Standing Orders and Oral Questions: Australia

Following a rather raucous Question Period earlier this week (see my previous post, as well as this excellent overview of events by Aaron Wherry), Canada’s Official Opposition has tabled a motion proposing a slight change to the Standing Orders:

That Standing Order 11(2) be replaced with the following: The Speaker or the Chair of Committees of the Whole, after having called the attention of the House, or of the Committee, to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance, or repetition, including during responses to oral questions, may direct the Member to discontinue his or her intervention, and if then the Member still continues to speak, the Speaker shall name the Member or, if in Committee of the Whole, the Chair shall report the Member to the House.

I thought it might be interesting to have a look at how the Standing Orders of other Westminster-style parliaments handle their equivalent of Question Period. To begin, the Australian House of Representatives.

A couple of years ago, this clip of the former Australian Speaker shutting down former Prime Minister Julia Gillard for lack of relevancy in her answer went somewhat viral. The Australian House of Representatives has fairly clear-cut rules governing the conduct of Question Time.

Standing Order 98 deals with Questions to Ministers:

98  Questions to Ministers
(a)  A Member may ask a question in writing of a Minister (but not a Parliamentary Secretary), to be placed on the Notice Paper for written reply.
(b)  During Question Time, a Member may orally ask a question of a Minister (but not a Parliamentary Secretary), without notice and for immediate response.
(c)  A Minister can only be questioned on the following matters, for which he or she is responsible or officially connected:

(i)  public affairs;
(ii)  administration; or
(iii)  proceedings pending in the House.

(d)  Questioners must not ask Ministers:

(i)  for an expression of opinion, including a legal opinion; or
(ii)  to announce government policy, but may seek an explanation about the policy and its application, and may ask the Prime Minister whether a Minister’s statement in the House represents government policy.

Members may also pose questions to another Member who is not a Minister (or Parliamentary Secretary) relating to a bill, motion, or other business of the House or of a committee, for which the Member asked is responsible (SO 99). They can also ask questions of the Speaker at the end of Question Time on any any matter of administration for which he or she is responsible (SO 103).

Standing order 100 outlines the rules governing questions:

The following general rules apply to all questions:
(a)  Questions must not be debated.
(b)  A question fully answered must not be asked again.
(c)  For questions regarding persons:

(i)  questions must not reflect on or be critical of the character or conduct of a Member, a Senator, the Queen, the Governor General, a State Governor, or a member of the judiciary: their conduct may only be challenged on a substantive motion; and
(ii)  questions critical of the character or conduct of other persons must be in writing.

(d)  Questions must not contain:

(i)  statements of facts or names of persons, unless they can be authenticated and are strictly necessary to make the question intelligible;
(ii)  arguments;
(iii)  inferences;
(iv)  imputations;
(v)  insults;
(vi)  ironical expressions; or
(vii)  hypothetical matter.

(e)  Questions must not refer to debates in the current session, or to proceedings of a committee not reported to the House.
(f)  The duration of each question is limited to 30 seconds.

Rule 101 may be of particular interest to Canadians:

101   Speaker’s discretion about questions
The Speaker may:
(a)  direct a Member to change the language of a question asked during Question Time if the language is inappropriate or does not otherwise conform with the standing orders; and
(b)  change the language of a question in writing if the language is inappropriate or does not otherwise conform with the standing orders.

Our Australian cousins also have rules governing answers to questions, as outlined in SO 104:

104   Answers
(a)  An answer must be directly relevant to the question.
(b)  A point of order regarding relevance may be taken only once in respect of each answer.
(c)  The duration of each answer is limited to 3 minutes.

The Australian rule on relevancy and repetition, which is the target of the NDP motion here in Canada, reads as follows:

75  Irrelevance or tedious repetition
(a)  The Speaker, after having called attention to the conduct of a Member who has persisted in irrelevance or tedious repetition, either of his or her own arguments or of the arguments used by other Members in debate, may direct the Member to discontinue his or her speech.
(b)  The Member may then ask the Speaker to put the question—That the Member be further heard.
The question shall be put immediately and resolved without amendment or debate.

However, it should be noted that in House of Representatives Practice – 6th ed. (the Australian version of O’Brien and Bosc for Canadian procedure geeks), it clearly states that SO 75 “has not been regarded as applying to a statement being made by  leave or to answers during Question Time” (p. 512) which has long been the position of Speakers in the Canadian House of Commons (hence the motivation behind the NDP motion to amend that particular rule to make it apply to Question Period). The procedural manual also explains that oral questions “may raise significant difficulties for the Chair” because of the need to make instant decisions on the application of the above rules. Consequently:

Because of the importance of Question Time in political terms, and because of the need to ensure that this critical function of the House is preserved in a vital form, Speakers tend to be somewhat lenient in applying the standing orders, with the result that, for example, breaches of only minor procedural importance have not prevented questions on issues of special interest. The extent of such leniency varies from Speaker to Speaker and to some degree in the light of prevailing circumstances. (…) Speakers have commented that only a small proportion of questions without notice are strictly in order and that to enforce the rules too rigidly would undermine Question Time. (p. 548)

And while we’re on the topic of Australia’s Question Time, readers might be interested to know that technically, it is entirely within the discretion of the Prime Minister or the senior Minister present as to whether Question Time will even take place, and, if so, for how long it will go on. While Question Period in Canada has a set duration of 45 minutes, in theory, Question Time in the Australian House of Representatives could last hours if the PM were amenable to doing just that. Or it could last all of 20 minutes if the PM decides that’s long enough. Or won’t take place at all if the PM decides it won’t. This may strike many as odd, but the basis for this is that since, as is the case in Canada and Westminster, ministers cannot be required to answer questions, it would be pointless to proceed with Question Time if the PM indicates that questions will not be answered, of if Question Time is underway, that no further questions will be answered.

Australian Speakers aren’t shy about disciplining MPs during Question Time. Here’s a clip of one particularly boisterous session which saw a number of Opposition MPs, including the then Leader of the Opposition (now the current PM) sent off to the sin bin.

Further reading: You can access House of Representatives Practice online on the Parliament of Australia’s website. The current Standing Orders are also online here.

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