Urgency motions and matters of public importance
Standing order 75 provides a procedure whereby a senator can raise for debate, without the usual notice of not less than one day, any matter which is regarded by five or more senators as warranting immediate debate.
A senator has a choice of proposing that a matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion, in which case the matter may be debated without any question being put to a vote, or moving a motion that in the opinion of the Senate a specified matter is a matter of urgency. A proposal under the standing order is made by delivering in writing to the President not later than 12.30 pm on a sitting day a statement of the proposed matter of public importance or urgency. Proposals are not received until 8.30 am each sitting day.
If more than one proposal is submitted on any day the proposal first provided to the President is reported, and if two or more proposals are presented simultaneously the proposal to be reported is determined by lot.
A proposal under standing order 75 may be signed by more than one senator, in which case any of the joint proposers may move the motion of urgency or speak first to the matter of public importance.
If a proposal is in order the President reads it to the Senate at the time provided in the routine of business, and, if four senators, not including the proposer, by rising in their places, indicate their support of the proposal, the debate proceeds.
A senator who has submitted a proposal may withdraw it when it is read to the Senate or prior to that time. Although the situation has not arisen, the question arises of what would happen if a proposal selected by lot were withdrawn before being reported. The likely solution, and the one which best preserves the rights of senators, is that the proposer of the unsuccessful matter should be given the opportunity to indicate whether they wished to proceed that day.
Special time limits apply to the debate. There is a total time limit of 90 minutes, or 60 minutes if motions to take note of answers are moved after question time, and a speaking time limit of 10 minutes for each speaker. The time allowed does not commence until the debate actually starts. If the debate proceeds by way of an urgency motion, at the expiration of the time, or if the debate is interrupted by other business taken at a fixed time, the question on the motion is put.
Except as otherwise provided in standing order 75, urgency motions and matters of public importance are subject to the normal rules relating to motions and debate. The mover of an urgency motion may speak in reply if time permits.
Rulings have been made that a proposed urgency motion or matter of public importance must relate to a matter of Commonwealth ministerial responsibility, but proposals are accepted if there is any element of such responsibility in the matter in question. The rationale of such rulings is that the procedure under standing order 75 gives special precedence to a discussion over all other business at the relevant time, not by majority decision but at the request of five senators. The procedure should not therefore be used to debate matters merely of interest to senators, when there are other opportunities without precedence, such as the adjournment debate, to discuss such matters.
An urgency motion may not be amended. This rule is sometimes circumvented by the suspension of the standing order to allow an amendment to be moved, and senators usually place on the Notice Paper contingent notices of motion to allow them to move motions to suspend standing orders to allow amendments to be moved to urgency motions. When an amendment has been moved by these means, it is in order to move amendments to the amendment. A suspension of standing orders to authorise an amendment to an urgency motion would not authorise an amendment not relevant to the subject of the motion. If an urgency motion is amended pursuant to a suspension of standing orders, the motion as amended must be put. Amendments are sometimes moved to urgency motions by leave.
The procedure in standing order 75 is designed to allow debate on a matter without the Senate making a decision on a substantive question. In voting on an urgency motion the Senate does not give its decision on a substantive motion, but simply indicates whether in its opinion the matter raised is a matter of urgency. The vote is often regarded, however, as a vote on the matter itself. A motion may therefore be cast in terms which make it difficult for a party to vote either for or against a motion. For example, if the motion is to declare that the level of unemployment is a matter of urgency, a vote on the motion is regarded as a test of the Senate’s attitude to the level of unemployment. If the party supporting the ministry votes against the motion this may be regarded as an expression of indifference on unemployment, but if the party votes for the motion this may be regarded as a confession of ministerial failure. It is because of this potential of an urgency motion to embarrass a party that the rule against amendment is often circumvented.
An urgency motion may not be divided. This ruling was based partly on the prohibition of amendment of an urgency motion.
It is not in order for an urgency motion to be framed so as to build a substantive motion into the statement of the matter of urgency.
The closure (that is, the motion that the question be now put) may be moved during debate on an urgency motion. The standing order provides a means whereby discussion on a matter of public importance may be terminated. At any time during the debate, but not so as to interrupt a senator speaking, a senator may move that the business of the day be called on. This question is immediately put without debate or amendment, and if it is agreed to, the matter of public importance is disposed of and the Senate proceeds with its business.
There are precedents for debate on an urgency motion being adjourned till a later hour of the day. It is not clear how it was determined in these cases which items of business could be transacted before the adjourned debate was called on, or when it was to be called on; presumably this was done by agreement. The precedents have not been followed. The terms of standing order 75 clearly prevent adjournment of a debate till a subsequent day, and if a debate adjourned till a later hour were not called on or concluded before the Senate adjourned it would lapse.
Similarly, an urgency motion or matter of public importance lapses if it is not reached on a day or is superseded by business which is called on at a fixed time. Where debate is interrupted by order for some business of limited duration (such as a senator’s first speech), however, the debate is resumed if time permits.
On 23 October 1997, during debate on an urgency motion, a motion for suspension of standing orders to allow an amendment to be moved to the motion was moved and debated, and debate on the suspension motion had not concluded when the time for the main debate expired. The motion for suspension of standing orders was then taken to have lapsed and the question on the urgency motion was put in accordance with standing order 75. The rationale for this is that the motion for suspension of standing orders is not related in any substantive way to the actual question before the Senate, but is a procedural motion designed to allow, but not to require, the moving of an amendment, which would be substantively related to the question before the Senate. Even if the suspension motion had been passed just before the time expired, its effect would have been merely to allow the moving of an amendment, not to require an amendment to be moved, and it would be anomalous to allow an amendment to be moved after the time had expired. If the suspension motion had been successful and an amendment had been moved before the time expired for the debate, at the expiration of the time the amendment would have been put and then the main question, because the amendment then would have been part of the substantive matter before the Senate for determination.