Chapter 31 - Conduct of Senators and rules of debate

203  Infringement of order

  1. If a senator:

    1. persistently and wilfully obstructs the business of the Senate;

    2. is guilty of disorderly conduct;

    3. uses objectionable words, and refuses to withdraw such words;

    4. persistently and wilfully refuses to conform to the standing orders; or

    5. persistently and wilfully disregards the authority of the chair,

    the President may report to the Senate that the senator has committed an offence.

  2. If an offence has been committed by a senator in a committee of the whole, the chairman may suspend the proceedings of the committee and report the offence to the President.

  3. A senator who has been reported as having committed an offence shall attend in the senator’s place and be called upon to make an explanation or apology, and then a motion may be moved that the senator be suspended from the sitting of the Senate. No amendment, adjournment or debate shall be allowed on such a motion, which shall be immediately put by the President.

Amendment history

Adopted: 19 August 1903 as SOs 428–30 (corresponding to paragraphs (1) to (3)) but renumbered as SOs 423–25 for the first printed edition

Amended: 23 August 1979, J.883–84 (an improvement in expression in paragraph (3): “be called upon to stand up in his place” replaced by “attend in his place and be called upon to”)[1]

1989 revision: Old SOs 438 to 40 combined into one, structured as three paragraphs and renumbered as SO 203; expression streamlined and language modernised, including removal of gender-specific pronouns

Commentary

When these standing orders were debated in 1903, President Baker put on the record his view that “the conduct of honourable senators has been such that there has never been even a suspicion that any honourable senator on either side could have been named”. He thought it was advisable to have these standing orders nonetheless, but argued for a milder version than had been suggested by the Standing Orders Committee. This was because the procedures were modelled on those of the House of Commons with 678 members and, given that the House of Representatives had subsequently adopted a milder version, Baker argued that the Senate, with 36 members, should also adopt a milder version, not least because it was advisable that the standing orders of the Houses should be similar on questions like this.[2]

The milder version involved the insertion of a step in paragraph (3) between the naming[3] of a senator and the moving of a motion for the senator’s suspension. A senator who had been named would be required to attend in his or her place and be asked for an explanation of, or apology for, the reported offence. There was thus an opportunity for the Senate to show mercy by not proceeding with the suspension motion, an option not available in the teeming House of Commons but considered appropriate for the much smaller Senate. In the draft as originally proposed, the possibility of an explanation or apology applied only to the offence of using objectionable words and refusing to withdraw them. Baker’s amendments applied these options to all listed offences and were accepted without demur.

The absence of an opportunity to debate or amend a motion for the suspension of a senator was justified as a means of preventing “acrimonious discussion”, even if it meant that there was no opportunity for the mover of the motion to state reasons for the proposed suspension.[4] A motion to suspend a senator may be moved by any senator, all of whom have an interest in maintaining the discipline of the chamber to facilitate its effective operation. Discipline in the chamber is the responsibility of all senators, not just the Chair or the Leader of the Government.

The offences themselves were based on House of Commons practice and have never been updated. In recent times these procedures have been invoked only rarely. Close media scrutiny of parliament and changing community standards relating to personal and interpersonal behaviour may have discouraged some of the more questionable conduct that passed for typical parliamentary behaviour in the past. See Australian Senate Practice, 6th edition, pages 368–73 for a comprehensive account of earlier precedents. Since the data were compiled for the 6th edition (that is, since 1991) there have been only 5 suspensions of senators, one of which was revoked on the same day.

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