Chapter 2 - Office of the President

  

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8      Presentation to Governor-General

  1. Having been conducted to the chair, the senator so elected shall return acknowledgments to the Senate and assume the chair.

  2. Senators may congratulate the President, and a minister shall inform the Senate of the time at which the Governor-General will receive the Senate for the purpose of presenting their President, and the sitting of the Senate shall then be suspended or adjourned until that time, unless the Governor-General receives the Senate at once.

  3. Before the Senate proceeds to any business, the President, accompanied by senators, shall be presented to the Governor-General.

Amendment history

Adopted: 19 August 1903 as SOs 23, 24 and 25 (corresponding to paragraphs (1), (2) and (3))

1989 revision: Old SOs 23 to 25 combined into one, structured as three paragraphs and renumbered as SO 8; language simplified

Commentary

 

Newly-elected President, Senator the Hon. John Hogg, presents himself to the Governor-General, Major General Michael Jeffery, AC, CVO, MC, on 26 August 2008 in Members Hall (Photo courtesy of AUSPIC)

 
   
 

Presentation of the President to the Governor-General, 26 August 2008 (Photo courtesy of AUSPIC)

 

Nowhere was the firm hand of President Baker, iconoclast and innovator, more necessary than in guiding the formulation of those standing orders which expressed the powers, rights and constitutional relationships of the new institutions of the Commonwealth. Standing order 8(3) is a reminder of how different the Senate’s practices might have been had it followed the advice of Blackmore the traditionalist. His 1901 draft of the antecedent of SO 8(3) relied on obsolete and inappropriate practices that reflected the constitutional conventions of Westminster in much earlier times:

17. The President elect, with the Senate, shall present himself to the Governor-General, and at such presentation he shall, in the name and on behalf of the Senate, lay claim to their undoubted rights and privileges, and pray that the most favourable construction may be put upon all their proceedings; and, on returning, shall pass through the chamber, and, having resumed the Chair, shall report his presentation to the Governor-General, as well as the circumstance that he had laid claim, on behalf of the Senate to their undoubted rights and privileges.

The Journals for the first sitting reflect Blackmore’s prejudices by recording that the newly-elected President informed the Governor-General of his election and “claimed the usual privileges for the Senate”. Returning to the Senate, President Baker reported the Governor-General’s congratulations and that he “had confirmed the usual rights and privileges”.[1] Whether this actually occurred is a moot point.

When the Standing Orders Committee presented its draft of the proposed standing orders in its Third Report of 1901, this was one area of practice that had clearly benefited from the committee’s resolve to abolish procedures and practices that were based on obsolete conditions, but the committee had not taken the simplification process quite far enough to satisfy a majority of the Senate. In particular, old SO 25 (the precursor of paragraph 8(3)) attempted to burden what was essentially the formal introduction of one officer of the Commonwealth to another with unnecessary significance.[2] The purported rationale for this ritual was for the new President to assert the Senate’s independence from the executive government by claiming a right of direct communication with the Governor-General.

According to the chairman of the Standing Orders Committee, President Baker, this at least was something that the Governor-General could grant – in contrast to what Blackmore had proposed. The precursors of paragraphs 8(1) and (2) were agreed to without debate but when Senator Higgs (ALP, Qld) proposed an amendment to old SO 25 that would replace the claim to free access with the traditional claim to the “usual privileges”, President Baker was blunt:

The old words were departed from because they are a survival of the procedure which has come down to us from the time of the Tudors and Stuarts, when the Speaker of the House of Commons claimed from the Crown certain rights and privileges. ... The use of the words has been continued by all Parliaments down to the present time, though they now involve the ridiculous absurdity of the President or the Speaker claiming from the Crown rights which the Crown cannot grant, and the Crown solemnly granting those rights. Is it not time we stopped that? What right has the Crown to abrogate the common law? Under section 49 of the Constitution we have all the powers, immunities and privileges of the British House of Commons, and it is under that section of our Constitution that we are exempt from the law of libel and from arrest while attending Parliament. It seems to me that we should adapt our procedure to existing circumstances, and we should not ask His Excellency to grant us that which he cannot grant, and leave him to pretend to do that which we know he cannot do.[3]

Senator Higgs was no traditionalist but in expressing his preference for the traditional words, which sounded dignified, over the undignified prospect of “crawling to the Governor-General” he inadvertently hit on a solution:[4]

Personally I feel that there is no necessity for the President doing anything more than acquainting His Excellency with the fact that he has been appointed President of the Senate. But if we are to have any form of words put into the President’s mouth I think the old form is better than the one now proposed.[5]

Senator Higgs’ minimalist views struck a chord. He withdrew his amendment and a further amendment removed the final sentence altogether.

With one minor exception, the 1989 revision of the standing orders involved only routine numbering changes and simplification of language. The deletion of the phrase, “standing on the upper step”, removed an obsolete reference which had been copied from equivalent colonial standing orders and was of no procedural significance in any case.[6] According to the 1938 MS:

The expression “upper step” is a survival of the days when the Chair, resting on the floor of the Chamber, had steps leading up to the actual seat, as in the House of Representatives at the present time. In the Senate the President’s Chair is a chair of ordinary height placed on a dais.

The same volume notes changes of venue for the presentation of the President to the Governor-General. While the Senate met in Melbourne it was the practice for senators to proceed to Government House immediately after the election. In Canberra, on the other hand, the Governor-General (or his deputy) has attended at Parliament House and waited, initially in the Library and from 1935 in the President’s suite, for the election to take place. The volume also notes the “tedious wait” endured by Sir Isaac Isaacs in 1932 (an hour and 40 minutes) while debate took place on the candidates and how to deal with a motion of dissent from a ruling of the Clerk (see SO 6).

  Rights and privileges of the President
 

Extract from the Journals of the Senate, 9 May 1901, showing – no doubt erroneously – that President Baker claimed the 'usual rights and privileges' when he was presented to the Governor-General

In relation to paragraph (1), the 1938 MS records:

The usual procedure is for the proposer and seconder, one on each side of the newly elected President, to walk him to the dais, where they leave him and return to their seats.

There is no basis in Senate practice or procedure for the proposer and seconder to drag a reluctant President to the chair. Like the newly elected President’s claim to the Governor-General for the “usual privileges” of the Senate, this appears to be another relic of ancient Westminster (when Speakers often had good cause to fear for their heads and displayed understandable reluctance), and is unrelated to the arrangements established by the Australian Constitution.[7]

The 1938 MS also records the practice of noting in the Journals the names of the senators who congratulate the President in accordance with standing order 8(2), a practice which has continued to the present time.

On such occasions nowadays, the Governor-General waits in the President’s suite while the election takes place. The new President, preceded by the Usher of the Black Rod, then leads senators from the chamber to Members’ Hall where they are joined by the Governor-General. Details of the presentation (which is also attended by the Clerk and Deputy Clerk) are contained in the 6th edition of Australian Senate Practice, p.178.

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