Question time in a parliament occurs when members of the parliament ask questions of government ministers (including the prime minister), which they are obliged to answer. It usually occurs daily while parliament is sitting, though it can be cancelled in exceptional circumstances. Question time originated in the Westminster system of the United Kingdom, and occurs in other countries, mostly Commonwealth countries, who use the system.
In practice, the questions asked in question time are usually pre-arranged by the organisers of each party; although the questions are usually without notice. Questions from government backbenchers are either intended to allow the Minister to discuss the virtues of government policy, or to attack the opposition. A typical format of such a government backbencher's question might be "Could the Minister discuss the benefits of the government's initiative on <issue>, and is the Minister aware of any alternative policies in this area?"
Question time is an institution in the Commonwealth Parliament and in all state parliaments. Questions to government ministers normally alternate between government members and the opposition, with the opposition going first. Questions of ministers are generally asked by their counterpart shadow ministers in the opposition, and are always asked by backbenchers on the government side. In the House of Representatives, the first question is usually asked of the Prime Minister by the Leader of the Opposition. Similar arrangements apply in the Senate. To accommodate the distribution of ministers between both chambers, ministers also take on representative roles, answering questions relating to portfolios that are not their own because the responsible minister sits in the other chamber. This allows questioners to ask questions about any government portfolio in either chamber. This normally includes the Leader of the Government in the Senate representing the Prime Minister in response to questions asked by senators about general government policy.
Convention allows the Prime Minister in the House, and the Leader of the Government in the Senate, to terminate question time by asking that "further questions be placed on the Notice Paper". This is not a formal motion but an indication that, even if further questions were asked, ministers would not answer them since they are not compelled to do so. It is possible in this way to prematurely terminate question time, although this is rare in the House and essentially unheard of in the Senate. During the Keating Government, the Prime Minister attempted to limit the number of questions asked in a way the Liberal Opposition disapproved of. To protest the change, the Opposition made random quorum calls through the afternoon for every question they felt they had been denied that day. In the House, question time is generally scheduled from 2pm to 3:30 pm on every sitting day; in the Senate, it generally occurs from 2pm to 3pm. Apart from divisions, it is the only time the chamber is likely to be filled.
Tactically, it is considered an important defining characteristic for an Opposition Leader to be able ask a pertinent question of the Prime Minister or Premier, or to single out perceived weak performers in the Ministry.
Interjections from both government and opposition members in the House of Representatives and the Senate are common, and broadly speaking are an accepted practice, although the Speaker of the House or the President of the Senate will intervene if interjections become too frequent, if they contain inappropriate content, or if the member interjecting is disrupting debate. Given that question time is the only time of day when all members of Parliament are in their respective chambers, the appearance of question time can be rowdy and boisterous compared to the normally sedate activity during the rest of the day.
There is a 45-second time limit for questions and a four-minute time limit for answers in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, a questioner may ask an initial question and two supplementary questions related to their initial question. Each question has a one-minute time limit. Answers to initial questions are limited to three minutes, and answers to supplementary questions are limited to one minute. A senator may also move to 'take note' of a minister's answer after question time, allowing questioners (generally Opposition senators) to respond to the answers provided by ministers.
It is very common for points of order to be raised during question time on the issue of relevance, as a Minister answering questions will normally attempt to redirect the answer to an attack on their opponents. However, as long as the Minister is talking on the general subject of the matter raised in the question, it is usually considered relevant to the question, even if it does not address the specific issue raised in the question at all.
State Parliaments adopt similar practices to the federal Parliament.
In Finland's parliament Question hour (kyselytunti) is held every Thursday from 4 to 5 p.m. It is broadcast live on public television.
The questions in the Legislative Council are aimed at seeking information on government actions on specific problems or incidents and on government policies, for the purpose of monitoring the effectiveness of the government.
Questions may be asked at any council meeting except the first meeting of a session, a meeting at which the President (the speaker) of the council is elected, or the Chief Executive delivers the annual policy address to the Council.
No more than 22 questions, excluding urgent questions that may be permitted by the President, may be asked at any one meeting. Replies to questions may be given by designated public officers, usually secretaries, orally or in written form. For questions seeking oral replies, supplementary questions may be put by any member when called upon by the president of the council for the purpose of elucidating that answer. Where there is no debate on a motion with no legislative effect at a meeting, no more than ten questions requiring oral replies may be asked; otherwise, no more than six questions may require an oral reply.
The Chief Executive, who is the head of the region and head of government, attends Question and Answer Session of the council which are held several times in a legislative year.
The Diet of Japan held its first question time (党首討論 tōshu tōron) on November 10, 1999; the first question asked to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi was "Prime Minister, what did you have for breakfast this morning?". Japan's question time was closely modeled after that of the UK, and many Diet members travelled to the House of Commons to study the British application of the concept.
Question time is 45 minutes long and questions are limited to the leaders of parliamentary caucuses (which must consist of at least ten members of either house). Although it is generally held every week while the Diet is in session, it may be cancelled with the agreement of the opposition: this often happens during the budgeting period and at other times when the Prime Minister must sit in the Diet.
Questions asked to Ministers must be concise and related to the area of the Minister's responsibility. Questions require that all facts be authenticated. Before a question is asked it is checked that it meets the requirements of the House's Standing orders, before being transmitted to the relevant ministers.
In New Zealand oral questions are asked at 2pm on each sitting day. Twelve principal oral questions are asked, with supplementary questions also given that must relate to the initial subject matter. The opportunity to ask questions is equally shared amongst the members of the house, excluding ministers. Urgent Questions, while possible, are uncommon.
The Question is addressed to the portfolio of the Minister receiving the question, and the questioner must ask the question as written. Once a question is asked, supplementary questions can be asked.
SKY News New Zealand broadcasts this session from 2pm to the conclusion of questioning. Also, New Zealand's free-to-air digital television network, Freeview, provides live coverage of the debating chamber when it is in session on Parliament TV.
There is no limit to the written questions that any MP can ask and can be submitted each working day before 10.30am. Submission and publication of the question is an electronic process with no hard copy record. Ministers have 6 days to respond to a question.
In the United Kingdom, question time lasts for an hour each day from Monday to Thursday (2:30 to 3:30pm on Mondays, 11:30am to 12:30pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 9:30 to 10:30am on Thursdays). Each Government department has its place in a rota which repeats every four to five weeks. The exception to this sequence are the Business Questions (Questions to the Leader of House of Commons), in which questions are asked about the business of the House the following week, as well as any issue that MPs might want to raise to the government. Also, Questions to the Prime Minister takes place each Wednesday from noon to 12:30pm.
In addition to government departments, there are also questions regarding the Church, House of Commons reform and Law Rulings. Additionally, each Member of Parliament is entitled to table an unlimited number of written questions. Usually a Private Member directs a question to a Secretary of State, and it usually answered by a Minister of State or Parliamentary Under Secretary of State. Written Questions are submitted to the Clerks of the Table Office, either on paper or electronically, and are recorded in The Official Report (Hansard) so as to be widely available and accessible.
In the House of Lords, half an hour is put aside each afternoon at the start of the day's proceedings for "Lords Questions". A peer submits a query in advance, which then appears on the Order Paper for the day's proceedings. The Lord shall say: "My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper". The Minister responsible then answers the query. Afterwards, for around ten minutes, any Lord can ask the Minister questions on the theme of the original put down on the order paper. (For instance, if the question regards immigration, Lords can ask the Minister any question related to immigration during the allowed period). A peer may also table up to six questions for written answer on any day the House is sitting.
The United States, which has a presidential system of government, does not have a question time for the President. However, Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution of the United States states: [The President] "shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." The exact meaning of this clause has never been worked out fully, although it is the constitutional basis for the modern State of the Union address. There was some discussion at various times about whether this clause would allow something similar to a Westminster style question time – for instance, having Department Secretaries being questioned by the House of Representatives or the Senate – but the discussions on this issue have never gotten past an exploratory stage. The basic concept of separation of powers will probably prevent, in practical terms, a question time from being established in the United States.
President George H. W. Bush once said of PMQs, "I count my blessings for the fact I don't have to go into that pit that John Major stands in, nose-to-nose with the opposition, all yelling at each other." In 2008, Senator John McCain (Republican Party nominee for President of the United States in the 2008 presidential election) stated his intention, if elected, to create a Presidential equivalent of the British conditional convention of Prime Minister's Questions. In a policy speech on May 15, 2008, which outlined a number of ideas, McCain said, "I will ask Congress to grant me the privilege of coming before both houses to take questions, and address criticism, much the same as the Prime Minister of Great Britain [sic] appears regularly before the House of Commons."
George F. Will of The Washington Post criticized the proposal in an Op-Ed piece, saying that a presidential question time would endanger separation of powers as the President of the United States, unlike the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is not a member of the legislature. Will ended the piece by saying, "Congress should remind a President McCain that the 16 blocks separating the Capitol from the White House nicely express the nation's constitutional geography."
In February 2009, just over a month after his inauguration, President Barack Obama invited serving members of the US Senate to a "fiscal responsibility" summit at the White House, during which Senators asked the President about his fiscal policies in an event which was compared to Prime Minister's Question. Eleven months later, Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner invited Obama to the annual House Issues Conference in Baltimore, Maryland, where the President answered questions and criticisms from Republican Congressmen and women. Commenting on the event, Peter Baker in The New York Times, said "[the] back and forth resembled the British tradition where the prime minister submits to questions on the floor of the House of Commons – something Senator John McCain had promised to do if elected president."