Conferences between the two Houses provide a means of seeking agreement on a bill or other matter when the procedure of exchanging messages fails or is otherwise inadequate to promote a full understanding and agreement on the issues involved.
In the history of the Commonwealth Parliament, there have been only two formal conferences, and those were in connection with disagreements between the Houses on amendments to bills. It is quite competent for the Houses to agree to conferences on other matters, however. The first conference proposed in the Commonwealth Parliament was to consider the question of the selection of a site for the federal capital. The House of Representatives, requesting the conference in 1903, proposed that such conference consist of all members of both Houses, but the conference was refused by the Senate.
As far as conferences on bills are concerned, the standing orders of the Senate prescribe the stage at which the Senate may request a conference. That stage, pursuant to standing order 127(1), is reached when agreement cannot be achieved, by an exchange of messages, with respect to amendments to Senate bills. There is no provision in the standing orders for a request by the Senate for a conference on a bill originating in the House of Representatives.
The following conferences have been held between the Senate and the House of Representatives:
- Appropriation Bill 1921-22. Disagreement between the Houses on Senate’s request for amendments; an informal conference of representatives of both Houses considered the matter in disagreement, namely, whether the salaries of the Clerks of the Houses should be uniform; conference recommended uniformity, and recommendation endorsed by the Houses.
- Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Bill 1930 (HR bill). Conference agreed to, at request of House of Representatives, on amendments in dispute.
- Northern Territory (Administration) Bill 1931 (HR bill). Conference agreed to, at request of House of Representatives, on amendments in dispute.
In each of these cases the conference was successful, agreement being reached by the managers and, following their report, by the Houses.
The standing orders provide general rules relating to conferences, which are applicable to conferences on other matters as well as conferences on bills.
Conferences sought by the Senate with the House of Representatives are requested by messages. In one instance only has the Senate requested a conference with the House of Representatives, in relation to the Social Services Consolidation Bill 1950. The House of Representatives having insisted on an amendment to the bill to which the Senate insisted on disagreeing, a conference was requested with the House of Representatives on the amendment. The House of Representatives, however, did not agree to the request of the Senate for a conference, and desired the reconsideration of the bill by the Senate in respect of the amendment. The Senate subsequently agreed to the amendment insisted on by the House of Representatives.
In requesting a conference, the message from the Senate states, in general terms, the object for which the conference is sought and the number of managers proposed, which is not less than five.
A motion requesting a conference contains the names of the senators proposed by the mover to be the managers for the Senate. If, on such motion, any senator so requires, the managers for the Senate are selected by ballot.
During a conference the sitting of the Senate is suspended. For precedent, see the conference in connection with Northern Territory (Administration) Bill 1931. The time having arrived for the holding of the conference, the sitting of the Senate was suspended until such time as the conference between the Houses should be concluded. When the conference was ready to report, the bells were rung and the sitting resumed.
Before the Senate suspended for this conference, a point of order was taken on whether a conference could take place except during a suspension of the sittings. President Kingsmill held that, while it was unusual for a conference to sit when the House has adjourned, he did not think that there was anything in the standing orders of the Senate to forbid, or even to imply, that a conference may not take place when the Senate has adjourned.
A conference may not be requested by the Senate on any bill or motion of which the House of Representatives is at the time in possession. The rationale of this rule is that a conference should be held only if the Senate is notified of a disagreement between the Houses on a measure.
The managers to represent the Senate in a conference requested by the House of Representatives must consist of the same number of members as those of the House of Representatives (SO 157(3)).
The conferences on the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Bill 1930 and the Northern Territory (Administration) Bill 1931 both consisted of five managers for the Senate and five managers for the House of Representatives.
In a conference between the Houses, if managers appointed by the Senate decline to act, they should be replaced by others. It has been held that there is no means of compelling any senator to act on a conference.
In respect of any conference requested by the House of Representatives the time and place for holding the conference is appointed by the Senate; and when the Senate requests a conference, it agrees to its being held at such time and place as appointed by the House of Representatives, and such agreement is communicated by message. At conferences requested by the House of Representatives the managers for the Senate assemble at the time and place appointed, and receive the managers of the House of Representatives.
At conferences the reasons or resolutions of the Senate, to be communicated by the managers, are in writing; and the managers may not receive any such communication from the managers for the House of Representatives unless it is in writing. The managers for the Senate read the reasons or resolutions to be communicated, deliver them to the managers for the House of Representatives, or hear and receive from the managers for the House the reasons or resolutions communicated by the latter; after which the managers for the Senate are at liberty to confer freely with the managers for the House of Representatives. That is to say, after the preliminary exchange of formalities, a “free” conference is held, at which debate is permissible.
The managers for the Senate, when the conference has terminated, report their proceedings to the Senate. In the case of the two precedents referred to, the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Bill 1930 and the Northern Territory (Administration) Bill 1931, the bill was, in each case, in possession of the Senate at the time of the conference. On presentation of the report of the conference, motion was made that the report be adopted and taken into consideration in conjunction with the message of the House of Representatives (returning the Bill and requesting the conference) in committee of the whole.
The adoption of the report of a conference does not necessarily bind the Senate to the proposals of the conference, which, with reference to amendments in a bill, come up for consideration in committee of the whole.
There must be only one conference on any bill or other matter. In so providing, the Senate profited from the experience of the South Australian Parliament, where it was found that a number of conferences served no good purpose, because the representatives of both Houses always put off coming to a final decision until the last conference.
The main reason for conferences falling into disuse is the rigidity of ministerial control over the House of Representatives. It is more efficient for senators involved with legislation to negotiate directly with the ministers who control what the House does with the legislation.