the Government responds to Opposition statements

critical of current policy - through the judicious use of

continued questions from Government backbenchers seeking confirmation or otherwise of the Opposition's claims aired on

A.M. 105 This particular radio program often acts as a primer for Question Time, with the Opposition ready to advance any criticism

of the Government either aired or reported on the program, and

with the Government keen to get its views across by speaking on

the program. It would be stretching a point to say that A.M .

(together with its sibling program, P.M .) frequently sets the

agenda for the Opposition's parliamentary questions. When

Parliament is sitting the program certainly acts as a popular

conduit linking Government and Opposition, both attempting to set

or help settle or consolidate the political agenda through the

A.B.C's airwaves. The frequency with which A.M . is cited during

Question Time points to the under-researched symbiotic

103. Consider Reid, "Parliament and the Executive", p.390. 104. Taken at random from House Hansard 6 May 1981, p.2623 (Mr Hayden). See also same day p 2026. 105. See, e.g. House Hansard, 6 May 1981, p.2030 (Mr Bradfield

to the Treasurer); 3 December 1980, p.302 (Mr MacKenzie to Minister for Transport).

relationship between parliamentarians as seekers of publicity and

the media as a purveyor of publicity.106

D. Government Questions

A Government has a number of ways in which it can

accommodate itself to Question Time - to domesticate it, as it

were. The first and chief is very well known - the use of

compliant questions, known as Dorothy Dix questions. A second

means is to anticipate a possible line of Opposition attack, and

then to pre-empt the asking of any oral questions by placing one

or a number of related questions on the Notice Paper for written

answer. The Standing Orders give precedence to questions on

notice, so that if the wording and content be sufficiently

approximate, the oral or without-notice question becomes out of

order and can not be asked.

The chances of a government arranging written or on-notice Dorothy Dixers are remote, because under most

circumstances Ministers have more to gain by publicly presenting

their version of events than by running for cover. More often

the manoeuvre is reversed: an opposition members places a

question on notice and in so doing prevents a Dorothy Dix

question. Dorothy Dix questions flow two ways: to the credit of

the Minister, from whom they might originate, or to the credit of

the local members who can spread the good local news announced by

the Minister. The placement of Opposition questions , on notice most often interferes with the latter type, 107 although in so

doing they might also deny a Minister an opportunity to speak

well of him or herself and badly of the Opposition.

No government will admit to the widespread or regular

use of Dorothy Dix questions, and it is probably true that those

which originate-in a Minister's office are now less frequent than s•

106. On the related topic of television broadcasting of the House's Question Time, see section five,p .13-15. 107. See, e.g. House Hansard , 26 November 1980 p

(Mrs Darling

protesting against Mr Hodges); and the Opposition Whip's protest of 3 December 1980, p.300.

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in the-past. Yet, when a government backbencher rose to ask a

question with the preface " truly without notice", he explicitly

recognised the existence of Dorothy Dix questions. Why his words

should have been erased in the Hansard report, one may never

know; presumably they were felt to reflect unkindly on either

the Government or the backbench, or both.108

To the outsider, Dorothy Dix questions are most

prominent in the weeks leading up to an election, either federal

or State. Before the 1981 State election in New South Wales,

many Government backbenchers from New South Wales asked very

open-ended questions to Ministers who calumniated the Labor

administration in that State. A similar series of what at

Westminster are called "inspired" questions took place before the

1982 State election in Victoria. On other occasions, Ministers

will acknowledge an "inspired" question, especially if the

impetus for the question comes from the government backbencher

rather than directly from the Minister - "I thank the honorable

member for giving me some warning earlier today that this

question would be asked". 109 On that more blatant form of

Dorothy Dix questions which emanate from a Minister's own office,

reference need only be made to the examples analysed by O'Grady

in his study of Malcolm Fraser when Minister for Education' and

Science. 110 Not that all the blame ought to rest with the

relevant Minister: as O'Grady notes, the government backbencher

can justify his co-operation with Ministers as an important

activity in which the backbencher can make "a positive

contribution to the image of his own government". Suffice it to

108. House Hansard 2 December 1980, pp.223-4 (Mr Cameron to the Treasurer). My quotation is from personal notes from the day. Hansard always deletes Members' statements to the effect that theyhave a question without notice for such

and such a Minister. 109. Hon. K. Newman to Mr Falconer, House Hansard , 28 April 1982, p.1926. 110. O'Grady, "Question Time in the McMahon Era", p.395.

Consider Billy Hughes judgement of one other artful Minister: "You know the questions which that Ministers answers best are the ones he asks himself", quoted in Sir Arthur Fadden, They Call Me Artie (Milton 1969), p.170.

m

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L

quote the Speaker: "Only the naive would believe that most

questions from the ministerial side are a surprise to the

Minister".111

E. Answering Arts

The Standing Orders do not compel any Minister, or i

indeed the Ministry, to answer questions. Yet once a question is

asked - and we have seen that the Standing Orders do not even

guarantee that questions will be asked on each sitting day -pit

would be imprudent for a Minister not to reply. Of course,

although the reply should be relevant to the question, it is'

possible for a Minister to reply without answering the question.

The least controversial way of doing this is to take a question

on notice, with the promise to provide written answers to either

detailed or complex queries.112

More controversial is the procedure by which the

Minister under questioning calls upon another Minister to supply

the answer. Standing Orders require that questions addressed to

a Minister must fall within the area of the Minister's official

responsibility. Surely, then, a Minister who ducked a question

legitimately allowed by the Speaker would implicitly admit

ignorance and probable incompetence with regard to ministerial

duties? While the answer may be yes for most ministers, it its

less clearcut in the case of the Prime Minister, who is seen as

officially responsible for the overall shape and direction of

public policy.

Oppositions are always on the lookout for the weakest

links in the ministerial chain. However, the political dividends

of blemishing a Prime Minister's reputation are much greater - as

can be seen from the way Oppositions so quickly relent on

personal attacks on resigned ministers, and pursue all the more

energetically the suddenly vulnerable Prime Minister.113

111. Snedden, "Parliament's Changing Trends", p.15. 112. E.g. House Hansard , 25 March 1982, p.1395. 113. Consider House Hansard, 20 April 1982, pp.1503-14 on the resignation of Moore and Mr MacKellar.

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With that in mind, one can understand some of an ,

Opposition's vehemence at a Prime Minister who successfully asks

other ministers to answer questions addressed to him. Consider

the classic situation in which the Prime Minister defers economic

questions to the Treasurer - an action which clearly annoys the

Opposition and, regardless of its original purpose, may now be

resorted to by the Prime Minister for calculated effect. The

paradigm case reads in Hansard as follows. 114 Mr Hayden put a

question to the Prime Minister on a former promise of his on

rates. The Treasurer rose to answer, at which point Mr Hayden

protested: "I raise a point of order. I directed the question

to the organ grinder, not the monkey". The Speaker demanded a

withdrawal of these offensive words; Mr Hayden complied, with

the comment: "I withdraw, and say 'the butcher rather than the

block'". Further disturbances followed.

Not surprisingly, the issue came to a head on the first

sitting day of 1982, when the Opposition introduced a censure

motion on the government's economic policy and its social

consequences. After the two opposition speakers had moved and

seconded the motion, the Treasurer rose to reply, amid Opposition

protests about how surely "the conventions, traditions and

Standing Orders ... require ... the Prime Minister to lead in

response". 115 After that motion had been debated and voted upon,

and before questions, the Opposition Leader moved the suspension

of Standing Orders to permit the Prime Minister to defend his

government's economic record "instead of absenting himself from

debates". 116 The Opposition orchestrated one of its very rare

organised Question Time attacks on the following day. All

questions went to the Prime Minister, probably in the hope that

he would defer or transfer them. He in fact answered each

question, although he had to say in response to the first

114. House Hansard, 26 February 1980, p.333. Compare Mr Hayden's recent reference to the Attorney General as "the chimney-sweep", House Hansard, 25 March 1982, p.1400.

115. House Hansard, 16 February 1982, p.25 (Mr Morris) 116. House a^nsar , 16 February 1982, p.29. The gag was quickly moved to end debate on this motion.

0

0

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question that the Treasurer is fully capable of responding" to

Opposition attacks on financial matters.117

Another important answering art concerns the length of

replies. Some political scientists argue that Ministers give

much longer answers to government questions than they do to those

of the opposition, whose questions tend to be dismissed

curtly. 118 It is true that Ministers' motivation in answering includes a large element of status reinforcement within their own party. This can at times lead a Minister to display his or 'her knowledge of the department or policy when responding to

government (or more particularly Dorothy Dix) questions. Th,e

same motivation can lead a minister to be curt to an opposition

questioner - either as a form of insult and abrasive attack, or

as a means of avoiding hidden pitfalls. Yet the contrast of the

Hansard column inches is not as marked as some have made out, for

there are usually more potential advantages for a Minister in a

longer answer than in a curt one. Of course, the temptation to talk on is more compelling with some ministers than others.

After only a short term as minister, Mr McVeigh has established a

reputation as wordy. Recently Mr Leo McLeay (Lab-or) asked the

Minister "a short question ... which I hope will elicit a concise

answer". On four occasions the Speaker had to request the

Minister to bring his answer to a conclusion; finally, on the

fifth occasion, the Speaker ordered the Minister to resume his

seat. 119 The Speaker must also enforce the relevancy of answers,

and this can lead him to curtail the length of a Minister's)

answer. It is often overlooked that the Speaker does curb

Ministerial political asides, even in cases where the Opposition

has not protested.120

117. House Hansard, 17 February 1982, p.229. 118. See, e.g 0 Grady, "Question Time in the McMahon Era";, p.395. 1

119. House Hansard, 2 June 1981, p.2877. See also 18 February 1982, p.318. On Mr McVeigh's Question Time reputation, see Mungo MacCallum, _ A ^e, 4 June 1981.

120. E.g., House Hansard , 21 April 1982, p.1629.

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A more subtle way in which Ministers can extend the

length of their answer is the equally overlooked device of the

supplementary answer. We have seen above that although the

Standing Orders permit supplementary questions, few if any are

asked. And just as the absence of supplementary questions

weakens the force of an Opposition attack, so too the presence of

supplementary answers bolsters a government's defence. With the indulgence of the Speaker, a Minister may supplement an earlier

answer with further details. The major political consequence is

that a government can change an answer in the light of its impact

or on the basis of post-facto briefings. To take one recent

example: 121 at the close of a Question Time soon after the 1980

budget the Treasurer attempted to supplement one of his earlier

answers. The Leader of the Opposition rose on a point of order;

he claimed that the Minister was "going beyond an answer to a

question without notice. He sought to brief himself and now he

wants to canvass the issue". The Opposition Leader argued that

"the proper way .... would be for the Treasurer to make a

[ministerial] statement and to allow debate to ensue because it

is an important point". Furthermore, he protested at "the

procedures of the House [being] rigged to protect the

Government".

The Minister claimed that his action was "in the

interest of ensuring that questions asked of me are answered

directly". The Speaker agreed, stating that he would grant the

indulgence "to add to an answer when that addition to an answer

is an issue of fact". Not that the Speaker wanted the

responsibility to determine whether the supplementary information

was factual or argumentative: "Other procedures are available to

the House for that purpose".

A final example will indicate the pressure often placed

on Speakers to take sides. Recently the Prime Minister went very

wide in answering, or.responding to, an Opposition question on

121. House, Hansard, 26 August 1980, p.688. For examples by the Prime Minister, see House Hansard, 12 March 1981, p.713, and 2 June 1981, p.2874.

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taxation policy. 122 A series of Opposition points of order

demanded that the Speaker enforce a relevant answer; then the

Prime Minister, who had just announced "that is the end of [my]

answer", requested the Speaker's indulgence to "add one point to

that answer". The Speaker quite correctly stated that "the right

honourable gentleman ought to await another question" : a move

supported by an Opposition frontbencher who, however, pointed out

the suitability of another alternative - a ministerial statement'

in the House - which would give all parties a chance to debate

the issues.

SECTION FIVE: PROPOSED REFORMS

How effective is Question Time? In attempting to answer

this question, it is best to begin by acknowledging the salutary

effect which oral questions have on the bureaucracy and each

Minister's knowledge of his or her sphere of responsibilit y . A

former Leader of the House notes that "for new Ministers in '

particular Question Time can be quite an ordeal ,123 Mr Sinclair

had in mind not so much the parliamentary antics which

Oppositions can unleash, but instead the departmental preparation

and briefings for Ministers before each day's Question Time., For

new Ministers, these preparatory activities are the best

introduction to the work of their departments: with each day's

briefing, they try to comprehend both the range and the direction

of their department's work.

Ministers would probably be far less informed on what

their departments actually do were it not for the fact that

122. House Hansard 17 February 1982, pp.231-3. 123. Rt. Hon. Ian Sinclair, "Government, Parliament and Administration", Paper presented to 1981 Annual Conference of Australian Institute of Public Administration, p.6. See

also P. Weller and M. Grattan, Can Ministers Cope? (Sydney 1981), pp.99,140-1, and D. Butler, The CanberraModel, (Melbourne 1973), pp.31-2.51. On the British background see Nevil Johnson, "Parliamentary Questions and the Conduct of Administration", Public Administration, 31 (Summer'

1961), p.144; and H. Finer "Administrative Responsibility in Democratic Government" in P. Woll ed., Public Administration and Policy (New York 1966), p.272.

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questions without notice are so prominent, and encourage regular

departmental briefings. In Mr Sinclair's words:

A Minister must be alerted from day to day on those issues that might be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as instances of maladministration. Each Minister is briefed on questions that he might be asked. His advisers in his department must therefore focus their attention from day to day on the shortcomings of their administration - and they had better do something about them. Thus, even when a question is not asked - and most of those on which a Minister is briefed are not asked - Question Times serves a valuable administrative

function.124

This administrative function is, of course, closely

related to the conventional view of Question Time's central

purpose: testing the accountability of Ministers. Yet any

beneficial effect which Question Time might have on the

bureaucracy is cold comfort to many an Opposition party. It

seems that Mr Hayden and the Opposition executive regard Question

Time as "just about useless". 126 Ministers are so well briefed

that only very rarely will they fall into delivering damaging

asnwers. Mr Hayden thinks that it makes more political and

parliamentary sense to examine areas of possible reform which,

while possibly including Question Time, would focus much more

widely on Parliament as a whole. Mr Hayden's motion reads as

fol lows :126

That a joint Committee of the Parliament be established to

inquire into and report on -

(1) the power, jurisdiction and effectiveness of the Australian Parliament;

(2) the privileges of the Australian Parliament;

124. ibid. p.6. 125. Australian Financial Review, 30 October 1981, pp.3,16. 126. House Notice Paper o. May 1982. Notice No.11,

originally given 25 November 1980 (i.e., at the beginning of the 32nd Parliament).

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(3) the proceedings and usage of the Australian Parliament;

(4) the machinery of the Australian Parliament, and

(5) the relationship of the media of mass communications to the Australian Parliament. r ^

The list of possible reforms to Question Time ranges

between the two poles put by Mr Sinclair and Mr Hayden - between

(1) retention of the status quo partly because of its

unacknowledged benefits, and (2) review and overhaul of the

procedure of the House.

It would be wrong to look for some golden age of

Australian parliamentary affairs when questions were asked and

answered in an exemplary mode of non-partisan public service;.

Question Time has certainly changed in the 80 years of the

Commonwealth Parliament - one especially notes the emergence of

the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition as the chief

combatants. One suspects that this and other changes simply

reflect changes in the character, or characteristic expression,

of Australian politics. The lesson ought to be clear: there

will be no really effective change in Question Time unless there

are corresponding changes in the motive force of Australian,

politics.

It is also worth remembering that much of the past criticism of Question Time has been, in effect, a criticism of

the party-political character of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Typical is the influential statement by Professor F.A. Bland, who

was soon to enter the House and become the legendary chairman of

the Joint Committee of Public Accounts. 127 Bland criticised the

conduct of Question Time in the 1940s: "questions all too

frequently degenerated into insinuations, allegations, or

aspersions that were unsettling as they were unwarranted". Since

Opposition and Government parties ask questions, the real problem

127. F.A. Bland, "The Working of Parliamentary Government in Australia", Parliamentary Affairs 4(1950) esp. p.77. See also H.B. Turner, e 1^form of Parliament",

Australian Quarterly , December 1965, p.61.

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in Bland's view is the sharp "divergence between the platforms

and beliefs of our political parties, which in turn is a

consequence of the changed content and scope of government".

Such a view, if left at that, tends to ignore the

intra-party debate and questioning which has steadily risen in

the House. The paradox is that "the party, that demon which has

undermined Parliament is itself a lively and active forum for debate". 128 The experience of the Labor government from 1973-75

and the Coalition since then has been remarkably similar : the real test of a Minister's departmental competence takes place

behind the closed doors of the party room, increasingly within

party committees which "are untroubled by the stifling formality

that so constricts the operations of parliamentary

committees" 0129

It is common for researchers to approach Question Time

as a study of parliamentarians and their access to

information. 130 Even the most cursory knowledge of

parliamentarians' own views indicates that those genuinely

seeking information rely upon alternative procedures - written

questions on notice, of course, but also through parliamentary

and party committee inquiries which question Ministers, their

departmental policy advisers and their programs. Senators feel

less disappointed by their Question Time precisely because of

their comparative advantage with so many committees as

alternative channels of information. 131

128. John Kerin, M.P., "Parliament in Contemporary Society", in H. Mayer and H. Nelson eds Australian Politics: A Reader 4 ed. p.385. 129. Kerin, p.385. See also P. Weller, "The Power and Influence

of Party Meetings" in Australian Politics: A Fourth Reader (Melbourne 1973), pp.3 - W. Wentworth, M.P., "House of No Decisions". Adelaide Advertiser , 2 November 1977, and M. Baume, M..P., "How the Press Fails the Parliament", Canberra Times, 28 May 1978. 130. Typical is A. Barker and M. Rush, The Member of Parliament

and His Information, London 1970. 131. See e.g. Senator J. Knight, "Parliamentary Scrutiny of the Administration", Newsletter, of the Royal Institute of Public Administration (ACT Group) 5 (June 1978) 2: 5-10.

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0

a

Senator David Hamer was a member of the House from 1969

until 1975 when he transferred to the Senate. He does not think

that the House's Question Time is as effective in probing and

criticizing the executive as that in Ottawa or Westminster -'

mainly because of the diminished stature of the office of Speaker

in Australia. 132 The chief area for improvement by a Australian

Speaker who was less "tied down by a web of Standing Orders"

would be permitting "supplementary questions until in his opinion

the subject is exhausted". While it is true that the House's

Standing Orders permit supplementary questions, it is a political

fact that the spirit of the Orders is more powerful than the

black letter provisions - that spirit is felt nowhere more

powerfully than in choosing the Speaker: in Hamer's words, "the

Speaker is a party man".

Many parliamentarians look to an independent Speaker,

fully armed with discretionary powers, to rehabilitate Questiion

Time. The new Leader of the House (Sir James Killen) is on the

record as dedicated to reforming Question Time. From the

Opposition benches in 1975, Mr Killen wrote:

Question Time is badly in need of reform. Questions are without doubt too long and too complex. Answers can be absolutely distressing in their irrelevance and choking of parliamentary time.... The Speaker should be armed with

adequate powers to direct a Minister to be relevant in reply.133

Westminster is seen as providing the model of the

independent Speaker, armed with discretionary power to unlease

supplementary questions in pursuit of relevant answers. 134 It is

instructive to note that the most recent successful call for the

review of Standing Orders regulating Question Time arose out of

132. David Hamer, "The Flaws in the House", in H. Mayer and H. Nelson eds. Australian Politics: A Reader, 4 ed. p.381. 133. Hon. D.J. Killen, M.P., Is ParliamentIrrelevant? 1975 Alfred Deakin Lecture, pp.20-21. For similar criticisms,

see Sir Billy Snedden, "Parliament's Changing Trends":, Law Under Stress (Perth 1979), pp.13-15. 134. Consider the support from the House Clerks in Summary Report and Proceedin s , Commonwealth Parliamentary ry

ssocia ion, 3rdSeminar, Parliamentary Paper No.63, 1977.

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Opposition dissatisfaction with the lack of supplementary

questions in the House. 135 This was the issue that generated the

political will to review and revise the general operation of oral

questions. In response to the Leader of the Opposition's protest

at being denied the right - which he thought Standing Order 151

protected - to put a supplementary question, the Speaker stated

that he "will not go against the will of the House" Despite

Standing Order 151, the Speaker thought it imperative to obey the

settled will of the House, as expressed in the 26 years of his

tenure as a member. Mr Hayden argued that the regular use of

supplementary questions would be the single most helpful

improvement to the operations of that procedure which itself is

the device most urgently in need of reform. He saw supplementary

questions as the most effective means of keeping Ministers'

answers relevant - as required by Standing Orders.

However, the task is much more complex than simply

obtaining and grafting on Westminster Standing Orders to the

Australian stock. The political climates in which the two types

of Speakership have flourished are quite dissimilar: indeed, at Westminster "the Speaker's control of the question period is

exercised largely by convention...". The Speaker regulates the

flow of supplementaries, which "are the essence of question time".136 A t Westminster, all questions are on notice, although members may seek an oral rather than a written answer, hoping

thereby to pose one or a number of oral supplementary questions.

The original written question is then very often little more than

a pretext for the oral (i.e. without notice) supplementary - a

device to keep the Minister in the dock, ready to face the

opposition. There being no relevant Standing Order, the Speaker

is not bound either to grant the supplementary to the original

questioner or to restrain other members from asking supplementary

questions on the same subject.

135. House Hansard, 24 February 1982, pp.516-7; 25 February 1982, pp.59 5 8. See also below, section 6, p.1. 136. P. Laundy in S.A. Walkland ed., The House of Commons in the Twentieth Century, p.155. Consider R. Borthwick's comment

that "Question Time has become supplementary time", ibid, p.488. See also D. Leonard and V. Herman eds., The Backbencher and Parliament (London) 1972), pp.99-100.

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r

The Westminster Speaker has to try to balance airing a

reasonable number of questions on the notice paper and permitting

a thorough probing of each Minister's answers. In the words; of

Speaker Lloyd:

I took the view that the number of questions reached was less important than a searching examination of a Minister's conduct. Perhaps that was one of the

advantages of having a Speaker who had himself been a Minister. I knew which gave less trouble to the Minister.137

Another perceived problem relates to the call for

questions. In 1971 Mr Paul Keating requested the Standing Orders

Committee to investigate the anomaly by which government members

can ask more questions than the Opposition. 138 Of course, the

Australian speaker is strictly impartial in ensuring that the

call for questions alternates between opposition and government

ranks. At the end of each session, both parties will have asked

fairly much the same number of questions. However, a possible

cause for complaint arises when one compares the number of

questioners in each camp: once the Ministry is removed, it' is

clear that each government member stands to ask more questions

than each opposition member. This numerical advantage is

increased when the government has a narrow majority, and is

decreased when the majority is large. Indeed, it is probably not

accidental that Mr Keating did not repeat his protest when Labor

was back in opposition after the 1975 election, for the system

then worked to his camp's advantage - a minor consolation f'or

facing the largest House majority in the Commonwealth's history.

Mr Keating also drew attention to the Speaker's

recognition of both the Leader and the Deputy Leader of the

Opposition's right of priority in asking questions, a practice

which further penalised individual Opposition members. 139 One

137. Selwyn Lloyd, Mr Speaker, Sir (London 1976), p.87. 138. House Hansard , '£3 u 7^ g ^ - 19/1, p.511.

139. House Hansard , 18 April 1972, p.1746.

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thus can make an argument based on the equal opportunity of each

backbencher to question the Ministry - if one disregards the

presence and implication of parties and party leaders. A more

realistic refinement of this argument was put by Mr Keating when

he outlined the special interest of an opposition in closely

questioning the government, and contended that such opposition

interests should merit a greater claim to Question Time than

Dorothy Dix or compliant government questions. This suggestion

fared no better than did the original.140

Another aspect of Westminster that has occasionally

found support in Australia is the rostering - or "rota system" -of ministers for regular appearances to face questions on certain

days. The difficulty with such a system in Australia is that

neither the size nor the character of the portfolios held by

Senate Ministers is fixed. With the Australian practice of

rather frequent ministerial shuffles, any rota system would have

to be either fairly flexible to accommodate portfolios which

might suddenly be transported to the other chamber, or broad

enough to encompass the rostering of Ministers to answer

questions in both chambers.

The House Standing. Orders Committee in 1974 recommended

a version of the latter system of rostering Ministers. 1'41 There

is no need here to repeat the many "practical problems" which

emerged and are frankly treated in the Standing Orders Report.

The concurrence of both chambers would be required, and of course

the two chambers are frequently subject to different party

alignments and control.

140. ^Re_po^rt_, Standing Orders Committee, House of Representatives, U M rch 1972, pp.12-13. 141. Report , Standing Orders Committee, House of Representatives, 18 March 1974, recommendation 7, together with paras 27-50.

For a brief account, see C.J. Lloyd and G.S. Reid, Out of the Wilderness (Melbourne 1974), pp.181-3.

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While no action was undertaken in response to the 1974

Report, 142 some consideration of the Westminster system is useful

in highlighting the peculiarities of the House's current system.

At Westminster, each major department is allocated to a

particular day of the week, most often in a group with three or

four other departments. The departments within that group came

• up for questioning on a rota system, so that each department; can

expect to receive continuous questioning once every three to, four

weeks. The main exception is the Prime Minister, who faces

questions twice each week for about 15 minutes at a time. Since

all questions are on notice, 143 members wanting oral answers (and

hence the opportunity for supplementaries) must give notice 'of

questions which will not be answered for some weeks. Member's are

limited to one question per Ministry for answer on each day.'

The Australian practice is, once again, a case of "fold"

Westminster - the Commonwealth having adopted the Westminster

practice of the late nineteenth century, and having seen no

reason to switch to the new rota system when that developed in

Westminster in the early twentieth century. New Zealand follows

the "New" Westminster practice, while Canada has adopted a

variant of it which could find favour in Australia.

The Oral Question Period in Ottawa did not become a

major part of each sitting day until soon after World War Two.

Since then it has flourished, most recently under the stimulus of

the televising of the House's proceedings. The following

description from a former Canadian M.P. gives some of the

distinctive flavour of question time in Ottawa - especially the

way in which it has become a special time for Opposition

questions:

142. House of Representatives Practice, p.483. Australian'Senate • Practice, 5 ed., p.225. On the Westminster system, see R.

Borthwick, "Questions and Debates" in S.A. Walkland ed. The House of Commons in the Twentieth Century. • 143. There is also provision for questions requiring an urgent answer on unforeseen matters of public importance - the

so-called Private Notice Questions, asked at the close of Question Time.

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The Oral Question Period provides the most dramatic example of the operation of Responsible Government .... The focus ... is on the administrative policy and conduct of the ministers, both individually and

collectively.... The Speaker sees first the leader of the Opposition, then the leaders of the other opposition parties and then other opposition members. Once in a while he glances to his right and see a [government]

backbencher.144

Many Canadians seem proud of the way that their Question

Period differs from that of Westminster, and are frank in

acknowledging the source, as well as the urgency, of members'

questions. No notice is required, and the Speaker must ensure

that questions are urgent and important, or, to use Speaker

Jerome's 1975 formulation:

a brief question seeking information about an important matter of some urgency which falls within the administrative responsibility of the government or of the specific to whom it is addressed is in order.145

In 1968 Prime Minister Trudeau introduced a version of

the Westminster rota system, in which only a certain number of

ministers would be in the chamber during questions each day or

week. However, unlike the Westminster original, the Ottawa

version did not require notice of questions. In 1973, admittedly when the Liberals were reduced to a minority government, the

roster system was abandoned. The system's opponents voiced

"strong and constant denunciation [that it was] contrary to

Responsible Government" 46 The current Question Period amounts

to "a brief critical survey of the whole [government] operation

... based on news stories, on leaks by indiscreet or disaffected

public servants, and on complaints from the public".147

144. Stewart, The Canadian House of Commons: Procedure and Reform. 145. Quotedin. Stewart, p.57. The full statement is in The Table (1976), pp.112-6. 146. Stewart, p.57. See also P. Laundy, "The Question Period in

the Canadian House of Commons", Parliamentarian, 50 (1969), pp.336-9. 147. Stewart, p.56. See also J.R. Mallory, "Parliament : Every New Reform Creates a New Problem", Journal of Canadian

Studies , 14 (Summer 1979) 2, p.27, JohnStewart, "Strengthening the .Commons", ibid, p.37.

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The Ottawa Question period lasts for about the same

length of time as does that in Canberra, yet Ottawa's is

consciously designed as a procedure in which the opposition 'has

the initiative and can set the tone. It is common for a list of i

opposition questioners to be given to the Speaker, "who generally

follows the suggested order, occasionally disrupting it to

recognise a backbencher with a constituency problem".148

Opposition members apparently object to the very existence of

government backbench questions.

Given the Australian interest in the Canadian system, it

is important to draw attention to the way the adjournment debate

in Ottawa effectively complements the Question Period. Many

Australian parliamentarians are critical of the often incomplete

ministerial answers given in Question Time; the only right 'of

reply or supplementary comment dissatisfied members exercise is

the "personal explanation" permitted by the Speaker immediately

after questions. Once again, the Canadian procedures possibly

give greater protection to the rights of an opposition: the

nightly adjournment debate is, in Speaker Jerome's view, "an

excellent way for members who feel that the answer has been too

brief or that they had not had the opportunity to fully develop a question". In Ottawa this is known as the "late show".149' While it is true that important matters are frequently raised in

the adjournment debate in the House of Representatives, the

procedure is not closely linked to Question Time as a follow up

mechanism.

The Canadian House of Commons has also had experience

with the televising of Question Period, a change which also has

its advocates in Australia. The most public advocate of

148. Robert J. Jackson and Michael M. Atkinson, The Canadian Legislative System, (2nd edition, Toronto 1980), pp.106-7. At p.201 the authors call for Canada to adopt the full) Westminster system of questions. Weller and Grattan's Can Ministers Cope? praises the Canadian system at p.142.1 See al s ue:u ^ tier, The Canberra Model, (Melbourne 1973) , p.32.

149. The Table (1976), p. Stewart, The Canadian House of Commons , p.54. I

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televising Question Time is the Speaker, Sir Billy Snedden.150

The proponents of this change contend that television can do

better what the current system of radio broadcasts attempt to do:

give a faithful picture of what happens in Parliament, and

generate greater public knowledge of an access to our central

political institutions. Thus parliamentarians can be seen in

their working environments, free of the selective interpretations

so often imposed by print and electronic media journalists alike.

Adequate treatment of this proposed change would require

an extensive examination of Parliament's relations with the media

and a review of the political intentions, and consequences, of

the introduction of radio broadcasts of Parliament in 1946.151

The Canadian experience does not give much heart to the

proponents of televising. 152 : about a third of viewers claim

that they now have a lower respect for Parliament, and just over

another third can be thought of as having their past prejudices -including party-political preferences, one supposes - reinforced.

The conclusion is that "those who believed that televising

parliament would produce a stronger, more credible legislature

will have to reconsider their position".153

Such a conclusion raises questions about who would

benefit from the televising of Question Time. The 1946 radio

broadcasting of Parliament was essentially proposed by a former

Prime Minister (Mr Scullin) who saw broadcasting as a device by

which an executive could free itself from the interpretative

prejudices of a partisan press. While the radio proposal

probably had suppporters covering a wide spectrum of proposed

advantages one ought still to be wary of reinforcing the current

advantage enjoyed by the executives under Standing Orders.

150. Sir Billy Snedden, "Parliament's Changing Trends", Law Under Stress (Perth 1979), pp.15-16. 151. oonnsider for a start John Uhr, "Parliamentary Reform in Canberra", Australian Quarterly (forthcoming). At

Westminster, Prime Minister's Question Time is apparently now broadcast live on radio. 152. Jackson and Atkinson, The Canadian Legislative System, pp.124-5. 153. Jackson and Atkinson, The Canadian Legislative System ,

p.125.

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0

Some lessons can be learnt from the printed media. A

remarkable development has occurred with recent newspaper reports

of questions in the House. Over the last few years, many I

newspapers have introduced a special parliamentary section.154

Over time, most newspapers have focussed their attention in this

section on Question Time. Lest one think that this indicates the increasing public importance of Question Time, it should be noted

that what in fact the newspapers report are answers, rather than

questions. On many occasions, these parliamentary pages resemble

handouts from some government information unit, with a series of

brief reports beginning : "in answer to a question yesterday, the

Minister [for whatever] stated that ...." Questions - or more

correctly answers - provide easy and topical copy for newspapers.

Nothing could suit a government better : easy access to

uncritical publicity, and one fears that televising QuestionTime

might have a similar effect.

SECTION SIX: CONCLUSION

...the process of effective Parliamentary government has diminished further in Australia than in any other democracy.155

The epigraph for this Conclusion comes from a

distinguished former Clerk of the House of Representatives. The

purpose in repeating his comments is not to help reawaken

interest in procedural reform of the House; the comment suggests

instead that the problems confronting parliamentary government in

Australia are much more entrenched than many reformers imagine.

The same point is made in another way by Mungo MacCallum:

speaking of the specific disabilities of Question Time, he

suggests that what is needed "to control this excess of somewhat

154. On the previous neglect •see O'Grady, "Question Time in the McMahon Era", p.396, and Solomon, Inside the Australian Parliament , ch.9. 155. F.C. Green, Clerk of the House of Representatives (1937-

1955) "Changing Relations Between Parliament and the Executive", Public Administration (Sydney), (June 1954), pp.72-3.

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inarticulate aggro".is "the power of summary arrest and a fire

hose" 156

A number of proposed reforms to Question Time were

considered in section five. It is heartening to see that the

House is now beginning its first fundamental review of Questions I

for certainly a decade. As the Speaker recently stated: "... in

response to the Leader of the . Opposition's motion, we are to have a review of our practices". 157 That motion arose out of

Opposition dissatisfaction with the absence of supplementary

questions in the House. Without supplementaries, the procedures

protect ministers and deny the mechanics of accountability their

rightful place. According to Mr Hayden, accountability is

hindered by "..the loaded procedures that we have, whereby

Ministers can waffle on irrelevantly and endlessly in response to

a question - often provocatively and not infrequently with

carefully contrived misrepresentations...".158

Mr Hayden's motion also asked the Standing Orders

committee to examine such things as the daily time devoted to

oral questions, the length of answers and the proper legal

meaning of relevancy. Further, it called attention to the

desirability of having Senate ministers attend questions in the

House and, partly to assist this, having "a roster in which

ministers would be questioned on specified sittings days". The

brief debate on the motion revealed the classic range of opposed

views: the Opposition Leader contending that Question Time had

"become debased to the stage of being pretty much meaningless to

the administration of the affairs of this country", and the

Leader of the House, while not actually opposing the motion,

reminding the House that "if Question Time has been debased, it

is not particularly the fault of the Standing Orders" since

members from both sides had often been unparliamentary in their

behaviour.

156. "The Legislators", Melbourne Ache, 30 October 1981. 157. House Hansard , 20 April 1982, p.1514. The Speaker is referring to Mr Hayden's Question Time motion of 25 February 1982, pp.595-7. See also 24 February 1982,

pp. 516-7.

158. House Hansard , 24 February 1982, p.517.

D

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Two points emerge as preliminaries to the conclusions of

this paper. First, the House's practice was moulded 100 years

ago in the Australian colonial Parliaments, as modifications' of the Westminster practice and without any subsequent injection of

the twentieth century reforms which have improved Questions at

Westminster. Further to the same point, the House has lagged

behind Westminster in the development of a system of

investigatory committees to obtain essential and expert opinion

on public administration. The second point deals more with the

underlying political will than with parliamentary structures'.

While the House has always had its leading politicians - some

colourful, others merely loud, almost all dedicated to executive

efficiency - it has rarely had an influential group of

parIiamentarians:- elected representatives who prized the

conventions and the spirit of Parliament.

Each of these points has a bearing on the conclusions

one can draw about Question Time. My final comments will be,

concerned with the two issues of parliamentary committees and

parliamentary conventions.

President Nixon visited Westminster in 1969, watched

Question Hour, and afterwards politely commented: "I believe

that your Question period is much more of an ordeal than our'

press conference". 159 While one can perhaps take some comfort

from this Washington praise of a Westminster procedure, one imust

also acknowledge the other hidden implications of President

Nixon's comment. While a President might consider questions in.

terms of a press conference, most US cabinet officials would have

to include Congressional investigatory committees among their

chief questioners. Notwithstanding the President's comment,!

Westminster has recently adopted a variant of the Congressional

committees, after a fundamental review of the procedure of the

159. Quoted in Bradshaw and Pring, Parliament and Congress,, p.370. Consider C.J. Friedrich "The Problem of Administrative Responsibility" in P.Woll ed., Public • Administration and Policy , p.229.

•$

Commons. 160 And there are those in the Australian Senate who,

proud of that chamber's established committee system, would say, not before time.161

In section one, reference was made to Max Weber's

pioneering study of parliamentary institutions. 162 Weber was

convinced that more and more political power was flowing away

from the ministry,toward the bureaucracy. He also suggested that one of the main virtues of the Westminster system was the

existence of potentially strong investigative committees, whose inquiries can be the vehicle for the political education of the public. Weber was keen to promote Parliament as a "positive factor" in government, and no procedure appealed to him as much

as the regular inquiry by parliamentary committees which could

render the administration accountable.

While the weight of expert evidence tells against

Question Time - particularly in its Australian form - as a real

test of ministerial responsibility and open government, Question

Time need not be rejected completely as a parliamentary

procedure: the list of institutional reforms that could

strengthen it have been proposed often enough before, and one

hopes that the current inquiry will reinforce these calls for

reform. 163 However, those who hope for longterm improvement in

questions and answers - in both Question Time and in committee

inquiries - must begin by acknowledging what Crisp calls "the

greatest obstacle of all": the manifest failure in Canberra to

160. For some of the background, see W.A. Proctor "The House of Commons Select Committee on Procedure, 1976 to 1979", Table vol.47 (1979), pp.13-36; and R.S. Lancaster, "The Remodelled Select Committtee System of the House of Commons", Contemporary Review (January 1981), pp.19-24. 161. Consider Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, ch. 20. 162. Weber, "Parliament andGovernment in a Reconstructed

Germany", esp. pp.1408, 1416-9 See also Howard, "Question Time: Myth or Reality?", pp.374-5. 163. The most succinct is that by L.F. Crisp "Question Time Weaknesses", Canberra Times, 15 September 1971. See also

L..F. Crisp, Australian NaUonal Government (2nd ed. Croydon 1970), pp.300-2; and G. Reid, "Parliament and the Bureaucracy", p.53.

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i

V

attract or develop members who displays a "sense of the House",

who respect the underlying conventions of parliamentary

government, and the liberal tradition on which it is based.

Partisan politics lays bare the conventional root of

Parliamentary activity. In the final reckoning, any prospect for the institutional reform of Parliament depends on the recovery

of, and consensual support for, those conventions: "...in the

limitations to party strategy imposed by the inviolable bounds of

the rules and in the tacit agreement among all who take part in

parliamentary life to handle these rules in a reasonable way;'.164

The Standing Orders regulating Question Time are

procedural devices which should be the institutional link between

the principles of parliamentary government and its practice.-There is nothing especially sacrosanct about these or any other

devices: different political and social conditions give rise to

different challenges. Yet those who promote parliamentary reform

must avoid repeating the error of those who oppose it - in i

treating procedures preserved in Standing Orders as political

ends, instead of means. Reformers tend to think in terms of

improving institutions. Former British Labour MP and professor

of politics John Mackintosh put it differently:

It is a problem of political attitude, of political philosophy and of political will on the part of the government and on the part of [the backbench] ... The chief problem is whether such reforms fit in with the ethos of the political parties, and with their view of how the political system should work.165

The first and final task is an examination of the political ;ends

or principles which representative assemblies ought to embody.

Whether. Australian politics has a close relationship to thes1e

parliamentary principles is a disturbing, yet still, an open,

question.

164. Redlich, The Procedure of the House of Commons,-p.196. 1 See also Weber, ar iament andGovernment in a econstruct'ed Germany", pp.1426-31. 165. John P. Mackintosh, "The Future of Representative

Parliamentary Democracy", in W. Neilson and J. MacPherson eds., The Legislative Process in Canada (Toronto 1978), p.312.

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APPENDIX

Extract from House of Representatives Standing Orders (Canberra 1980)

QUESTIONS SEEKING INFORMATION

142. Questions may be put to a Minister relating to public affairs with which he is officially connected, to proceedings pending in the House, or to any matter of administration for which he is responsible.

143. Questions may be put to a Member, not being a Minister or an Assistant Minister, relating to any bill, motion, or other public matter connected with the business of the House, of which the Member has charge.

144. The following general rules shall apply to questions: Questions cannot be debated. Questions should not contain-

(a) statements of facts or names of persons unless they are strictly necessary to render the question intelligible and can be authenticated;

(b) arguments;

(c) inferences;

(d) imputations;

(e) epithets;

(f) ironical expressions; or

(g) hypothetical matter.

Questions should not ask Ministers-(a) for an expression of opinion;

(b) to announce the Government's policy, but may seek an explanation regarding the policy of the Government and its application and may ask the Prime Minister whether a Minister's statement in the House represents Government policy; or

(c) for legal opinion.

Questions cannot refer to-(a) debates in the current session; or

(b) proceedings in committee not reported to the House.

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Questions cannot anticipate discussion upon an order of the day or other matter.

145. An answer shall be relevant to the question.

146. A question fully answered cannot be renewed.

147. The Speaker may direct that the language of a question be changed if it seems to him unbecoming or not in conformity with the standing orders of the House.

148. Notice of question shall be given by a Member delivering the same to the Clerk within such time as, in the opinion of the Speaker, will enable the question to be fairly printed. The question shall be fairly written, signed by the Member, and shall show the day proposed for asking such question. 0

149. The Clerk shall place notices of questions on the Notice Paper in the order in which they were received by him.

150. The reply to a question on notice shall be given by delivering the same to the Clerk. A copy thereof shall be supplied to the Member who has asked the question, and such, question and reply shall be printed in Hansard.

151. Questions may be asked without notice. At the discretion of the Speaker supplementary questions may be asked to elucidate an answer.

152. A question without notice may be put to the Speaker relating to any matter of administration for which he is responsible.

153. Questions shall not be asked which reflect on or a're critical of the character or conduct of those persons whose conduct may only be challenged on a substantive motion, and. notice must be given of questions critical of the character; or conduct of other persons.

L

Printed by C. J. THOMPSON, Commonwealth Government Printer, Canberra I