Outstanding questions suggest less than outstanding performance

Article published 15 January 2024

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IN the period between October and January, more than 900 questions about health and aged care have gone unanswered in the Australian Parliament.

This is a high volume of questions. However, only 62 responses have been provided. In comparison, other portfolios have provided 300+ responses in this time.

The Government has been accused of avoiding transparency by delaying responses to questions. In return, the Opposition has been accused of submitting a high volume of ‘frivolous’ questions that are a deliberate waste of time.

As usual, the back-and-forth doesn’t tell us much at all about where things have gone wrong or what the plan is to get back on track.

What is a question on notice?

You have likely heard the phrase “I’ll take that on notice” from a politician at some point.

‘Questions on notice’ are an important part of the democratic process. When Parliament is ‘sitting’, there are several opportunities for Members of Parliament to pose questions to the Government.

‘Questions without notice’ may be asked during Question Time in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. They are an important way that the government is held accountable.

There is an expectation that Ministers will have good knowledge of issues within their portfolio and will be able to respond to straightforward questions. In cases where they require more time to answer they may take a question on notice.

Often, these questions require responses that are detailed and will take time to prepare. For example, some requests are for documents to be provided. Others might require Ministerial staff to do some digging and crunch some numbers to provide an answer.

Other questions on notice may be submitted in writing at the end of Question Time or during Senate Estimates.

There is an expectation that these questions will be answered within 30 days and the Minister addressed may be asked to provide an explanation for any delay after this time.

Why haven’t questions been answered?

Well, to be fair, a number of outstanding questions are asking for a large amount of information that won’t be readily available – for example, one question dated 21 November 2023 contained 11 sub-questions, requesting in-depth figures. Questions like this take time to answer and it is reasonable that it might take longer over the holiday period.

Further, in a typical year it’s estimated that a senator might ask around 1200 questions on notice. On a single day in November, one senator asked nearly 700 questions related to health and aged care. Many of these questions will need other departments to provide data. It does seem possible that there is some intent to flood staffers with questions over a time of year when many are on leave.

That said, it seems ridiculous that so few of these questions have been answered, including some that are very straightforward.

CPSA will be watching closely for the responses, as well as for explanations regarding the current backlog.

Having your say

This is a great example of why it is a good idea to get in touch with your local MP if you have questions or concerns. It’s their job to represent the interests of their constituents and there are plenty of opportunities for this. Of course, getting answers is a different story.

You can also contact CPSA if you are unsure who would be the best person to write to about a particular issue.

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For more information please email our media contact at media@cpsa.org.au

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