Chapter 7 - Meetings of the Senate

Sittings and adjournment of the Senate

When a Parliament or a session of Parliament has been opened as described above, the Senate determines its own sittings.

A sitting of the Senate begins when the Senate first meets after an adjournment, and concludes when the Senate again adjourns, either till a specified time or a time to be fixed by a specified procedure. The bells are rung for five minutes prior to the time appointed for the commencement of a sitting, and the President then takes the chair to begin the sitting (SO 49). Before proceeding to business the President recites the prayer prescribed by standing order 50. (See Supplement)

Except where the standing orders provide for the President to adjourn the Senate without putting a question from the chair, the Senate adjourns only by its own resolution (SO 53). Where the Senate is to meet again at a time specified by the standing orders or by any special order, the Senate simply resolves to adjourn. If the time of the next meeting has not been so fixed, a resolution is passed fixing the time before the question for the adjournment is proposed.

Normally the Senate adjourns to a specified time, which has been fixed by an order setting a schedule of sitting days or an order setting the next meeting day at the end of a long adjournment. When adjourning for a period of time longer than normal, for example, at the beginning of the summer and winter long adjournments, the Senate may adjourn to a specified time or such other time as may be fixed by the President.

In exercising the power to fix another time of meeting, the President may exercise an independent discretion to change the time of meeting for any reason related to the orderly conduct of Senate proceedings. The President may set an earlier or a later time of meeting than that specified, and may alter a time of meeting which has been set. In exceptional circumstances the President may postpone a meeting of the Senate. For example, on 22 May 1973 the time appointed was 11 am, but the Canberra airport was closed due to fog and 20 senators were unable to land. With the concurrence of the party leaders, President Cormack ordered that the meeting of the Senate be postponed until 3 pm. There are also precedents for the President delaying the commencement of sittings where official functions have extended beyond the time fixed for the meeting of the Senate. On 17 September 2001 the President altered the time of meeting from 12.30 pm to 2 pm to allow senators to attend a memorial service for victims of terrorist attacks in the United States (17/9/2001, J.4851).

In exercising the power to alter the time of meeting the President also by convention acts upon the advice of the executive government; a statement of this convention was made by President Givens in 1916 (SD, 29/9/1916, p. 9115). The convention operates only for the consideration of government business and not for the political convenience of the government, for example, in deciding upon an early general election. In other words, it is not a substitute for the power of prorogation (see below). In 1972 the President, at the request of the Prime Minister, put senators on provisional notice for a meeting of the Senate on 4 August. The purpose of the proposed sitting was to deal with an emergency arising from a strike in the oil industry. On 3 August the Prime Minister advised the President that, in the light of developments that had taken place, he did not seek a meeting on 4 August and senators were so advised. Subsequently, the Senate met as originally planned, namely, 15 August 1972.

An adjournment resolution which empowers the President to change the time of meeting usually also empowers the Deputy President to act for the President if the President is not available. Where both the President and the Deputy President are to cease to be senators during a long adjournment, a special resolution is passed empowering the holders of those offices, as named persons, to exercise the power of altering the time of meeting (12/6/1981, J.401).

The adjournment of the Senate may be moved at any time by or on behalf of a minister (SO 53(2)), but such a motion may be moved only when there is no other business before the chair, so that debate on a matter under consideration must be adjourned before the adjournment of the Senate is moved.

A senator who is not a minister may not move the adjournment of the Senate except by leave of the Senate or pursuant to a suspension of standing orders (see under Leave of the Senate and Suspension of standing orders, below).

At the time specified by standing order 55 for each sitting day, the President proposes the question that the Senate do now adjourn, without a motion being moved (SO 54). If the Senate is in committee of the whole at that time, the Chair of Committees leaves the chair and reports to the Senate, and on that report being made the President proposes the question for the adjournment.

The question that the Senate do now adjourn is open to debate, and matters not relevant to the question may be debated (SO 53(4)). This means that senators speaking to the motion may refer to any matters, and the question for the adjournment is one of the principal opportunities for senators to raise matters they wish to debate. A speaking time limit of 10 minutes per speaker applies. (See Supplement)

There are, however, limitations on the debate. The normal rules of order, for example, relating to offensive words (SO 193), apply to the debate. It is not in order to anticipate debate on a matter on the Notice Paper (SO 194(1), subject to (2)), although this rule is interpreted liberally, as explained in Chapter 10, Debate. It is also not in order to attempt to revisit a debate adjourned or concluded earlier in a sitting. It has been ruled, however, that this does not prevent a senator during the adjournment debate seeking an explanation about a matter relating to a debate earlier in the sitting (SD, 30/10/1975, p. 1654). Unconcluded proceedings in a committee cannot be debated (SO 119).

The President adjourns the Senate without putting the question at the conclusion of debate on Tuesdays, and on other days at the conclusion of debate, at the expiration of 40 minutes or at the time specified, whichever is the earlier.

When a minister moves the adjournment, this is normally by agreement. If the adjournment were moved by a minister at a time not specified by order of the Senate, and it appeared that there was opposition to the adjournment, the chair would be obliged to put the question for the adjournment. This would prevent the Senate being adjourned against its will, and would be in keeping with standing order 53(1).

The question for the adjournment of the Senate may not be amended (SO 53(3)).

On 12 September 1972 President Cormack ruled that the question for the adjournment at 10.30 pm be not put until a point of order had been resolved. He considered that it was proper that there should reside in the chair a discretion to delay the question for the adjournment until a point of order had been determined, especially when it involved a serious matter of the conduct of a senator. This ruling is supported by standing order 197(3), which provides that all questions of order, until decided, suspend the consideration and decision of every other question. The President further ruled that, as the time taken after 10.30 pm was outside the normal debating time and was for the purpose of finalising the matter of order, the speaking time of the senator affected would be calculated to 10.30 pm (SD, pp 790, 809).

An order may be made that the Senate adjourn at a certain time. When the specified time is reached, the President interrupts the debate then proceeding and adjourns the Senate forthwith to the next sitting day.

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