OPINION: What Is A Question?

Professor Richard Herr is Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University. The FNU acknowledges the support of the Fiji Sun and that of the Embassy of
20 Apr 2015 10:18
OPINION: What Is A Question?

Professor Richard Herr is Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University. The FNU acknowledges the support of the Fiji Sun and that of the Embassy of Japan through the Candidates’ Manual School’s programme.


Welcome back to Parliament 101. Last week we looked at the role that the order paper plays in organising the daily agenda for parliamentary sitting days.

From media and public perspectives, the single most keenly observed item on the notice paper is the time devoted to “Questions”. To understand why, this week Parliament 101 asks, “what is a Question?”

This may seem a strange question to ask – everyone knows what a question is! However, regular readers of Parliament 101 know everything that takes place on the floor of the Parliament has some special significance.

Thus, there is no such thing as a simple question in Parliament. There is a time and place for everything, including asking a question.   This applies to more than just what the public commonly knows as Question Time.

Arguably, asking questions of the Government is the most important function of the Parliament since ultimately this is what makes the system of responsible Government accountable to Parliament and thereby responsible to the people. Indeed, this was why the Westminster Parliament was sometimes called the “grand inquest of the nation.”

The inquisitorial role is constitutionally protected in Fiji through Section 91(1) of the Constitution. All Ministers are obliged to appear before the Parliament to answer questions on any matter within their area of responsibility.

Parliament has many ways to ask questions of the Government. In a later column, we will see that committees of inquiry use processes that can mirror the rigour of court procedures.

However, today Parliament 101 will concentrate on the mysteries of the time allocated routinely on the order paper for “Questions”.

The first thing to note is that the questions are directed to Ministers. This means only the Opposition and Government backbenchers can ask questions.

Secondly there are two types of questions that can be dealt with during the time allocated to Questions – oral questions and written questions. In some other parliaments, this distinction is called “questions without notice” and “questions on notice”.

Having a regular time for asking general questions of the Government serves a number of important purposes.

Symbolically it provides continuing evidence that the Government enjoys the confidence of the Parliament.   A Government that consistently failed to explain itself adequately to the Parliament would find itself losing both parliamentary and public support.

Individually, questions provide opportunities for Ministers and Shadow Ministers to demonstrate their skills and fitness for Executive office.

Effectiveness in question time can help an ambitious Minister establish a claim for promotion to a higher ministerial position. Shadow Ministers not only hope to undermine the Government electorally but also to advance their position in their party as well as shore up their own personal chances at the next poll.

Being able to ask the Government to explain itself or defend its policies is essential to the concept of responsible Government but why is it necessary to have two types of questions?

Actually, the division between oral and written questions is relatively new in parliamentary terms. It has only been recognised for about a century with oral questions being the more recent development.

Standing Orders reveal one reason for a distinction between the two types of questions.

It says that if the Speaker regards a question being asked as “of a statistical nature” that it may be treated as one that should be dealt with by a written answer. And, generally, this is how the difference between oral and written questions is made in all parliaments.

Questions that require detail and precise answers should be put on notice. This is to allow answers to be prepared and presented in writing so that the Parliament will get the information that it requires.

You might wonder why there is a need for a second type of question then. Shouldn’t the Parliament get the same quality of information from either an oral or a written question?

The answer here is both “yes” and “no”.

The worst parliamentary offence a Minister can commit is to lie to, or to deliberately mislead, the Parliament as this would undermine entirely the concept of responsible Government

So, yes, oral questions should give accurate and truthful answers. But, on the other hand, a Minister cannot be expected to know everything about their portfolio off the top of their head.

Oral questions therefore tend to be of a general nature about the reasons for a policy or a ministerial action that can be answer in more non-specific way.

Moreover, oral questions are usually about current matters that are newsworthy or issues that may need more immediate clarification or explanation.   The answers to written questions can be delayed for up to seven days before the Minister lays the written answer on the table.

It may be of interest to note that oral questions are not quite the same of questions without notice. Oral questions do not demand unprepared responses in the way that questions without notice might do in other parliaments.

In order to ask an oral question, a Member must provide the proposed question to the Secretary-General fully four days or more before the day that the question asked appears on the order paper.

Thus, the Government is aware of the question and can prepare a response. The opportunity to “ambush” the Government with an unexpected demand for information does not really exist in Fiji in the same way, for example, that questions without notice allow in the Australian Parliament.

Our Parliament does permit the asking of an “urgent oral question” but this is not quite the same as a question without notice. Such a question must be given in writing at least one hour before that start of the sitting to the Secretary-General who passes on a copy to the Minister.

There is one opportunity for a spontaneous question, however. A supplementary question may be permitted to an answer the Minister gives to an oral question. While no notice is required for a supplementary, it must comply with all the other requirements for a question.

The number of oral questions is limited to a maximum of six each sitting day with the order and allocation amongst the parties determined by the Business Committee.

Standing Orders specify how many questions, oral and written, a Member might seek to put each sitting day. Also, there are limits on how many can go to a single Minister or regarding a single Ministry.

You might like to have a look at Standing Order 44 to see how this tries to strike a balance between the Parliament’s right to know and the misuse of question time. It provides very detailed instructions on how questions might be phrased and what information can be sought.

Critics frequently question the value of oral questions because of the tactics used to pursue party advantage. They claim they are more a form of political theatre than the stuff of serious politics.

Government backbenchers are often accused of asking soft questions of Ministers to allow them push the Government line. Opposition Members, on the other hand, are said to only ask questions to embarrass the Government rather than to seek genuine information.

There is always a grain of truth to some such complaints but the reality is that it is the duty of the Parliament to keep the Government under scrutiny. Question time and the responses to questions during this time – both oral and written – remain an important part of this process.
Response to Reader’s Question:

Vinaka to “doorstopper at Parliament” who wins this week’s prize by asking, “Why did Dr Neil Sharma lose his seat in Parliament?”
The media coverage of the reason is correct constitutionally, Doorstopper. Section 63(1) of the Constitution actually provides ten different ways that a parliamentary vacancy can occur. Dr Sharma might have resigned from Parliament directly, if he wished, by giving his resignation to the Speaker.   However, his vacancy came indirectly under Section 63(1)(g) since he resigned from FijiFirst, “the political party for which he was a candidate at the time he was elected to Parliament”.
For the vacancy to be completed, the Constitution provides that both the FijiFirst party leader, Prime Minister Bainimarama, and the party secretary, Attorney-General Sayed-Khaiyum, would have signed a written notification to the Speaker, Dr Luveni, to advise her of the resignation.   The Speaker then would have written to the Electoral Commission to advise the Commission officially that a vacancy had occurred.
The Commission, in turn, is required by Section 64(1) to fill the vacancy by the next available candidate on the FijiFirst party list. Note that the next available candidate may not be the highest ranked of the unelected party candidates from the last election. The candidate has to still meet all the criteria for election (e.g. Not become the holder of a public office) and be willing to be elected.


In addition to Parliament 101’s issues, the Fiji Sun wants to encourage readers to raise their own questions about the operation of the Parliament. If you have a question on the Parliament please write to the address below. Parliament 101 cannot answer every question but the question deemed best each week will get answer and a small prize.


Email: sokov@fijisun.com.fj

skype: soko.vakacegu

Post: Parliament 101

c/- Fiji Sun

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OR address to Parliament 101 and drop at Fiji Sun offices at MHCC, Nadi, Lautoka or Labasa.


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