Fact Sheet B2

Fact Sheet B2: Question time

Summary: Question time is often seen as the highlight of a sitting day in Parliament.  It can be one of the few occasions when all members are in the Chamber at the same time.  The media and general public show great interest, with all galleries usually full, and others watching the webcast.  This fact sheet explains who takes part, the procedures and what you can see in the Chamber.

Purpose and history Where members sit
When is question time? Clerks' role
Almost all members attend The table and the mace
What happens in question time Viewing galleries
Questions without notice Filming and webcasting
Ministers' statements Printed record
Constituency questions Behaviour in the gallery
Language of questions and answers Taking notes in the gallery  
Speaker's role  

 

Purpose and history

Officially known as questions without notice, question time allows members to ask ministers about government administration.

It is a relatively new procedure.  The first question was asked in the Legislative Assembly on 30 April 1969.  Since then it has become one of the most well known parts of a sitting day.  Question time highlights topical issues and ministers come under scrutiny in a very public environment.

Ministers’ statements and constituency questions were added to question time in 2015. 

When is question time?

In the Legislative Assembly question time begins at 12.00 noon on Tuesday and at 11.00 am on Wednesday and Thursday each sitting week. Question time usually lasts for around one hour.

Almost all members attend

As question time is a very important part of the sitting day, all members usually attend, although it is not compulsory.  However, ministers are expected to attend.

If a minister cannot attend, the Premier makes an announcement at the start of question time. The Premier also explains which minister will answer questions for the absent minister.

What happens in question time

Question time has several parts:

  • questions without notice and supplementary questions
  • ministers’ statements
  • constituency questions.

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Questions without notice

Asking questions

At the beginning of question time, the Speaker says ‘Questions without notice — Are there any questions?’. Members stand up, to let the Speaker know they want to speak.

Members (except government members) ask ministers questions about government business. There are five main questions each question time. Ministers have up to three minutes to answer each question.

The Speaker decides who gets to speak, which is known as having the call. The Speaker gives the first call to the opposition, often the Leader of the Opposition. The Speaker allocates questions based on the size of the parties. This means, smaller parties and independent members might not get to ask a question every question time.

Supplementary questions

After the minister answers each main question, the questioning member can ask a supplementary question to the same minister. The supplementary question must be related to the main question or its answer. Ministers have up to a minute to answer each supplementary question.

Content of questions

Question time is a spontaneous time, as ministers have no prior notice of the questions members ask them. Members are tempted to emphasise matters which could embarrass the government.

Members ask ministers questions about government business within their individual areas of responsibility. Members may also ask questions about portfolios of ministers in the Legislative Council. A Legislative Assembly minister answers questions on behalf of the Council minister.

What happens if a minister does not answer

If a member thinks that a minister has not responded to a question, he or she can tell the Speaker. If the Speaker agrees, the Speaker directs the minister to provide a written answer. The minister has until 2.00 pm on the next sitting day to provide the written answer. The written answer is published in the questions and responses database.

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Ministers' statements

Ministers can make ministers’ statements to advise the House about matters related to their portfolio.

After each main question and its supplementary question, a minister may make a minister’s statement. Each minister’s statement can be two minutes long. There are up to five ministers’ statements each question time.

Constituency questions

After all the questions and ministers’ statements, members can ask constituency questions. The questions must relate to matters in members’ own electorates.

Ten members ask constituency questions each sitting day. Any member, except a minister, can ask a constituency question. Members have one minute to ask their question.

Like questions on notice, members ask constituency questions to ministers within their individual areas of responsibility. Ministers do not answer the question immediately. Instead, they must provide a written answer within 30 days. This gives the minister and the government department time to research the issue.

Constituency questions and their answers are published online in the questions and responses database.

Language of questions and answers

The Speaker can tell a member to change the language of a question. He or she does so if the wording is unbecoming, or breaks the standing orders (rules) and conventions of the Legislative Assembly.

Members are not allowed to give an opinion, or state any facts, except those necessary to explain the question. Ministers are not allowed to debate the question in their answers, nor may they introduce new information, irrelevant to the question.

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Speaker's role

The Speaker can tell a member to change the language of a question. He or she does so if the wording is unbecoming, or breaks the standing orders (rules) and conventions of the Legislative Assembly.

Members are not allowed to give an opinion, or state any facts, except those necessary to explain the question.  Ministers are not allowed to debate the question in their answers, nor may they introduce new information irrelevant to the question.

Find out more: Fact Sheet H2: The Speaker

Where members sit

Government members sit to the right of the Speaker.  Depending on how many government members there are, some may also sit to the left of the Speaker. Opposition members (currently the Liberal Party and Nationals) and any smaller parties and independent members sit to the left of the Speaker.

Ministers sit in the front row on the Speaker’s right, and speak at the table.  Opposition shadow ministers sit in the front row on the left of the Speaker, and ask questions from the table.  The Leaders and Deputy Leaders of the parties sit at the table. 

Clerks' role

The three clerks wear black gowns and sit at the table in front of the Speaker.  They advise the Speaker and members on parliamentary procedures and practices.  The clerks keep books on the table for reference, including standing orders (rules) and records of rulings made by Speakers.

Find out more: Fact Sheet H3: The Clerk.

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The table and the mace

The green folders along the table are a complete set of the Victorian statutes (laws).  The rosewood despatch boxes on the table were gifts from the House of Commons to celebrate 100 years of government in Victoria.  They contain parliamentary procedure manuals and documents.

The gold plated mace sits on the end of the table and is a symbol of the Speaker’s authority in the Legislative Assembly.  It is carried into the Chamber each sitting day by the Serjeant-at-Arms and must remain on the table while the Assembly is sitting. Find out more: Fact Sheet H4: The Serjeant-at-Arms.

Viewing galleries

The area above the Speaker’s chair is the press gallery. Newspaper, radio and television reporters watch and take notes from this gallery.

The public galleries are at the opposite end of the Chamber, both upstairs and downstairs. The front rows of the downstairs galleries are reserved for guests of the Speaker, and members of the Legislative Council.  The public galleries are often full during question time. 

Filming and webcasting

Debate in the Legislative Assembly, including question time, is broadcast through Parliament’s website.  Also, a television camera is usually filming question time, taking footage for news bulletins.

Strict guidelines determine when and how the Assembly and its members can be filmed.  Among other rules, the camera must focus on the member who is speaking, and operators cannot broadcast footage of the public and press galleries.

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Printed record

Hansard is the official printed report of the debates in the Legislative Assembly.  Its name comes from Thomas Curson Hansard, who first compiled and published reports of the debates for the United Kingdom House of Commons.

Parliament employs Hansard reporters to record the debates in the Assembly using audiodigital recording.  They sit in the corner of the Chamber to the Speaker's left.  Because of the pace of question time and production deadlines, they alternate every five to 10 minutes.  

Behaviour in the gallery

Visitors are welcome in the public gallery.  Reservations are not available, so you should arrive at least 15 minutes before question time to get a seat.

When in the gallery, you must not interject, attempt to communicate with members, display signs or cause a disturbance.  You are not allowed to take photographs or film the proceedings.

You should wear neat clothing, and footwear is essential. Your clothing must not display any messages designed to interfere with the business of the Legislative Assembly.  We do not allow hats, other than religious headwear.

You cannot eat, drink or smoke in the gallery. 

Taking notes in the gallery

You can take notes while in the public gallery. This has only allowed since 2000. Before then it was not allowed, following House of Commons’ practice going back to the seventeenth century.  Taking notes was banned there to keep debates secret from the monarch.

Do not publish any notes you take as they are not legally protected.  Hansard is the only official version of the debates in the Legislative Assembly.

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