The government is accountable, or answerable, to the Parliament, which means it is expected to explain what it is doing and why. It is up to the Parliament, in particular the opposition, minor parties and Independents, to hold the government to account. It does this by scrutinising (closely examining) the work of the government. Much of this public scrutiny happens during Question Time and in Senate estimates.
Senate estimates hearings, also known as estimates committees or simply ‘estimates’, allow senators to examine how the government has spent taxpayers’ money and its future spending plans.
Each of the eight estimates committees is responsible for examining different government departments and agencies. During the hearings, senators can ask government ministers and senior public servants about the work of their department. They may be asked to explain the purpose of the programs and services provided by their department, and how they are run.
Under detailed questioning from non-government senators, ministers and department officials may reveal details about government practice that have not been made public. Estimates hearings may lead to improvements in the way government departments operate. As well, they remind the government that it is accountable to Australians for its policies and actions.
All estimates, and most committee hearings, are open to the media and the public and are broadcast live.
During Question Time, the Prime Minister and ministers are asked to explain government decisions and actions. Question Time takes place in both the House of Representatives and Senate at 2pm every Monday to Thursday when Parliament is sitting, and runs for about one hour.
The opposition, minor parties and Independents use Question Time to raise important issues, and to make sure that the decisions made by the government are in the national interest. The opposition may also ask questions aimed at highlighting weaknesses in the government's performance and at presenting itself as an alternative government.
In contrast, members of the government ask ministers questions that give them a chance to show that the government is doing a good job of running the country. Question Time also allows ministers to talk about urgent matters and to display their political skills.
Question Time is often the liveliest part of the sitting day. It is broadcast on national television, radio and the internet and is widely reported in the media. This gives the public an opportunity to observe Parliament at work.
Official records are kept of what is said and done in the Parliament. These records include Hansard, Journals of the Senate and Votes and Proceedings. Anyone can check these records to see what is being said about a bill or issue, and to find out about decisions made by the Parliament. These records are an important way of keeping Parliament open and accountable to the people.
Hansard is an edited transcript (written record) of what is said in Parliament. It is named after the family who produced the record of British parliamentary debates from 1812 to 1889. Hansards for the Senate and House of Representatives are available on the internet on the morning following each sitting day. Hansards of committee hearings can also be accessed online.
The Journals of the Senate and Votes and Proceedings are legal records and provide the most accurate information about the activities of the Senate and House of Representatives. Unlike Hansard, they record what is done by each chamber rather than what is said by individual members of parliament. For example, they list each vote that is held and how each member of parliament voted.