House of Representatives Committees

Standing Committee on Procedure

Reports

Conduct of divisions

Report

Background

1. On 20 June 1996 the Procedure Committee resolved to conduct an inquiry into the conduct of divisions. The subject has been a matter of concern for some years and has been the subject of reviews by parliamentary committees (by the Standing Orders Committee in 1976 and the Procedure Committee in 1990, although neither formally reported) and by successive Speakers and Clerks since the mid 1970s. Electronic voting was considered in some of these reviews and in separate inquiries, the most recent being in 1993.

2. This inquiry by the Procedure Committee was prompted by concerns about the delays the House is currently experiencing in recording divisions.

3. The time taken for the ringing of the division bells is four minutes per division or, in the case of consecutive divisions without intervening debate, one minute — about one third of divisions are the latter type. In the current Parliament each division is taking approximately eight minutes to record and tally, plus the ringing of the bells. In the previous Parliament a division took five to six minutes. This increase is attributable to the very large number of government Members.

4. The number of divisions has also increased from an average of 2 per sitting over the period 1989-95 to 3.7 per sitting in 1996 [1]. The table overleaf sets out some statistical information about divisions in the House.

5. The committee's objective in this inquiry was to suggest procedures for streamlining divisions, to both save time and protect Members' right to call for a vote as well as having it on the public record.

Conduct and scope of review

6. The committee examined the relevance and applicability to the House of Representatives of several division procedures, including electronic voting and division procedures used in other Parliaments, some of which are significantly different from House of Representatives' procedures.

Table: Division in the House of Representatives 1987-1996

Year Sittings No. of Divisions Av. no. of divisions per day Sittings at which at least one division occured Sittings at which 5 or more divisions occured Most divisions at a single sitting
       
No.
%
No.
%
 
1987*
74
110
1.5
47
63.5
6
8.1
8
1988
65
154
2.4
50
76.9
12
18.5
13
1989
59
152
2.6
40
67.8
10
16.9
24
1990*
38
61
1.6
23
60.5
4
10.5
8
1991
67
165
2.4
44
65.7
9
13.4
11
1992
60
118
2.0
44
73.3
4
6.7
9
1993*
46
105
2.3
37
80.4
8
17.4
10
1994
68
86
1.3
44
64.7
4
5.9
5
1995
70
110
1.6
46
65.7
4
5.7
9
1996*
48
177
3.7
35
72.9
14
29.2
19

* Election year
1996 figures to 6 November

7. In August 1996 the committee circulated to all Members a discussion paper which canvassed the issues and suggested a range of possible procedural innovations, including electronic voting. On 26 August 1996 the committee invited all Members and the Clerk of the House to make a submission to the inquiry. A good response was received, including several detailed submissions. The committee thanks all those who put forward their views or proposals. A list of submissions received is shown in the appendix.

8. The committee also sought detailed information from the Australian State and Territory Parliaments and the New Zealand House of Representatives. The information supplied has been very useful and the committee would like to thank those Parliaments for their prompt response to its request.

9. This report outlines all the options and then discusses those which the committee believes could be successfully implemented as a set of reforms.

Electronic voting

10. The possibility of installing electronic voting was considered by the Joint Select Committee on the New and Permanent Parliament House as early as 1970. It recommended that, although the installation of electronic voting was not warranted at that time, the Chambers in a new Parliament House should be provided with all the necessary conduits and ducts in preparation for the installation of electronic voting at a later date. [2] The matter was revisited by the Joint Standing Committee on the New Parliament House which was appointed to oversee the construction of the present Parliament House. It ensured that provision was made for future installation of electronic voting equipment in the new building. [3] The Chamber is therefore fitted with the necessary conduits to facilitate the installation of electronic voting should the House decide to pursue this option.

Speaker Martin's inquiry

11. In 1993 the then Speaker, the Hon. Stephen Martin MP, led an inspection team — which included the Clerk of the House and technical officers from the Parliamentary Information Systems Office (PISO) — to examine electronic voting systems used by other Parliaments. Equipment in use in Belgium, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and the European Parliament was inspected and the PISO officers visited the USA to investigate technical aspects of the system used by its House of Representatives.

12. Mr Martin's report was presented to the House on 22 February 1994. It summarised the advantages and possible disadvantages of electronic voting for the House of Representatives as set out below.

Advantages

13. The following advantages were identified in the report:

Disadvantages

14. The following disadvantages were identified in the report:

The 1994 proposal

15. Mr Martin's report recommended that the Government, the Opposition and other non-government Members confer to seek in-principle agreement to the installation of electronic voting equipment in the House of Representatives Chamber. The report proposed that the system should include the following features:

Costs

16. Mr Martin's report estimated that at that time a suitable system could have been installed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate for approximately $3 million over three years, including ongoing support costs of about $300,000 per year. To install a system in the House of Representatives alone would have cost about $2 million over three years including the ongoing support costs.

The Procedure Committee's view

17. The committee believes that the costs involved in installing electronic voting preclude it as an option at present. It also noted that some time would be required to select and commission a system, if that were to be the preferred option. It is therefore impracticable to make any recommendations about it at present. Consequently the committee has decided to defer consideration of this option, at least until it can make further detailed inquiries into the current costs.

18. The remainder of this report therefore concentrates on those procedural reforms which the committee considered, with the aim of delivering immediate benefits to the House.

Procedural reforms

19. The committee examined a number of possible procedural reforms to the division process. While some depart significantly from the traditional process used in the House of Representatives, most have been operating successfully in other Parliaments (some over periods of many years).

Votes recorded while bells ringing

20. Under present procedures, recording the vote does not commence until the bells have stopped ringing—four minutes after the division is called. A system which allows Members to record their votes while the bells are still ringing has the potential to save the House a significant amount of time, particularly on the two-thirds of divisions for which the bells are rung for four minutes. The Western Australian Legislative Assembly, for example, successfully records the vote while the bells are ringing. Several Members and the Clerk supported this procedure, and two submissions (from Mr Tuckey MP and the Clerk) included detailed suggestions about how such a system might be implemented.

The proposals

21. Mr Tuckey proposed that Members would enter the Chamber via the Members' Hall or the lobbies and report to the Clerks at the Table who would record their vote. After voting, Members would take seats on the appropriate side of Chamber so that a head count could be made by appointed tellers at the completion of the vote.

22. The Clerk's proposal envisaged the appointment of tellers as soon as possible after a division is called. Members would enter the Chamber other than through the lobbies, and then proceed to the lobbies where their names would be recorded. The Chamber doors would be locked after 4 minutes so that Members who had not voted by then would not be able to return to the Chamber until voting was completed.

23. A further refinement related to consecutive divisions (that is, those for which the bells are rung for 1 minute). It provides that only those Members who wish to vote differently from the previous division or did not vote in that division would be required to notify the tellers of their voting intentions. Those Members who did not wish to vote in a consecutive division would have to inform the tellers of their intention before they left the Chamber. All other Members' votes would automatically be registered as being the same as for the preceding division.

24. In its deliberations the committee discussed a number of considerations necessary for the effective implementation of the above proposals including:

25. The committee requested the Chair to discuss the detail of the proposals with the Clerk of the House with a view to devising a set of workable procedures. Following these discussions the committee agreed that the proposal detailed below should be implemented on a trial basis by sessional order.

Proposed trial

26. The committee proposes that divisions be conducted in the following manner.

27. The committee envisages that if the proposal is implemented informal arrangements would apply whereby the whips would nominate tellers for the day and inform the Speaker. This would enable the Chair to appoint tellers immediately a division is called, prior to the tellers' arrival in the Chamber.

Time for ringing the bells

28. The committee recommends that the bells be rung for five minutes prior to the doors being locked and the question restated. The committee holds the view that under the proposed method of counting this is not likely to add to the total time taken by a division but it would provide Members at the furthest points of the building more time to reach the Chamber. It is likely, in any event, that the recording of votes would not be completed after four minutes. If the changes being proposed in this report are trialed under a sessional order, this change could be reviewed at the end of the trial period.

Expansion of the arrangements for recording dissent

The present situation

29. Present House of Representatives procedure requires a minimum of two Members calling for a division before the House can divide, and for one dissentient voice to be formally recorded if requested. There have been four occasions between 1991 and the present on which two independent Members have called for a division and voted against the Government and Opposition combined, and a further seven occasions since 1991 when fewer than 6 Members have voted together against the majority. On two of these occasions Members other than independents called for the division.

30. Since the beginning of the 38th Parliament there have been seven occasions on which fewer than six Members have voted against the majority. This is a significant increase and is directly attributable to the number of independent Members in the current Parliament. Divisions in which so few Members vote in the minority present particular difficulties for the tellers recording the votes of the majority and, in the 38th Parliament, have taken approximately 11 minutes (after the bells have stopped ringing).

31. The committee notes that the three independent Members who made submissions to the inquiry did not favour change to the current voting procedures and it is mindful of every Member's right to test the wishes of the House on an issue. The committee is reluctant to recommend that more than two Members be required to call for a division.

The proposal

32. In noting that numerically lopsided divisions take significantly longer than those in which the Government and Opposition are on opposite sides, the committee saw some advantage to the House in adopting a procedure that would allow the dissent of a small minority to be recorded without completing the total count. The committee considered the NSW Legislative Assembly procedure which provides that if there are five or fewer Members on one side after the bells have been rung, the Speaker declares the question resolved without completing the division. The number and names of the Members in the minority are recorded.

33. The Clerk's submission suggested that the House could consider adopting a procedure similar to that existing in the NSW Legislative Assembly. He suggested setting the number in the minority whose dissent would be recorded without completing the division at between 5 and 10. This proposal would both preserve a Member's right to test the wish of the House and to have his or her view recorded.

Trial to establish potential benefits

34. Under current division requirements, the above procedure could save approximately 11 minutes on each occasion a small minority calls for a division. If the House were to adopt other procedural changes, such as commencing the count while the bells are ringing, this potential time saving may be less. However, the committee holds the view that this procedure merits a trial.

35. The committee proposes that the number of Members in the minority required before a division is cancelled and dissent recorded should be set, by sessional order, at eight. This number is consistent with the number of Members required in support of a discussion of a matter of public importance and is a similar proportion of all Members as required under the NSW Legislative Assembly procedures (just over 5%).

36. The committee also favours automatically recording the number and names of dissenting Members in the Votes and Proceedings and Hansard. Such a provision in the standing (and sessional) orders would give Members in the minority the right to record their dissent. In addition, it would assist the dispatch of business by not requiring the Chair to ask each dissenting Member whether individual dissent is to be recorded.

Multi-tiered voting systems

37. Division time could be reduced by the introduction of an additional intermediate level of voting, with a view to reducing the number of votes involving a formal count of all Members. Reforms of this nature would represent the most radical departure from traditional practice (even electronic voting is basically only automation of existing procedures) and some, such as party voting and proxy voting, represent a transfer of responsibility from individual Members to party Whips or other party representatives.

Abandoned divisions

38. United Kingdom House of Commons procedure provides for the Chair to put the question again after the bells have been ringing for two minutes and the `ayes' and `noes' must again declare themselves. If the opinion of the Chair is not challenged at this point, the division is called off.

39. It is unlikely in the context of the Australian House of Representatives that Members in the minority would be content to allow a division to be abandoned after two minutes on very many occasions. Consequently this option does not appear to offer significant potential benefits.

40. The Queensland Legislative Assembly standing orders provide for the Speaker to declare the result of a division if there are fewer than five Members in the minority. Details of the result are not recorded and no provision exists to record the dissent of the minority. This procedure is not favoured by the committee as it considers that the procedure described in paragraphs 35 and 36 provides greater recognition of the rights of the Members in the minority without imposing a greater burden on the House.

Head counts

41. In the United Kingdom House of Commons and the Tasmanian House of Assembly, if the decision on the voices is challenged, the Speaker may, if he or she thinks the division has been called unnecessarily, ask the Members who are for the `Ayes' and the `Noes' respectively to stand in their places and, on a count being taken, he or she may finally declare the decision without names or numbers being recorded. In the House of Commons the head count must occur after the bells have been ringing for two minutes but in the Tasmanian House of Assembly there is no requirement for the bells to be rung.

42. In the House of Representatives the result of a head count at times of low attendance in the Chamber would not reflect the wishes of all Members. However, with Members assembled on opposite sides of the Chamber after the ringing of the bells, it is often the case (with present numbers perhaps always the case) that a rough `head count' leaves no doubt of the decision. It would be possible for the result of a division to be declared immediately by the Chair if it was not felt necessary to determine the exact numbers of votes on each side or to record the names of Members voting.

43. Again, it is unlikely in the context of the Australian House of Representatives that Members in the minority, having pressed for a division, would be content to allow the question to be resolved without recording the details of the result. It is also possible that this procedure would encourage Members to call divisions more frequently. The committee concluded that this option does not offer significant potential benefits.

Party voting

44. A party vote enables a party to record formally the votes of its members without proceeding to a division. The New Zealand House of Representatives has recently adopted a three tiered voting system which is reported to be a `huge time saver'. Its main features are as follows:

45. This system operates in conjunction with a system of proxy voting designed to replace pairing between government and opposition parties. The New Zealand House of Representatives has recently become a multi-party Chamber following the adoption of a Mixed Member Proportional Representation Electoral System. The party voting features could be adopted in conjunction with present pairing arrangements. That is, the total party vote would be limited to the total number of party members present in the parliamentary precincts that day less any paired members. In New Zealand Members may challenge the total number of votes claimed by a party representative casting a party vote.

46. The adoption of party voting has the potential to save as much or more time than electronic voting but it would be a very radical break from the traditional procedures followed by the House. In particular, the moral and physical responsibility for casting a vote would, in most instances, be transferred from individual Members to party whips or another party representative.

47. The committee identified the following concerns in relation to the adoption of party voting in the Australian context.

48. The committee did not consider that the party vote process would sit well with the traditional dynamics of the interaction between government and opposition and the flow of business in the House of Representatives. The committee also had serious misgivings about transferring responsibility for voting from individual Members to whips or other party representatives and the impact this might have on Members' involvement in Chamber proceedings. The committee was also concerned about the burdens party voting and the absence of bells prior to a vote might place on independent Members.

49. The introduction of party voting in the House of Representatives is not supported by the committee.

Fixed times for divisions

50. In some Parliaments the nature and programming of business enables a series of divisions to be held consecutively, with the need to ring the bells only once to summon Members to the Chamber for a series of divisions. An example is the Swedish Riksdag, where all voting takes place at a fixed time each week and each Member's place in the Chamber is furnished with an agenda listing the questions to be determined and the order in which they will be taken.

51. Particular difficulties apply to the implementation of a fixed time or deferred division procedure to business in the Australian House of Representatives. They arise from:

52. The Clerk's submission put the view that a system of deferred divisions on government business is not a viable option. The committee concurs with this conclusion.

Conclusion

53. The committee's decision to not pursue the option of electronic voting before reporting on procedures for divisions should not be taken as a dismissal of the benefits it may give. However, until the committee is able to make a detailed investigation into the costs associated with the adoption of electronic voting, it is unwilling to draw any conclusions about it. The committee believes that funding for electronic voting is unlikely to be available in the immediate future, whatever its recommendations might be regarding that alternative. In any event, selection and commissioning of an electronic voting system would take considerable time and the House, and its Members, are clearly looking to the committee for a quicker solution.

54. The committee was attracted to those options for procedural reform which offered the most potential benefit without disturbing the traditional dynamics which characterise relations between the government and opposition in the House. The committee was not attracted to options for procedural reform which intruded on the individual responsibility of Members to vote, or which compromised the rights of—or placed unfair burdens on—independent Members.

55. The committee favours two reforms to the current procedures for the conduct of divisions. The first involves commencing to record the votes of Members as soon as practicable after a division is called and while the division bells are still ringing. The second involves an expansion of the arrangements for recording dissent which provides for a division to be called off after the bells have been rung, if those Members in dissent number eight or fewer, the number and names of the Members in the minority to be automatically recorded. As the proposed new procedures may need some finetuning to best meet the needs of the House the committee considers it would be appropriate to trial the procedures by sessional order.

Recommendations

56.The committee recommends that sessional orders be adopted which would provide for:

The following procedure for conducting divisions:

The division bells to be rung for five minutes except in the case of consecutive divisions (for which the bells are rung for 1 minute).

Divisions would be called as they are now, that is, with the question being stated and the result announced on the voices. If the result on the voices is challenged by more than one Member, the Speaker would call for the bells to be rung.

The Speaker would state the question directing the `ayes' to the right of the Chair and `noes' to the left, and would also appoint two tellers for each side at the time a division is called. The recording of votes would commence while the bells are ringing as soon practicable after the tellers are in place and Members have begun to arrive in the Chamber.

Tellers would be located at the Members' Hall end of the House—tellers for the `ayes' on the right, tellers for the `noes' on the left. To vote, Members would file past the tellers and announce their name, the tellers recording the names of Members voting as they pass. After voting each Member would take a seat on the left or right of the Chair in accordance with the vote he or she has cast. Members would not be permitted to leave the Chamber before the result of the division is announced.

After five minutes, or one minute in the case of a consecutive division, the doors would be locked and the Chair would restate the question so that any Members who are unsure of the question may wait until this stage to vote. Any Member who, having heard the question after the doors are locked, decides not to vote could move to the advisers' area so as not to be counted.

After all Members have voted the names on the lists are tallied and a head count of seated Members carried out to confirm the result.

For consecutive divisions, only those Members who either wish to change their vote, or who want to leave the Chamber (so as not to vote), or who did not vote in the preceding division, would be required to report to the tellers. (In the case of a consecutive division where the majority of Members wish to vote differently from the immediately preceding division all Members voting would be required to report to the appropriate teller in the way described above before taking a seat on the opposite side of the Chamber.)

Arrangements for recording dissent to be varied to provide for a division to be called off after the bells have been rung and the number and names of the Members in the minority to be recorded when those Members in dissent number eight or fewer.

 

Kathy Sullivan
Chair
6 November 1996

DISSENTING REPORT


ELECTRONIC VOTING


We dissent from the view of the committee relating to electronic voting expressed in paragraphs 17 and 53. The objective of the committee in conducting this inquiry was to suggest procedures for streamlining divisions to both save time and protect Members' right to call for a vote and to have it on the public record (paragraph 5). We believe that the solution which will best achieve this end is the introduction of a system of electronic voting. The procedural reforms recommended in the majority report are very much second best measures.

While recognising that the allocation of the funds required to implement electronic voting will be difficult, we consider that the benefits of such a system would outweigh the upfront cost. The saving in the time of the House through the smoother flow of business and administrative savings through improved efficiency and accuracy of recording and promulgating results are undeniable. There are other benefits, for example, in having the ability to display the question before the House throughout the voting process (and during debate) which cannot be measured in dollar terms.

Electronic voting is supported in more than half of the submissions received including those of the Opposition (lodged by Hon. Simon Crean MP) and the Clerk of the House.

The cost of technology is falling all the time and it is likely that an appropriate system could be installed in the House for substantially less than the $2 million ($3 million for both Houses) estimated in the Martin report [5]. The report provides a comprehensive evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages of electronic voting which are summarised in paragraphs 13 to 16 of this Procedure Committee report. We concur with its conclusions.

We recommend that action be taken without delay to implement the recommendations of the inspection team led by Speaker Martin and that funds be provided to the relevant parliamentary departments for planning, purchase, installation and maintenance of a suitable system of electronic voting in the House of Representatives.

 

Frank Mossfield MP
Stephen Martin MP
Kelvin Thomson MP

6 November 1996

Footnotes

1 To 6 November 1996, Chamber Research Office, Department of the House of Representatives.

2 `Proposed New and Permanent Parliament House for the Commonwealth of Australia', Report of the Joint Select Committee, PP 32(1970) p. 30.

3 `Planning for the Senate and House of Representatives Chambers in the New Parliament House' Report of the Joint Standing Committee on the New Parliament House, PP 394(1985) p. 3.

4 See paragraph 28.

5 Electronic voting — Inspection of equipment used in the Parliaments of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the United States of America and in the European Parliament building in Brussels — Report of inspection team led by Hon. Stephen Martin MP, Speaker of the House of Representatives , October/November 1993, presented to the House on 22 February 1994.


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