Matters of public importance
The order of business provides for discussion of a matter of public importance (MPI) on every sitting day, except Mondays. The MPI takes place following the presentation of documents shortly after Question Time. The subject matter of the discussion does not attract a vote of the House as there is no motion before the Chair.
The MPI is one of the principal avenues available to private Members to initiate immediate debate on a matter which is of current concern. However, although Members on both sides of the House are entitled to propose a matter for discussion, and although occasionally a matter proposed by a government Member has been selected, it now appears to be taken for granted that the opportunity is, on the whole, a vehicle for the Opposition. In practice the great majority of matters discussed are proposed by members of the opposition executive and are usually critical of government policy or administration (or such criticism is made in the discussion itself).
The matter of public importance procedure developed from a provision in the standing orders adopted in 1901 which permitted a Member to move formally the adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance. The historical development of the modern procedure provided by present standing order 46 is outlined in earlier editions.
While, technically, any Member may initiate a matter for discussion, in practice Ministers would not be expected to use the procedure (and have not done so), as there are other avenues available to them to initiate debate on a particular subject. For a Minister to use the procedure would be regarded as an intrusion into an area recognised as the preserve of shadow ministers and backbench Members.
Proposal of matter to Speaker
Matters are usually proposed to the Speaker by letter in terms such as the following:
In accordance with standing order 46, I desire to propose that [today] [tomorrow] [on Tuesday,…] the following definite matter of public importance be put to the House for discussion, namely:
The proposed matter must be received by 12 noon of the day of the discussion. On occasions when a matter proposed for discussion has not been presented to the Speaker by the time specified, standing and sessional orders have been suspended to allow the matter to be called on.
The terms of a matter of public importance to be proposed to the House are made known to the Leader of the House or the Manager of Opposition Business, as the case may be, some time after 12 noon on the sitting day in question.
Discretionary responsibility of the Speaker
Whether matter in order
Standing order 46 invests the Speaker with the power to decide whether a matter of public importance is in order. A Member must present to the Speaker a written statement of the matter proposed to be discussed. In the absence of the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker, as Acting Speaker, decides whether matters are in order and determines priority, if necessary, before the House meets. In the event of the absence of both the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, the Second Deputy Speaker could perform the function.
On two occasions following the resignation of a Speaker, when the House was not due to elect a new Speaker until after the 12 noon deadline, proposed matters of public importance were processed and included on the Daily Program in anticipation of the new Speaker’s approval (the approval of the Member expected to be elected Speaker having been first ascertained).
A matter is put before the House only if the Speaker has decided that it is in order and the Speaker is not obliged to inform the House of matters determined to be out of order. Members cannot read to the House (or present) matters determined to be out of order or not selected for discussion.
The decision of the Speaker is regarded as a decision that cannot be challenged by a motion of dissent, as the Speaker does not make a ruling but exercises the authority vested in the Speaker by the standing order. However, on one occasion when two matters were proposed and the Speaker made a choice, a point of order was taken that the matter selected by the Speaker did not contain an element of ministerial responsibility and did not comply with then standing order 107 (current S.O. 46). In response to the point of order the Speaker ruled that he had exercised his responsibility of selecting a matter which he had determined to be in order. A motion of dissent from the Speaker’s determination that the matter selected was in order was then moved.
Members are sometimes requested by the Speaker to amend the wording of their proposed matter in order to make it accord with the standing orders, and Members often consult with the Clerk on the terms of proposed matters. For example, the Speaker has approved matters after the terms were altered to refer to ‘the Government’ rather than ‘the Howard Government’ or ‘the Rudd Government’. A proposed matter determined to be in order and granted priority appears on the Daily Program if it has not already been issued. If the Daily Program has been issued, a separate notification of the proposed matter is distributed in the Chamber.
More than one matter proposed
In the event of more than one matter being proposed for discussion on the same day (up to five have been so proposed), the Speaker selects the matter to be read to the House that day. There is a precedent for a motion to suspend standing orders to enable a Member to bring on ‘for discussion a matter of public importance in the following terms: . . .’, the terms being those of a matter submitted but not given priority. A matter determined to be in order but not selected for discussion has been accepted and selected for discussion on a later occasion.
The Speaker, in selecting a matter for submission to the House, does so against the background that a principal function of the modern House is to monitor and publicise the actions and administration of the Executive Government. The Speaker cannot be required to give reasons for choosing one matter ahead of another. There can be no challenge or dissent to the Speaker’s selection, as the Speaker is exercising a discretionary power given by the standing order, not making a ruling.
Criteria for determining a matter in order
In deciding whether a matter is in order the following aspects of the proposed matter must be considered:
Matter must be definite
The requirements of the House are that a proposed matter must be definite—that is, single, specific and precise in its wording. Prior to 1952 formal adjournment motions had been ruled out of order on the grounds that they were not definite. Nowadays a Member would be asked to amend a proposed matter seen as too general or indefinite, before acceptance by the Speaker. The modern view is that the intent and spirit of the standing order is contravened by including diverse topics in the matter, the underlying reasons being:
- that notice of the discussion is limited and, therefore, it is impracticable to prepare for a wide-ranging debate; and
- the time limit for discussion is strictly limited and does not thereby allow for an adequate discussion of several disparate matters.
In 1967 the Speaker directed that a matter be amended before presentation to the House partly because it dealt with procedure and proceedings of the House which were of domestic concern and could not be considered as appropriate for discussion as ‘a definite matter of public importance’. However, more recent interpretation would allow any matter relating to or concerning any subject in respect of which the House has an authority to act or a right to discuss.
In determining whether a matter of public importance is in order the Speaker has regard to the extent to which the matter concerns the administrative responsibilities of Ministers or could come within the scope of ministerial action. As a reflection of this, the standing order setting time limits for speeches, prior to 1972, presupposed that a matter would fall within areas of ministerial responsibility by providing that a Minister was given the same speaking time as the proposer in order to reply to the proposer’s speech. The standing order was subsequently amended to take account of those cases where a matter is proposed by a government Member, and now provides for equal speaking time to the Member next speaking after the proposer, whether it be a Minister or a Member of the Opposition.
The anticipation rule was amended in 2005 and now applies only ‘during a debate’. It does not apply to the discussion of a matter of public importance.
Current committee inquiries
A matter of public importance encompassing a subject under consideration by a committee of the Parliament has been permitted.
There is no specific difference between the application of the sub judice convention to matters of public importance and that which applies to debate generally. The Chair has ruled that part of a proposed matter was sub judice but allowed discussion to take place on the remainder of the subject. The Speaker has also upheld a point of order that the latter part of a matter was sub judice. Dissent from the ruling was negatived and the House then proceeded to discuss the matter with the latter part omitted. In 1969 discussion of a matter before the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission was ruled to be in order on the ground that it was not before the Commonwealth Industrial Court.
Matter discussed previously
Under the same motion rule the Speaker has the discretion to disallow any motion or amendment which he or she considers is the same in substance as any question already resolved during the same session. The same principle may be applied to a proposed matter of public importance which has substantially the same wording as a motion previously agreed to. When a matter of public importance is proposed which is substantially the same as a matter of public importance discussed earlier in the session, the case is less clear. However, even if the same subject has been discussed, it can hardly be said to have been resolved, and indeed, the whole intention of the MPI procedure is to allow discussion on an issue without purporting to resolve it.
Nevertheless, Speakers have attempted to avoid matters with identical wording. The Speaker has privately disallowed a matter that was substantially the same as one discussed earlier in the session. However, more recent thinking has been that a subject can continue to be one of public importance and that the Opposition should not be restricted in bringing it forward again with different wording. Thus matters are submitted and discussed on the same subject as ones previously discussed, the Chair having ruled privately that new, different or extenuating circumstances existed. It has also been ruled that the scope of a matter was wider than the previous one, debate thus being permitted provided it did not traverse ground covered in the previous matter, although this would be almost impossible to enforce.
It is normal practice that matters on which no effective discussion has taken place may be resubmitted and allowed during the same session.
Matters involving legislation
It has been the practice of the House to allow matters involving legislation to be discussed, provided that no other criterion is transgressed. In 1967, however, the Speaker privately ruled that certain words in a proposed matter were out of order. The matter proposed was:
The Government’s failure to maintain the purchasing power of repatriation payments and general benefits and its abuse of legislative processes to prevent debate and voting on the adequacy of Repatriation entitlements.
The italicised words were ruled out of order on the grounds that their primary purpose was to draw attention to the way in which the Repatriation Bill 1967 had been drafted with a restricted title which limited debate to pensions payable to children of a deceased member of the Forces. When the bill was debated at the second reading, an amendment dealing with a wider range of repatriation matters had been ruled out of order as not being relevant to the bill. A motion of dissent from the ruling was negatived. The words were also ruled out of order as, by inference, there was a criticism of the Chair, and a reflection upon the vote (current standing order 74) which negatived the motion of dissent. It might also be noted that the wording proposed was deficient in that it tended to raise more than one matter. The matter was submitted and discussed in its amended form.
Subject that can only be debated upon a substantive motion
A matter of public importance is similar to a motion or question seeking information in that words critical of the character or conduct of a person whose actions can only be challenged by means of a substantive motion, should not be included in the matter proposed. A formal adjournment motion has been ruled out of order as it reflected on the conduct of the Speaker which could only be questioned by means of a substantive motion. In 1972 the Speaker ruled privately that a matter of public importance should not be the vehicle for the use of words critical of the conduct of a Member of the House. It was ruled privately in 1955 that the committal to prison of Messrs Fitzpatrick and Browne, after being found guilty of a breach of privilege, could not be discussed as an urgency matter.
In 1922 the Speaker allowed a formal adjournment motion criticising the judgment and award of a judge in the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. He ruled that discussion must be confined to the award and such matters as did not involve criticism and reflection on the judge. In giving reasons for his ruling the Speaker saw the matter as one of some doubt which ‘must depend largely on the tone and scope of the discussion’. He had regard to the fact that the Member was debarred from moving a substantive motion because precedence had been given to government business, and he did not feel justified in ruling the motion out of order ‘provided it is clearly understood that, under cover of this motion, no attack or personal reflection can be made upon the Judge or the Court, nor can the conduct of the Judge be debated’.
Matter proposed withdrawn
Matters proposed which have been accepted and included on the Daily Program have been withdrawn, by the proposer notifying the Speaker in writing. The Speaker has informed the House of this fact when the time for discussion was reached. A matter has also been withdrawn after its announcement to the House. Reasons for withdrawal have included:
- coverage of the subject of the discussion in earlier debate that day;
- late commencement of the discussion prior to the imminent Budget speech;
- a government motion in the same terms as the matter proposed for discussion;
- general agreement to extend the preceding debate;
- ‘in the interest of the better functioning of the House’ following debate of a censure motion;
- following debate of a censure motion in similar terms;
- to make way for motions moved by the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition; and
- to enable discussion of a different matter proposed by another Member.
Matter read to House and supported
If a matter has been proposed within the specified time, accepted as in order, and selected if more than one matter has been proposed, the Speaker reads it to the House before the calling on of government business.
After reading the matter to the House the Speaker calls on those Members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places. The proposed discussion must be supported by at least eight Members, including the proposer, standing in their places as indicating approval. The Speaker then calls upon the proposer to open the discussion.
On occasions matters have not been further proceeded with because of the absence of the proposer or because they lacked the necessary support. The Member who proposes a matter for discussion must, under the standing orders, open the discussion in the House. However, on one occasion standing orders were suspended and on another leave was granted to enable another Member to act for the Member who had proposed a matter for discussion. On another occasion, when the Member who had proposed the approved discussion had been suspended from the service of the House prior to opening the discussion, standing orders were suspended to permit another Member to move a motion on a related subject. The action of Members rising in their places does not necessarily indicate approval of the subject matter in any way, but simply indicates approval to a proposed discussion taking place. Government Members, including Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries, have supported the discussion of matters proposed by non-Government Members. Once a proposed discussion commences the only relevant provision concerning the number of Members present in the House is that relating to a quorum, and there is no requirement that all or any of the supporting Members remain.
No amendment can be moved to a matter being discussed as it is not a motion before the House, although, as mentioned earlier, matters proposed are often amended on the suggestion of the Speaker or the Clerk before being accepted by the Speaker. In addition, the Speaker may not be aware when approving a matter for discussion that the matter, or part of the matter, is sub judice. Part of a matter has been ruled out of order in the House on this ground on several occasions.
The chair may take action under standing order 75(a) on the grounds of irrelevance if a Member’s speech strays from the approved topic of discussion. Although standing order 76 refers to ‘question under discussion’ and there is technically no question before the chair, the action of the House in supporting a proposed discussion of a particular matter in effect confines the discussion to the matter proposed.
One hour and 30 minutes is provided for the whole discussion. The proposer and the Member next speaking are each allowed 15 minutes to speak, and any other Members ten minutes each. A Member may be granted an extension of time by the House. The proposer of a matter of public importance has no right of reply although a proposer has spoken again by leave and following the suspension of standing orders.
Discussion has been interrupted temporarily, following suspension of standing orders, to enable the Budget and associated bills to be introduced and, by leave, to allow a ministerial statement to be made. A discussion has been interrupted by the motion to call on the business of the day (see below) so that Senate amendments to a bill could be considered, after which standing orders were suspended to allow the discussion to be resumed. A discussion has been interrupted by a motion to suspend standing orders to enable a motion to be moved relating to the subject matter under discussion. No such motion has been successful, discussion often continuing after the motion to suspend standing orders has been negatived, but in such circumstances a motion that the business of the day be called on has also been moved. A motion to suspend the standing orders temporarily supersedes discussion of a matter of public importance but the discussion remains as a proceeding still before the House and, as a result, the time taken up by the motion, or any other form of interruption, forms part of a Member’s speech time and part of the period allotted for the discussion.
Termination of discussion
The time allowed for discussion of a matter is limited to one hour and 30 minutes. At the expiration of this time the discussion is automatically concluded. The House has extended the time for discussion, and further extended the time, by suspending standing orders. The discussion cannot be adjourned and the motion ‘That the question be now put’ cannot be moved, there being no question before the House (instead the motion to call on the business of the day may be moved—see below). The motion that a Member speaking ‘be no longer heard’ may however be moved.
Discussion may be concluded prior to the time limit if no Member rises to speak on the matter. Discussion may be interrupted by the automatic adjournment provisions.
Motion to call on business of the day
At any time during the discussion any Member may move a motion ‘That the business of the day be called on’, which question is put immediately and decided without amendment or debate. The term ‘business of the day’ has been given a wide interpretation to include ministerial statements, announcements of messages from the Senate and the Governor-General, and so on—the motion is in effect a closure. Such motions are, from time to time, moved immediately the proposer has been called by the Chair to open the discussion. The Leader of the House or another Minister may take this action following occasions when the House has spent time earlier in the day on unscheduled opposition initiated debate (for example, censure motion, motion to suspend standing orders to debate a matter, or motion of dissent from ruling of the Chair).
Suspension of MPI procedure
As well as the premature termination of the discussion by use of the motion to call on the business of the day, priority to other business may be provided by the suspension of standing orders. Standing orders have been suspended to enable matters to be discussed at a later hour and the standing order providing for the MPI has itself been suspended until a certain bill has been disposed of.
In 1993 the House suspended the standing order providing for the MPI for several weeks to allow more time for the debate of legislation (in the context of a Senate deadline for the receipt of bills for consideration during the same period of sittings).