Chapter 8 - Sittings, quorum and adjournment of the Senate

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52    Quorum during sitting

  1. If it appears, on the report of a division of the Senate by the tellers, that a quorum is not present, the President shall adjourn the Senate till the next sitting day; and no decision of the Senate shall be considered to have been arrived at by such division.

  2. When the President is informed by the Chairman of Committees that a quorum is not present, the bells shall be rung for 4 minutes; the President shall then count the Senate, and if no quorum is then present, shall adjourn the Senate till the next sitting day; but if a quorum is then present, the President shall leave the chair and the committee resume.

  3. If a senator draws attention to the lack of a quorum, the bells shall be rung for 4 minutes; the President shall then count the Senate, and, if a quorum is not present, shall adjourn the Senate till the next sitting day.

  4. When the attention of the President, or of the Chairman of Committees, has been called to the absence of a quorum, a senator shall not leave the chamber until the Senate has been counted by the President.

  5. The doors of the Senate shall be unlocked when the President is counting the Senate.

  6. When the Senate is adjourned for lack of a quorum the names of the senators present shall be entered in the Journals.

  7. Time taken to form a quorum shall not be regarded as part of the amount of time allowed for a senator to speak in a debate or ask a question or for a debate.

Amendment history

Adopted: 19 August 1903 as SOs 53 to 57 (corresponding to paragraphs (1) to (5))

Amended:

  • 9 September 1909, J.120 (to take effect 1 October 1909) (paragraph (6) adopted as SO 58A, comprising content transferred from what is now SO 51 (1), renumbered as SO 61 for the 1909 edition)
  • 5 October 1922, J.107 (amendment to paragraph (2) to enable committee of the whole to resume automatically if quorum formed)
  • 19 August 1975, J.851 –54 (ringing of bells extended from 2 to 3 minutes – reference subsequently superseded)
  • [1 June 1988, J.802 (ringing of bells extended to 4 minutes in new Parliament House by sessional order)]
  • 13 February 1997, J.1447 (to take effect 24 February 1997) (paragraph (7) added as a generalisation of a rule in former sessional orders relating to time limits on second reading speeches)

1989 revision: Old SOs 56 to 60 and 62 combined into one, structured as six paragraphs and renumbered as SO 52; sessional order providing for 4 minute bells incorporated; expression streamlined and language modernised

Commentary

  Quorum required in the Senate Chamber
 

If the bells ring for a quorum, this message is broadcast on the House Monitoring Service

While SO 51 deals with the consequences of failure to form a quorum at the commencement of a meeting of the Senate, SO 52 deals with the consequences of the absence of a quorum becoming apparent at other times. The absence of a quorum may be revealed by:

  • the votes in a division not adding up to a quorum (paragraph (1)); or

  • a senator calling attention to the absence of a quorum in either the Senate or a committee of the whole (paragraphs (3) and (4).

In the first case, the Senate adjourns immediately, the want of a quorum having been demonstrated by the failure of a sufficient number of senators to attend a formal vote. The consequence in the second case depends on whether the Senate is in plenary session or in committee of the whole. If, after the bells have been rung, the President has counted the Senate in plenary and a quorum has not assembled, the Senate adjourns immediately to the next sitting day. This is known colloquially as a count-out. When a quorum has not been assembled in a committee of the whole, however, this fact is reported to the Senate and there is a further opportunity to assemble a quorum before a forced adjournment.[1] Amendments in 1922 to what is now paragraph (2), provided for a committee of the whole to resume automatically once a quorum had been assembled. This rule change merely formalised existing practice.

Other amendments were architecturally motivated. In 1972–73 large extensions were added to Old Parliament House resulting in some senators being located in offices some distance from the chamber. Because of this, the Standing Orders Committee recommended that the time for the ringing of bells for quorums and divisions be extended from 2 to 3 minutes. As a quid pro quo, the time was reduced to one minute when successive divisions were called (see SO 101). These changes were adopted in August 1975.[2] Similarly, the move to a new, much larger building in 1988 led to a further extension of time to 4 minutes, a change first adopted by sessional order before being incorporated into the 1989 revision of the standing orders.

The final change was the incorporation of paragraph (7) in 1997 as a generalised rule derived from a sessional order on time limits for second reading speeches and designed to prevent the erosion of speaking times by quorum calls or points of order (see SOs 189 and 197). The idea first appeared as a notice of motion, given by Senator McLean (AD, NSW) on 6 October 1989, to provide that when the attention of the Chair is drawn to the absence of a quorum while a senator is speaking, the time taken to form a quorum is not taken from the senator’s speaking time.[3] The motion was not moved.

Two significant questions on the application of the quorum provisions have arisen in recent times.

The first was the validity of the often-made claim that it is the duty of government senators to form and maintain a quorum. This claim was repudiated by the Senate in a 1989 resolution which noted, among other things, that “it is the clear responsibility of all senators to maintain the quorum in the Senate”.[4] The resolution censured the government for conduct which led to a count-out of the Senate on 3 October 1989 during discussion of a matter of public importance on protests at the US military base at Nurrungar in South Australia.[5]

The second is the validity of any restriction on the right of a senator to call attention to the lack of a quorum or the discretion of the Chair in declining to count the Senate. Rulings of the President have suggested that the Chair does not have a discretion to decline to count the Senate, notwithstanding contrary practice in the House of Commons (where different rules apply and whose practice, in any case, has no bearing on the practices of the Senate). Senators have always been advised against proposing any motion that might restrict the right of a senator to call attention to the lack of a quorum. The issue was canvassed with the Clerk of the Senate during additional estimates hearings before the Finance and Public Administration Committee in February 2008 following an attempt by the government in the House of Representatives to alter the routine of business in that House by reserving Fridays for private members’ business on a “no divisions–no quorums” basis:

Mr Evans—… This is a question that has been discussed over many, many years. What we have always said is that it is not constitutional for the Senate to take away the right of any senator to draw attention to the lack of a quorum because the Constitution requires the quorum to be at least available. It may not be a justiciable question, but it is one of those provisions in the Constitution that the Senate has to have regard to and comply with itself. Needless to say, many people over many years have said, Can’t we do away with quorum calls?’ and that has always been the response.

Senator FIFIELD—Certainly. So any attempt to dispense with the requirement for a quorum without legislation would be contrary to the Constitution?

Mr Evans—The senator says dispense with a quorum’. I think the statute would have to set some kind of quorum. Possibly it could set a quorum of one, but that might be a bit dubious too. It might become justiciable if that happened. But the quorum can certainly only be changed by statute.

Senator FIFIELD—So, in your view, the nature of the quorum is not something that can simply be changed by a change to standing orders?

Mr Evans—It can. If a house passes an order to abolish quorum calls, it is within its power to do so. But what my predecessors have always said over many, many years is that it is not constitutional to do so.

Senator FIFIELD—Is there a similar constitutional provision for the Senate?

Mr Evans—Yes, it applies to both houses.

Senator ROBERT RAY—You can, of course, dispense with the calling of quorums by agreement, like we do in the Senate, can’t you?

Mr Evans—Yes. We have always said that the Senate adheres to the Constitution by preserving the right of any senator to call attention to the lack of a quorum at any time. If senators choose not to exercise that right, by agreement, that is a different matter.[6]

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