Tabling of documents
Documents may be presented to the Senate by means of the following procedures:
- the Senate may make an order requiring that documents be tabled;
- the Senate may request that documents relating to the Governor-General be tabled, by means of an address to the Governor-General;
- a statute may require that documents be laid before the Senate;
- the President may present documents to the Senate; and
- ministers may present documents to the Senate.
Reports of Senate committees are regarded as documents which the Senate has ordered to be presented, because committees on appointment are required to report to the Senate on the matters referred to them.
The rationale of allowing the President and ministers to present documents to the Senate without the authorisation of an order of the Senate or a statute is that the President and ministers have a duty to inform the Senate, in relation to the powers, responsibilities and proceedings of the Senate in the case of the President, and in relation to public affairs generally in the case of ministers, and therefore they ought to be able to present documents when they consider it appropriate.
Documents which may be presented to the Senate under the standing orders may be tabled at any time when there is no other business before the chair, or during consideration of a relevant matter. For example, material from a committee arising from the committee’s inquiry into a bill may be tabled during consideration of the bill.
There is no provision in the standing orders giving senators other than the President and ministers a right to table documents. Such senators may table documents only in response to an order of the Senate, by leave or by the suspension of standing orders, on behalf of a committee, or according to statute.
A minister or a parliamentary secretary who tables a document is presumed to do so in a ministerial capacity unless the contrary is indicated. If acting in a non-ministerial capacity, they are in the same situation as other senators.
The Senate usually grants leave for documents to be tabled. A senator wishing to present a document shows it to the minister and party leaders or whips present in the chamber before seeking leave, so that they may be aware of the contents of the document before granting leave. Leave may be refused if any senator considers that it would not be appropriate for the document to be tabled and therefore published.
An instance of a senator’s tabling a document after the suspension of standing orders occurred on 15 October 1992, when the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate sought leave to table a document relating to the Australia Quarantine and Inspection Service. Leave having been refused, he successfully moved for the suspension of standing orders to enable him to table the document and move to take note of the document.
A senator refused leave to table a document may quote it in the course of a speech, provided that the rules of debate are not infringed. Another senator may then move that the quoted document be tabled, and the question of the tabling of the document is then determined by vote rather than by leave.
The term ‘document’ refers to any item recording information, which may include sound, video or computer tapes. Occasionally documents other than written documents have been tabled. On 17 March 1988, for example, a senator tabled a sound recording which she had quoted in debate. Other non-paper documents tabled include a message stick, a hand-painted banner, video recordings, computer discs and a nanochip. In 2010, DVDs with footage of the sinking of Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel (SIEV) 36 were tabled pursuant to a ministerial undertaking while maps showing forest cover were also provided on DVD in response to an order for production of documents because it was not possible to print the maps at the required high resolution.
On a document being tabled, a motion may be moved without notice to appoint a day for its consideration or for it to be printed. An order to print a document has the effect of including it in the parliamentary papers series.
In practice, motions to appoint a day for consideration are rare, and motions to print documents are generally moved only in relation to reports of parliamentary committees, to have them printed as part of the parliamentary paper series.
The accepted vehicle for debate on the subject matter of a document is a motion, moved by leave or on notice, to take note of the document, which allows the Senate to conduct a debate without coming to any substantive decision. Debates on motions moved by leave to take note of documents are subject to a special time limit. Each senator speaking is limited to 10 minutes, with a limit of 30 minutes per motion and a total limit of 60 minutes for any such motions moved in succession.
A motion to appoint a day for consideration of a document may nominate only a future day; a document cannot be considered on the day on which it is tabled except by leave.