No. 4 - Categories of business

1. Why do I need to know about categories of business?

The priority that is given to items of business, and the place they are listed on the Senate Notice Paper and the Order of Business (“the Red”), are largely determined by the category of business into which an item falls. An understanding of the categories of business will assist in following the routine of business in the Senate each day and in understanding and using the Red and the Notice Paper.

2. What is the routine of business?

The standing orders of the Senate set out the rules by which the Senate operates. Included in these rules is the routine of business – that is, the times the Senate will meet, what business it will consider and in what order it will be considered. The ordinary routine of business is spelled out in standing order 57 and is summarised in the table at the end of this Guide.

From the table, it can be seen that many items are given a particular place in the routine of business, either occurring at a stated time or following directly upon the conclusion of other items. These include question time, matters of public interest and urgency motions (see Brief Guide No. 9—Matters of public importance and urgency) and the presentation and consideration of various types of documents (see Brief Guide No. 11—Opportunities for debating documents and reports). Peppered among these other items are references to “government business” and “general business”.

3. What is meant by ‘business’?

The use of the term “routine of business” refers to “business” in a broad sense but “business” also has a specific parliamentary meaning. When the standing orders refer to “the business of the day” it is a reference to the Senate considering items that fall within the specific categories discussed below. Consideration of “business” in this specific sense accounts for more than 70% of the Senate’s time.

Items are listed for consideration according to the category of business into which they fall. The rules relating to the various categories of business affect when and how items are dealt with.

4. Categories of business

There are three main categories of business: 

  • business of the Senate, which is defined in standing order 58;
  • government business, which is business initiated by a minister; and
  • general business, which is all other business initiated by senators who are not ministers.

Business of the Senate includes disallowance motions (Brief Guide No. 19—Disallowance), motions to refer matters to standing committees (Brief Guide No. 13—Referring matters to committees) and orders requiring the presentation of committee reports. Motions concerning leave of absence for senators and motions concerning the qualification of senators under the Constitution also fall within this category. The Senate can also order that other items be considered in this category on an ad hoc basis. For example, when a report of the Procedure Committee is presented it is now common for a motion to be moved proposing that consideration of the report be made a business of the Senate order for another day.

Government business is business initiated by (or on behalf of) a minister or a parliamentary secretary. The majority of this business consists of government legislation. A minister or parliamentary secretary can also move motions in a private – rather than a ministerial – capacity, in which case the business will fall into the appropriate category according to its subject matter. In recent years, around 50% of the Senate’s time has been spent in the consideration of government business.

General business consists of all other business initiated by senators who are not ministers or parliamentary secretaries and which doesn’t fall into any other category.

There is a fourth category of business – matters of Privilege – which is not extensively dealt with here as it applies only to a very specific set of circumstances. It consists of proposals to refer matters to the Senate Committee of Privileges. An item will fall into this category only if the President has determined that a matter properly raised with him or her should have special priority (or “precedence”) under standing order 81. Matters of Privilege, when listed on the Notice Paper, have priority over all other business on the Notice Paper. These issues are dealt with comprehensively in Brief Guide No. 20—Parliamentary privilege.

5. Notices and orders

Within each category there are two types of business, notices of motion and orders of the day.

A notice of motion indicates a senator’s intention to move a particular motion on a particular day (see Brief Guide No. 8—Notices of motion). Notices are placed on the Notice Paper under the relevant category of business in the order in which they are given. Notices of motion are usually considered before orders of the day, although the Government has the right to place its notices of motion and orders of the day on the Notice Paper as it sees fit. Where a motion is moved but not finally determined – that is, the debate is adjourned or interrupted by other business – the continuation of the debate on the motion becomes an order of the day for a later time.

An order of the day is an item of business that the Senate has set down for consideration on a particular day. The most common orders of the day are orders to continue a debate adjourned on a previous day, orders requiring the presentation of committee reports, orders to commence the next stage of consideration of legislation and orders for the consideration of messages received from the House of Representatives.

6. Precedence and the consideration of business

As a practical matter there is typically far more business listed on the Notice Paper than the Senate has time to consider. The standing orders therefore provide a set of rules for determining the priority (or ”precedence”) which is given to the various categories of business.

As a general rule, items of business take precedence as follows:

1. Business of the Senate.
2. Government business.
3. General business.

A number of standing orders, however, refine these rules and create specific exceptions. These have effect as follows:

Government business only (standing order 57)

The routine of business sets aside the following times for "government business only": Mondays and Tuesdays from 12.30 pm to 2 pm and Wednesdays from 9.30 am to 12.45 pm. (Under a trial first initiated in 2011, the Senate sits for extended hours on Mondays, with "government business only" considered from 10 am to 2 pm.) During this time the normal rules of precedence do not apply and government business will be called on regardless of any business of the Senate items of matters or privilege. Motions to vary the days and hours of sitting often specify that "government business only" be considered for particular hours or, indeed, days.


Business of the Senate items take precedence over all government business and general business (standing order 58)

In the routine of business, government business is listed for consideration on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons after question time and the consideration of certain other items, and on Thursday before question time. On these occasions government business will not be called on until any business of the Senate items listed for that day are determined (that is, voted upon, postponed to another day or adjourned).

Government business takes precedence over general business

In the ordinary routine of business, once any business of the Senate items are determined, government business will be called on for consideration. The only exception to this in the standing orders is that general business takes precedence over government business for up to 2½ hours at a time set aside on Thursday afternoons (standing orders 57 and 59). A temporary order of the Senate to set aside time on Thursday mornings for general business items relating to private senators' bills has been in effect since the start of the 2011 sittings (see below).

Ministers have the power under standing order 65 to arrange the order of government business on the Notice Paper from day to day as they see fit. They can also move motions to rearrange the order in which government business items will be considered. These powers generally allow the Government to determine the priority of items for consideration during government business time.

Consideration of general business

Consideration of government business has priority over general business with the exception of certain times on Thursdays, as described above. This exception merely has the effect of switching the positions of government and general business in the order of precedence for the specified period. Business of the Senate items must still be determined before general business can be called on.

The particular items of general business to be considered at these times are determined between the various non-government senators and a motion to provide for their consideration is moved by the Manager of Government Business. If this did not occur, the Senate would consider general business during this time in the order in which it is listed on the Notice Paper.

Time is also made available during general business time on Thursday afternoons (commencing no later than 6 pm) for the consideration of the government documents listed on the Notice Paper (see Brief Guide No. 11—Opportunities for debating documents and reports).

Because general business has a lower priority than the other categories of business it is, in a practical sense, never called on in the ordinary course of business, except during the periods set aside on Thursdays. Consequently, the majority of general business items considered by the Senate are brought forward using special procedures, notably the discovery of formal business (Brief Guide No. 8—Notices of motion) and the moving of motions by leave or pursuant to a suspension of standing orders (see Brief Guide No. 5—Suspension of Standing Orders).

Consideration of private senators' bills

Since 2011, the Senate has been devoting time to consideration of private senators' bills from 9.30 am on Thursdays. These are items of general business and are being given priority by a temporary order of the Senate.

The particular bills to be considered at this time are determined in advance by the Senate, after consultation between the whips and other senators.

Need assistance?

For assistance with any of the matters covered by this guide, government senators or their staff should contact the Clerk Assistant (Table), on extension 3020 or; and non-government senators or their staff should contact the Clerk Assistant (Procedure), on extension 3380 or

Last reviewed: November 2014
(incorporating standing and temporary orders in place at 30 September 2014)

Back to top

Mondays: Senate meets from 10 am

 Tuesdays: Senate meets from 12.30 pm

 10 am Government business only  12.30 pm Government business only 
 2 pm Questions  2 pm Questions 
  Motions to take note of answers   Motions to take note of answers
  Petitions   Petitions
  Notices of motion   Notices of motion
  Postponement and rearrangement of business   Postponement and rearrangement of business
  Formal motions - discovery of formal business   Formal motions - discovery of formal business
  Matter of public importance or urgency motion   Matter of public importance or urgency motion
  Consideration of documents   Consideration of documents
  Government business   Tabling and consideration of committee reports and government responses
6.30 to 7.30 pm dinner suspension  Government business
9.50 pm Adjournment proposed  7.20 pm Adjournment proposed
10.30 pm Adjournment  9.30 pm Adjournment 


Wednesdays: Senate meets from 9.30 am

Thursdays: Senate meets from 9.30 am

9.30 am Government business only  9.30 am Private senators' bills 
12.45 pm Senators' statements    Petitions
2 pm
  Notices of motion
  Motions to take note of answers   Postponement and rearrangement of business
  Petitions   Formal motions - discovery of formal business
  Notices of motion   Government business*
  Postponement and rearrangement of business  2 pm Questions 
  Formal motions - discovery of formal business   Motions to take note of answers
  Matter of public importance or urgency motion   Tabling and consideration of committee reports and government responses
  Consideration of documents Not later than 4.30 pm General business 
  Tabling and consideration of committee reports and government responses Not later than 6 pm Consideration of government documents under General Business 
  Govenment business Not later than 7 pm Consideration of committee reports, government responses and Auditor-General's reports 
7.20 pm Adjournment proposed  Not later than 8 pm Adjournment proposed 
8 pm Adjournment     Adjournment


* Matters of Privilege and Business of the Senate items listed on the Notice Paper will take precedence

Back to top

Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Add | Email Print
Back to top