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Odgers' Australian Senate Practice Thirteenth Edition

Chapter 11 - Voting and divisions

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A formal recorded vote in the Senate is referred to as a division, as the ayes and noes divide in the chamber. The senators voting on each side are then counted and recorded, and their votes are recorded in the Journals. Senators vote by sitting on either side of the chamber, the ayes to the right of the chair and the noes to the left, and are counted by tellers appointed by the President.

After a division is called for it may be withdrawn by leave of the Senate (unanimous consent of all senators present) up to the point at which the President appoints the tellers.[12] This procedure is used where divisions are called for mistakenly or where there has at first been some uncertainty as to how particular senators are voting.

When a division is called for the bells are rung for four minutes to summon absent senators who wish to vote to the chamber. When successive divisions are taken, with no debate after the first division, the bells for each ensuing division are rung for one minute only.[13] While the bells are ringing the doors of the chamber are held open to facilitate the entry of senators. After the bells have rung for four minutes the President directs that the doors be locked while the count takes place.[14] This is to ensure that the counting is not confused by senators entering or leaving the chamber during the process of the count. At the direction of the President senators present on the floor of the chamber when the doors are locked proceed to either side of the chamber and remain in seats while the count is taking place.[15]

The President then appoints tellers, one from each side, who call the names of the senators voting on each side. The names are taken down by the clerks and the lists, signed by the tellers, are presented to the President, who declares the result.[16] Normally party whips are appointed as tellers.[17]

The divisions lists are published in the Journals.[18]

If there is subsequently any confusion or error concerning the result of a division, unless it can be more easily corrected another division is taken.[19] Occasional corrections of counting errors which do not affect the result, and which are usually caused by pairing errors (see below), are made and certified by the tellers.

Divisions are taken again by leave when it is discovered that senators have been accidentally absent or some similar accident has caused a division to miscarry, on the principle that decisions of the Senate should not be made by misadventure.[20]

A proposal to amend SO 104 to provide for divisions to be held automatically in these circumstances was referred to the Procedure Committee on 29 September 2010.[21] In its Third report of 2010,[22] the committee affirmed current practice but agreed to reconsider the matter if any incident raised specific concerns. Current practice reflects the principle that the Senate, as master of its own proceedings, should have the right to determine the circumstances in which divisions are held again, if necessary on case-by-case basis.[23]

A senator who has called for a division must not leave the chamber until the division has been completed, and a senator must vote in a division in accordance with the senator's vote by voice.[24] These rules ensure that divisions are not called for unless the senators calling for them actually intend to vote as they have indicated.

A senator is not obliged, however, to vote for a motion which the senator has moved, the rationale being that even the mover may be persuaded against a motion by the debate; or the motion may have been amended in a way unacceptable to the mover.[25]

There is no provision for absentee voting; a senator must be in the chamber to vote.[26]

Nor is there any provision in the procedures of the Senate for proxy voting by senators. Arguably, such a provision would be contrary to section 23 of the Constitution in so far as that section provides that each senator shall have one vote.

The procedures do not allow for senators formally to record an abstention from voting. All senators who are on the floor of the chamber when the count is begun must vote with the ayes or the noes, except the senator in the chair.[27] Senators who wish to abstain in a vote can do so only by absenting themselves from the floor of the chamber. If a senator is absent during a division, it is therefore not possible to tell from the record of voting alone whether the senator has deliberately abstained from voting or has simply been absent. It is of course open to senators to declare an intention to abstain from voting during debate on a motion or otherwise to make their abstention known.

An exception to the rule that a senator who is present in the chamber must vote is made for the President in the Senate and the Chair of Committees in the chair of the committee of the whole, and in practice for any senator who occupies the chair at the time of a division.[28] The rationale of this exception is that the senator in the chair cannot avoid voting by leaving the chamber as can other senators. In practice, the President and other senators in the chair normally vote in a division. They do so by indicating whether they are voting with the ayes or the noes.[29]

No decision is taken to have been reached by a division if a quorum of senators has not voted in the division.[30]

If a senator wishes to raise a point of order during a division, the senator may do so while sitting.[31] The rationale of this rule is that a senator standing, which senators normally must do to seek the attention of the chair, would not be conspicuous when senators are taking their places in the chamber to vote. A point of order raised during a division must relate to the division, and cannot refer to some matter which has occurred earlier.[32] For observations on the method of resolving points of order during divisions, see the Procedure Committee's First Report of 1997.[33]

Divisions in committee of the whole are taken in the same manner as in the Senate.[34]

A division cannot be held after 4.30 pm on Thursdays.[35] If a division is called for at that time the matter concerned is adjourned to the next day of sitting at a time fixed by the Senate. Standing order 57(2) provides for divisions called between 12.45 pm and 2 pm on Wednesdays also to be deferred, but until later on the same day. The temporary order for consideration of private senators' bills, adopted in 2010 provides for divisions to be deferred till after 12.30 pm on Mondays. [36] When a deferred division is called on, the practice is to put the question again, on the basis that senators who originally called the division may change their minds and allow the question to be determined on the voices.[37]

On 11 March 2010, a division on a motion for the closure on the second reading of a private senator's bill was deferred till the next day of sitting after the discovery of formal business. Subsequently, the closure was carried and the remaining stages of the bill were dealt with on the basis that the bill was being considered under the expedited proceedings and the vote had been deferred to a time not designated for any specific category of business.[38]


A division takes up to seven minutes to complete, the first four minutes being the time for the ringing of the bells to summon senators to the chamber.[39]


12. SO 98(3).
13. SO 101(3).
14. SO 101(1) and (2).
15. SO 101(4), (6); 19/2/1908, J.296.
16. SO 102(1).
17. Technically the President can appoint any senator as a teller, and a senator is obliged to act when appointed; ruling of President Givens, SD, 13/11/1918, p. 7761.
18. SO 102(3).
19. SO 104.
20. See SD, 5/12/1974, pp 3212-3; 9/9/1996, J.537-8; 21/11/1996, J.1081; 13/5/1998, J.3765; 27/5/1998, J.3859; 2/12/1998, J.252; 3/12/1998, J.270-2; 17/2/1999, J.458-9, 471; 21/4/1999, J.756-7; 19/8/2003, J.2221; 20/8/2003, J.2228-31; 25/11/2003, J.2722-3; 2/3/2006, J.1952-3; 28/3/2006, J.2008-9; 30/3/2006, J.2091; 15/6/2006, J.2256; 28/10/2010, J.236 and J.238-9.
21. J.91.
22. PP No. 203/2010, adopted 28/10/2010, J.246.
23. For the result of a division altered by leave without the division being taken again (because some senators who participated in the division were not available to hold the division again), see 17/9/2003, J.2426.
24. SO 100(2), 100(3).
25. Ruling of President McMullin, 2/10/1957, J.99; see also 20/11/1957, J.155; 5/12/1960, J.200.
26. SO 100(4); ruling of President Gould, SD, 11/2/1908, p. 7973.
27. SO 101(5).
28. SO 101(5); see Chapter 5, Officers of the Senate: Parliamentary Administration.
29. SO 99(2).
30. See Chapter 8, Conduct of Proceedings, under Quorum.
31. SO 103.
32. Ruling of President Baker, SD, 28/9/1906, p. 5644.
33. PP 22/1997.
34. SO 105.
35. SO 57(3); formerly 6 pm: 11/5/2004, J.2239; 10/3/2009, J.1657-8.
36. 22/11/2010, J.375-6.
37. For a question put again by leave after a division was deferred, see 24/6/2010, J.3771, 3772.
38. 11/3/2010, J.3302; 15/3/2010, J.3311-13.
39. For successive divisions the bells are rung for only one minute: see above.