Chapter 9 - Times of sittings and routine of business

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55    Times of meetings

  1. The days and times of meeting of the Senate in each sitting week shall be:

    Monday: 12.30 pm – 6.30 pm, 7.30 pm – 10.30 pm
    Tuesday: 12.30 pm – adjournment
    Wednesday: 9.30 am – 8 pm
    Thursday: 9.30 am – 8.40 pm.

  2. The President, at the request of an absolute majority of the whole number of senators that the Senate meet at a certain time, shall fix a time of meeting in accordance with that request, and the time of meeting shall be notified to each senator.

  3. For that purpose a request by the leader or deputy leader of a party in the Senate shall be deemed to be a request by every senator of that party.

  4. A request may be made to the President by delivery to the Clerk, who shall immediately notify the President.

  5. If the President is unavailable, the Clerk shall notify the Deputy President, or, should the Deputy President be unavailable, any one of the Temporary Chairmen of Committees, who shall be required to summon the Senate on behalf of the President, in accordance with this standing order.

Amendment history

Adopted: 21 November 1989, J.2219, as SO 55 (to take effect on the first sitting day in 1990) (previously dealt with by sessional orders; incorporated into standing orders as part of the 1989 revision)

Amended:

  • [2 February 1994, J.1170–78 (adoption of sessional order, on a trial basis, providing for earlier, and definite, adjournment times on most days and a new routine of business; re-adopted on multiple occasions during 1996 – see SO 24A for a list of those occasions)]
  • 13 February 1997, J.1447 (to take effect 24 February 1997) (incorporation of 1994 reforms to hours of meeting, as modified by subsequent sessional orders)
  • 4 September 1997, J.2427 (Monday’s dinner break varied)
  • 7 December 1998, J.287 (consequential amendment from adoption of open-ended adjournment debate on Mondays)
  • 28 August 2002, J.685–86 (open-ended adjournment debate moved to Tuesdays)
  • 14 May 2003, J.1797–99 (starting time on Tuesdays brought forward to 12.30 pm)

Commentary

The Procedure Committee modifies the hours of meeting  

The hours of meeting were modified in 1994 following an inquiry by the Procedure Committee

 

The times of meeting and routine of business were set by sessional order until they were incorporated as standing orders into the 1989 revision. Such relatively ephemeral matters may have been regarded as not necessarily appropriate for fixed arrangements because they were subject to frequent change or ad hoc adjustments to suit the changing requirements of the Senate. On the other hand, location in standing orders could be rationalised on the basis that it would make these arrangements more accessible and easy to find. In practice, there is little difference between changing a sessional order and changing a standing order, particularly now that reprints of standing orders have become much more frequent than in earlier times.

From its earliest days, the Senate met on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays (at 2.30 pm on the first two days and 10.30 am on the last).[1] The expectation was that the Senate would continue to meet from week to week as required, unless a motion was moved to set a different day, or unless the motion authorised the President to fix a day and time and notify all senators accordingly.[2] The three day sitting week was set by sessional order. Orders providing for Tuesday sittings and a 4 pm adjournment on Fridays were also relatively common. A separate sessional order prescribed suspensions for meal breaks, commonly from 12.45 pm to 2.15 pm and 6 pm to 8 pm, but it was not till 1950 that a sessional order, moved by the Leader of the Opposition, Senator Ashley (ALP, NSW), prescribed times on all three days for the motion for the adjournment to be moved (10.30 pm on non-broadcast days and 11 pm on broadcast days).[3] It was a corollary of SO 64 which prohibited the introduction of new business after 10.30 pm. As the motion could be debated or negatived, however, the actual adjournment times remained uncertain.

After the introduction of proportional representation, the expanded Senate had an opposition majority and the newly elected Menzies government was already on the lookout for a double dissolution trigger to get control of the Senate. The Communist Party Dissolution Bill had been declared urgent on 24 May 1950 but the motion that it be considered an urgent bill was lost, the government immediately losing another procedural motion to expedite proceedings on the bill.[4] The Senate returned to debate on the Commonwealth Bank Bill 1950 which had been a source of embarrassment to the government the previous week when there had apparently been some uncertainty about the need for a Friday sitting. Many senators, including government senators, left town. A quorum could not be formed at the commencement of the sitting and the Senate was therefore adjourned.[5] It was in this context that Senator Ashley used general business time the following week to change the days of meeting to Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (to avoid Friday sittings) and to initiate the sessional order for the adjournment.[6] The following year, the Commonwealth Bank Bill 1950 [No. 2] would provide the government with its trigger, and the Tuesday to Thursday sitting week would thereafter become the standard pattern for many years.

It seems to have been taken for granted that the new Commonwealth Parliament would adopt the part-time hours of the colonial and Westminster Houses despite very different circumstances, including salaried members. In 1994, when the Senate adopted more rational working hours, one senator referred to the mythical origins of the previous scheme in “the train timetables 50 years ago”, and then provided a more likely alternative: “Apparently, at a time when members of parliament were mainly professional and business gentlemen, who enacted their parliamentary responsibilities in their leisure hours, it was customary for them to be part-time and for them to engage in the responsibilities of the parliament in the evening”.[7] With most senators travelling great distances to fulfil their parliamentary duties, and the location of Parliament House in the new capital, Canberra, from 1927, it is unlikely that many senators were able to pursue other business or professional activities on sitting days. On the contrary, as salaried officers of the Commonwealth, senators were expected (though not required) to be full-time parliamentarians. The train timetable theory appears to have always been an excuse, at least after 1927 when administrative correspondence from the department’s records shows that Clerks routinely informed Commonwealth Railways and the Department of the Interior about parliamentary sittings so that timetables could be adjusted accordingly, and special services provided if required.[8] The traditional hours of meeting were an inherited habit, ill-fitted to the circumstances and refusing to die for many decades.

In the first edition of Australian Senate Practice in 1953, J.R. Odgers, in a section on the Senate’s control over its own sittings, referred to the Senate’s usual adjournment resolution:

That the Senate, at its rising, adjourn till a day and hour to be fixed by the President, which time of meeting shall be notified to each Senator by telegram or letter.

Noting that a Victorian Royal Commission on Constitutional Reform in the 1890s had suggested a mechanism for an absolute majority of the legislature to require the assembly to convene during any recess, Odgers suggested that the Senate could enhance control over its own meetings by amending the usual adjournment resolution along those lines.[9] The idea was first used in 1967, when Opposition Leader, Senator Murphy (ALP, NSW), moved an amendment to the usual motion for the next meeting, to add:

  The Senate can convene with an absolute majority of the whole number of senators
 

An absolute majority of senators may ask the President to convene the Senate

Provided that the President, upon a request or requests by an absolute majority of the whole number of Senators that the Senate meet at a certain time, shall fix a day and hour of meeting in accordance with such request or requests and such time of meeting shall be notified to each Senator by telegram or letter.

For these purposes a request by the Leader of the Opposition shall be deemed to be a request by every member of the Opposition and a request by the Leader of the Australian Democratic Labor Party shall be deemed to be a request by members of that Party.

Provided further that the request or requests may be made to the President by leaving the same with, or delivering the same to, the Clerk of the Senate, who shall immediately notify the President.

In the event of the President being unavailable, the Clerk shall without delay notify the Deputy President, or, should he be unavailable, any one of the Temporary Chairmen of Committees, who shall be deemed to be required by the Senate to summon the Senate on behalf of the President, in accordance with the terms of this resolution.[10]

Amendments of this nature were invariably moved by the opposition leader of the day until the mechanism was incorporated into sessional orders and, ultimately, into standing orders.[11] For instances of recalls under these provisions, see Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 12th edition, p.150.

Under the precedents of the Senate, the President has a limited discretion to postpone the time of meeting on a day in exceptional circumstances. See Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 12th edition, p.148.

In 1973, a new government informed the Senate that a greatly expanded legislative program would require some changes in the regular hours of meeting to cope with the additional workload without excessive use of the guillotine.[12] Later that year, however, a proposal to reduce the hours of meeting to allow more committee work to be done in sitting weeks was hotly debated before being agreed to.[13] Additional hours were invariably required at the end of periods of sitting to deal with the backlog of bills. These were agreed to on an ad hoc basis.

In 1984, the pattern that would prevail for the next ten years was established, involving an eight day fortnight (Tuesday to Friday in the first week and Monday to Thursday in the second week) and a two weeks on, two weeks off arrangement.[14] It was this arrangement that was incorporated into standing orders in 1989. Shortly afterwards, on 5 December 1989, the Senate agreed to sessional orders for the systematic referral of bills to committees that set aside Wednesdays in sitting weeks for committees to meet. Before the orders came into effect, the opposition moved to vary them to provide for Friday of Week 1 to be available for committee meetings,[15] hence the emergence of the term “Friday committees” to refer to committees considering bills. In reality, few bills inquiries could be accomplished in this very short time frame and most attracted reporting dates that allowed the committees to engage in a proper process of information and evidence gathering. The term was a misnomer almost from its inception.

Although governments had issued an indicative sitting pattern for many years, it was not until 1987 that the Senate began to set a forward calendar of sittings by resolution. Previously, a motion moved at the end of one bloc of sittings adjourned the Senate either to a fixed date in the future or to a date to be set by the President, subject to the right of an absolute majority of the Senate to require a recall. Resolutions usually set dates for approximately six months in advance, to cover the Autumn sittings in the first half of the year and the Budget sittings in the second half (when the Budget was presented in August).[16] Since 1997, the practice has been for a full year’s sitting dates to be set in advance, usually broken into three or more blocs. The inclusion of dates for estimates hearings has also been common.[17]

In the early 1990s, as the pressure of business continued to build, the adjournment was frequently negatived and the Senate often sat well beyond midnight. In August 1993, the Senate referred the following matter to the Procedure Committee:

Ways in which the days and hours of sitting of the Senate and the order of business can be arranged such that more time is available for legislation and other business and late night sittings are avoided.[18]

The committee consulted widely, including with its House of Representatives equivalent which was conducting a similar inquiry. The scheme proposed by the committee included the following features:

  • sittings on Monday to Thursday each week, commencing at 2 pm on Monday and Tuesday, and 9.30 am on the remaining days;

  • the adjournment to be proposed at 7.20 pm each day, or earlier on Tuesdays and Wednesdays if consideration of government documents did not use its allotted time, with a maximum of 40 minutes debate (10 minutes per speaker), and at the end of that time the President would adjourn the Senate without putting the question, so that the Senate would be assured of adjourning at 8 pm each day;

  • an hour to be set aside on Wednesdays and Thursdays for debate on committee reports;

  • taking note of answers to questions without notice to be incorporated into the daily routine for a maximum of 30 minutes, and matters of public importance or urgency motions to be limited to one hour in total (10 minutes per speaker).[19]

It was adopted as a sessional order with some modifications (including an open-ended adjournment on one night per week) on 2 February 1994 before being incorporated into standing orders in 1997. By that time, a new government had initiated some changes to the times of meeting, including the restoration of one later evening sitting on Mondays.

The location of these matters in standing orders, despite regular amendment, has proved an effective method of ensuring that the Senate’s rules reflect its actual practices.

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