Powers, functions and duties
The Speaker’s powers, functions and duties may be categorised as constitutional, traditional and ceremonial, statutory, procedural and administrative. In addition the Speaker has certain ex officio functions.
As a general point of principle the Speaker’s authority is that which is derived from the House, and the foremost duty is to the House and its Members in upholding its dignity and protecting its rights and privileges. Accordingly, the authority of the House and the Speaker have been described as indivisible. The Speaker acts as the House might direct, being the servant not the master. Just as the House elects a Speaker it may likewise vote a Speaker out of office. Consistent with the view that the Speaker is answerable only to the House, the Speaker has declined an invitation to make a submission to the Senate Committee of Privileges to which the Senate had referred issues arising from joint meetings of the Houses in October 2003.
As well as providing for the election of the Speaker, the Constitution prescribes certain powers and duties exercisable by the Speaker:
- he or she is responsible for the issue of a writ for the election of a new Member whenever a vacancy occurs in the House of Representatives, that is, between general elections;
- at the commencement of a new Parliament the Speaker is commissioned by the Governor-General to administer the oath or affirmation of allegiance to any Member not present at the opening of Parliament and to new Members elected during the course of a Parliament;
- if the number of votes on a question before the House is equal, he or she exercises a casting vote; and
- a Member who wishes to resign his or her place does so in writing addressed to the Speaker.
The Constitution also makes provision for the procedure to be followed in the event of a vacancy in the office of Speaker and in the absence of the Speaker  (see page 180).
Ceremonial and traditional
The most traditional of the Speaker’s duties is as the sole representative of the House in its relations with the Crown’s representative, the Governor-General. The Speaker is likewise the House’s representative in communications with the Senate and outside persons in the transmission and receipt of messages, documents or addresses.
In the House of Commons, the Speaker-elect is not considered to be fully in office until the royal approbation has been received. In the House of Representatives, once the Speaker is elected at the beginning of a Parliament, he or she is required by standing orders, before business is proceeded with, to present himself or herself to the Governor-General in order to inform the Governor-General that he or she is the choice of the House as its Speaker. However, since 1904 when the 2nd Parliament met, the Speaker has not been required to seek the Governor-General’s approval; the presentation is merely a courtesy. Likewise on presentation to the Governor-General the Speaker is not required to petition for the continuance of the privileges of the House as in the United Kingdom, there being specific constitutional and legislative provisions dealing with the powers, privileges and immunities of the House.
On the first sitting day of a new Parliament or a new session, the Governor-General summons Members of the House to hear the opening speech. This summons is traditionally transmitted to the House by the Usher of the Black Rod. Upon receipt of the message, the Speaker calls on Members to accompany him or her and preceded by the Serjeant-at-Arms bearing the Mace, accompanied by the Clerk, the Deputy Clerk and a Clerk Assistant, and followed by the party leaders and Members, proceeds to the appointed venue (traditionally the Senate Chamber). The Speaker is invited by the Governor-General to be seated. On conclusion of the Governor-General’s speech, the Speaker is formally presented with a copy of the speech by the Governor-General’s Official Secretary. The Speaker, in procession, then returns to the House of Representatives Chamber but, before the Speaker reports the Governor-General’s speech to the House, it is necessary for the House to transact some formal business, usually the introduction of a bill. This bill is known as the ‘formal’ bill or ‘privilege’ bill. Its presentation is taken to express the House’s traditional right to conduct its own business without reference to the immediate cause of summons. The Prime Minister may also announce the Ministry at this time.
Later on during the sitting period, when the Address in Reply to the Governor-General’s speech is to be presented to the Governor-General, the Speaker suspends the sitting of the House and, accompanied by the Serjeant-at-Arms bearing the Mace, the Clerk, the Deputy Clerk and Members of the House, is driven to Government House. The Address in Reply is presented to the Governor-General and, on return to the House, the Speaker reports the Governor-General’s reply to the Address.
The Speaker’s formal procession into the Chamber at the start of each sitting comprises the Speaker, preceded by the Speaker’s attendant and the Serjeant-at-Arms bearing the Mace. On most days a short procession starts in the Speaker’s walkway close to the rear of the Chamber and enters the Chamber through the rear door. In 2012 Speaker Slipper commenced the practice of a longer procession designed to make it accessible to visitors to the Parliament. Occurring on Tuesdays, when the House normally meets at 2 p.m., the longer procession takes a route that can be viewed from the public areas of the building, commencing in Members Hall, proceeding through the glazed linkway and entering the Chamber through the front doors.
The Serjeant-at-Arms, bearing the Mace on his or her right shoulder, precedes the Speaker into the Chamber and announces the Speaker to the House. As the Speaker takes the Chair, the Serjeant-at-Arms places the Mace on the Table. The Mace remains in the Chamber during any meal breaks and other shorter suspensions of the sitting, and is carried out of the Chamber by the Serjeant-at-Arms when the House adjourns. During the times when the Mace was not used, the Serjeant-at-Arms continued to precede the Speaker into the Chamber and announced him, and preceded him out of the Chamber on adjournment.
In the absence of the Speaker, the Serjeant-at-Arms, preceded by the Speaker’s attendant, carries the Mace from the Speaker’s suite to the Chamber ‘cradled’ in the left arm. The Serjeant-at-Arms enters the Chamber through the back door to the left of the Speaker’s Chair and walks past the opposition benches to the foot of the Table. The Clerk then announces the unavoidable absence of the Speaker, and the Deputy Speaker (or in his or her absence the Second Deputy Speaker) as Acting Speaker takes the Chair. As the Acting Speaker takes the Chair, the Serjeant-at-Arms places the Mace in its brackets on the Table.
In addition to constitutional functions the Speaker has specific functions and duties laid down in a number of Commonwealth Acts, some of the functions being exercised in an indirect or secondary manner. Acts in which the Speaker is given particular responsibilities or a particular role include the Commonwealth Electoral Act, the Parliamentary Allowances Act, the Parliamentary Papers Act, the Parliamentary Privileges Act, the Parliamentary Precincts Act, the Parliamentary Proceedings Broadcasting Act and the Parliamentary Service Act.
Any question regarding the qualifications of a Member of the House of Representatives, or a vacancy in the House, may be referred by the House to the Court of Disputed Returns. The Speaker is responsible for sending to the court a statement of the question the House wishes to have determined and any associated documents which the House possesses relating to the question.
The Auditor-General Act requires the Auditor-General to cause a copy of reports prepared under the Act to be presented to each House of the Parliament. The reports are forwarded to the Speaker for presentation to the House. This is illustrative of the position of the Auditor-General as an officer responsible to Parliament, rather than to Government.
If, in an action concerning a publication, the Speaker or the Deputy Speaker (or the Clerk of the House) certifies that a document or evidence has been published under the authority of section 2 of the Parliamentary Papers Act, the court or judge must stay the action or prosecution. Certificates given by the Speaker under section 17 of the Parliamentary Privileges Act in respect of certain matters relating to proceedings, are taken as evidence of these matters.
The Speaker is by statute a member of the Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings which is appointed at the beginning of each Parliament. Any Member of the House of Representatives who is appointed to the committee, except the Speaker, may resign his or her seat on the committee by writing to the Speaker. The Speaker has been elected chairman of the committee in all Parliaments except for the initial election in 1946.
The Speaker also has statutory responsibilities in connection with the administration of Parliament, described at page 177. The responsibilities of the Speaker in so far as electoral matters are concerned are described in detail in the Chapter on ‘Elections and the electoral system’.
The sources of procedural authority are described at page 186. The Speaker presides over the debates of the House and ensures that they are conducted according to the formal procedures, but does not normally participate in debates (but see page 176).
The duties performed in the Chair are probably the Speaker’s most important and onerous. One of the duties is to ensure that the rules of parliamentary procedure as embodied in the standing orders and practice are accurately and correctly interpreted and applied. The Speaker interprets the standing orders, deals with points of order when they are raised and gives rulings when called upon to do so (see page 188). He or she calls upon Members wishing to speak. The standing orders provide a graduated code of disciplinary powers to enable the Speaker to maintain order. These powers are progressive in their severity and allow the Speaker to deal with various breaches of order in the most appropriate manner. The Speaker does not vote in the House except in the event of the numbers being equal, in which case he or she has a casting vote (see page 182). The Speaker may make statements or announcements to the House when necessary.
It is the Speaker’s duty to call the House together following an adjournment by resolution to a date and hour to be fixed.
At the commencement of each day’s sitting, the Speaker, being satisfied that a quorum is present, reads the acknowledgement of country and prayers set out in the standing orders. The Speaker then starts proceeding, usually by calling the Clerk to call on the various items of business in the order set down on the Notice Paper.
Powers and functions under the standing orders
In addition to generally maintaining order in the Chamber and interpreting standing orders, the Speaker has specific powers and functions under the standing orders. These matters are described where appropriate elsewhere in the text.
It is considered that where the standing orders or practice of the House are silent on a matter, the Speaker may assume the authority to make a ruling or decision he or she thinks is appropriate. Naturally Members have the right to question such rulings or decisions, and the House itself is the ultimate authority in such matters.
The Speaker’s powers are augmented by a number of discretionary powers, which include:
- determining which is the most urgent and important matter of public importance, if more than one is proposed (S.O. 46);
- determining whether a prima facie case of breach of privilege has been made out (S.O. 51(d));
- referring a matter of privilege to the Committee of Privileges and Members’ Interests, having determined that a prima facie case has been made out and that urgent action is required, when the House is not expected to meet within two weeks (actions which are subject to subsequent decisions by the House) (S.O. 52);
- determining, when there is a need for a quorum to be formed, a time he or she will resume the Chair (S.O. 57);
- allocating the call to the Member who in his or her opinion first rose in his or her place (S.O. 65(c));
- determining if a Member’s arguments are irrelevant or tediously repetitive (S.O. 75);
- determining if discussion is out of order on the ground of anticipation (S.O. 77);
- determining if a motion is an abuse of the orders and forms of the House, or is moved for the purpose of obstructing business (S.O. 78);
- determining whether words used are offensive or disorderly (S.O. 92(b));
- directing the wording of a question to be altered if it seems to be unbecoming or not in conformity with the standing orders (S.O. 101(a));
- allowing a supplementary question to be asked during Question Time (S.O. 101(b));
- determining the cut-off time for questions for the next Notice Paper (S.O. 102(c));
- amending or dividing notices (S.O. 109);
- disallowing any motion or amendment which he or she considers the same in substance as any question resolved in the same session (S.O. 114(b)); and
- giving an opinion as to whether the majority of voices were ‘Aye’ or ‘No’ (S.O. 125).
Standing order 30(c) permits the Speaker, when the House is not sitting, to set an alternative day or hour for the next meeting. However, it is the invariable practice for the Speaker not to act on his or her own initiative in this respect, but to await a request from the Government. When the House has adjourned to a date and hour to be fixed, a Gazette notice has usually been published when the day of meeting is determined, indicating the date and hour of meeting.
If the Speaker is absent from Australia when the Government requests that the House be reconvened, the Clerk informs the Speaker of the Government’s request and seeks concurrence. If there was not time to seek the Speaker’s concurrence, the Clerk would notify all Members and subsequently inform the Speaker of the action taken.
Normally the House can only be adjourned by its own resolution and the motion for the adjournment can only be moved by a Minister. However, the Speaker may adjourn the House on his or her own initiative if there is no quorum or no quorum can be formed, if grave disorder arises in the House, or under the automatic adjournment procedures.
The Speaker may suspend the sitting:
- for a meal break or in order to obtain a quorum;
- in the case of grave disorder;
- after election while he or she presents himself or herself to the Governor-General;
- at the opening of a new Parliament, after the presentation of the Speaker to the Governor-General, until the time when the Governor-General will declare the causes of calling the Parliament together;
- during the election of the Deputy Speaker and Second Deputy Speaker if there is an equality of votes in the special ballot procedures;
- if requested to do so by the Leader of the House because no further business is available at that time;
- if requested to do so while the House is waiting for a bill or message from the Senate (not uncommon towards the end of a sitting period);
- for the formal presentation of the Address in Reply to the Governor-General’s speech;
- for special ceremonial occasions; or
- on instruction by the House.
Subject to certain conditions the Speaker is authorised by resolutions of the House to permit access to evidence taken by, or documents of, committees, and resolutions of each House confer such authority on the Speaker and the President in respect of records of joint committees.
Participation in debate
In 2010 changes to the standing orders explicitly permitted the Speaker and Deputy Speaker to participate in private Members’ business. It is otherwise unusual for a Speaker to participate in a debate. Although there is no standing order which prohibits such participation and there have been instances where this has happened, such action in the modern House would be regarded as out of character with the status and role of the Speaker unless the matter under debate was of a peculiarly parliamentary nature falling within the responsibilities of the Speaker.
In the past, when the consideration in detail stage of bills was taken in the committee of the whole, Speakers occasionally spoke on bills in the committee stage. On 4 June 1942 Speaker Nairn participated in debate in committee on the Australian Broadcasting Bill and moved an amendment. On 1 October 1947 Speaker Rosevear participated in debate in committee on the 1947–48 estimates.
Speaker Cameron took a different view of the Speaker’s entitlement to participate in debate when he stated on 4 March 1953:
As soon as a bill is put before a committee of the whole House, it is open to any honourable member, the Speaker alone excepted, in my view, to attend and put before the committee any amendment that he wishes.
There have been cases when the Speaker has participated in debate when the matter before the House concerned the Parliament or the Speaker’s administration. On 29 March 1944 the Deputy Speaker ruled that Speaker Rosevear was in order in requesting the Chairman of Committees to take the Chair to enable Speaker Rosevear to address the House from the floor. The matter before the House was a motion to discharge Members from attendance on the Joint Committee on Social Security. Speaker Rosevear spoke in connection with the Speaker’s administration. In making this ruling the Deputy Speaker stated:
…there are precedents in this House for the Speaker taking his place on the floor when the Estimates of Parliament are before honourable members.
The Deputy Speaker also ruled that it was in order for Speaker Rosevear to address the House from the Table.
Special circumstances applied in 1987 and 1988 when Speaker Child moved, and spoke to, the second readings of the Parliamentary Privileges Bill and the Public Service (Parliamentary Departments) Bill. She had sponsored the bills jointly with the President of the Senate. The Speaker spoke from the Table of the House, on the government side. Later Speakers have introduced bills relating to the parliamentary service, and moved and spoken (from the Chair) to the second reading. In the case of the Parliamentary Service Bill 1999 the Speaker also moved amendments to the bill.
When the Speaker participated in debate in the former committee of the whole he was called and addressed as the ‘honourable Member for…’, not as ‘Mr Speaker’. Following the introduction of estimates committees in 1979, the Speaker played an active part in the consideration of the estimates for the Parliament. The chairman of the 1979 estimates committee which considered the appropriation for Parliament took the view ‘that Mr Speaker represents the ministerial position for Parliament’. Questions by Members regarding the estimates were put to the Speaker and answered by him. He was called and addressed as ‘Mr Speaker’ in these circumstances. The Speaker has never spoken in the Federation Chamber (or previously, in the Main Committee).
The Speaker frequently makes statements to the House and may intervene in debate in special circumstances. For example, Speakers have spoken from the Chair on condolence motions following the death of a former Minister. It is usual for the Speaker to take part in valedictory remarks at the end of each year.
Standing order 103 provides that Members may direct questions without notice to the Speaker on any matter of administration for which he or she is responsible. There are also arrangements which permit, in effect, questions in writing to the Speaker. (See Chapter on ‘Questions’).
Control over Parliament House
Section 6 of the Parliamentary Precincts Act 1988 provides that the parliamentary precincts are under the control and management of the Presiding Officers. It further provides that they may, subject to any order of either House, take any action they consider necessary for the control and management of the precincts. In respect of the ministerial wing these powers are subject to any limitations and conditions agreed between the Presiding Officers and a particular Minister. Prior to the enactment of this provision, however, the authority of the Presiding Officers had become well established in practice. The Speaker exercises singular authority over the House of Representatives area in Parliament House. In 1901 Speaker Holder said:
Before the order of the day is called on, I have to inform the House that I have made a careful examination of that part of the building which is at the disposal of Members of the House of Representatives. I may mention at once that, in my opinion, the accommodation for members, officers, and the press is extremely limited…Honourable members may rest assured that I shall do all in my power to study their convenience and comfort in every possible way, and I am sure that the Right Honourable the Prime Minister will assist me in that direction.
In 1931 Speaker Makin ruled out of order an amendment relating to his action in excluding a journalist from the press gallery on the ground that it infringed the authority vested in the Speaker.
On 24 October 1919 Speaker Johnson in a statement to the House noted that it appeared the Economies Royal Commission, appointed by Governor-General’s warrant, intended to investigate certain parliamentary services. The Votes and Proceedings record Speaker Johnson informing the House:
As this Royal Commission had no authority from this Parliament, so far as he was aware, to interfere in any way with the various services of Parliament, it was his duty to call the attention of honourable Members to this proposed serious encroachment on the rights and privileges of Parliament by the appointment of a tribunal unauthorised by Parliament to inquire into matters over which the Legislature had absolute and sole control. …. He did not propose, unless he was so directed by the House, whose mouth-piece he was, to sanction any inquiry of the kind which was not authorized by Parliament itself.
On 27 August 1952 Speaker Cameron informed the House that it appeared that a Member had engaged in a campaign of deliberate opposition to the Chair and the authority which he exercised in Parliament House. The Member later in a statement to the House assured Mr Speaker that at no time had he any thought of such a campaign. He expressed his regret and made an unqualified withdrawal of the text of telegrams he had sent to Mr Speaker and certain newspapers concerning the removal of the title Parliamentary Under-Secretary from the door of his office. Speaker Cameron said:
I want to make it perfectly clear that this building is public property, and that the Speaker of the House of Representatives is the custodian—the only custodian—of that property. He is the only authority who has the right, in this part of the building, to allot a room, to arrange for furniture, and to command the staff as to what they shall or shall not do.
In 1968 Prime Minister Gorton supported this view:
The Houses of Parliament, their arrangements, their furnishings and what is placed in them are under the control of the Presiding Officers and are not a field, I think, in which the Executive as such should seek to intrude.
In 1980, during a strike by journalists, Speaker Snedden was asked whether steps had been taken to see that no ‘unauthorised person’ was using the facilities of the Press Gallery. Speaker Snedden replied that a resolution had been passed by the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery asking, inter alia, that the passes of two named persons be withdrawn and that no new members be admitted without consultation with the Gallery Committee. The Speaker stated that the Presiding Officers retained, absolutely and solely, the right to determine admission to the Gallery, and that although he had and would, in normal circumstances, consult with the Gallery Committee, under no circumstances would he take action to prevent any media representative whom he judged to be qualified and competent to report proceedings from coming to the Gallery to report them.
For many purposes the Speaker is in effect ‘Minister’ for the Department of the House of Representatives and jointly with the President of the Senate is ‘Minister’ for the Department of Parliamentary Services. Certain Acts refer to the Minister administering the department concerned. For such purposes the Speaker is considered to be the Minister administering the Department of the House of Representatives.
The powers and functions of a Presiding Officer under the Parliamentary Service Act 1999 parallel those of a Minister in relation to an executive government department under the Public Service Act 1999. Under the provisions of the Parliamentary Service Act the Presiding Officers are no longer involved in everyday administrative matters, which are the responsibility of the Clerks of the two Houses, and the departmental secretary in relation to the joint department. For the purposes of the Financial Management and Accountability Act ‘Minister’ is defined to include a Presiding Officer. The Act authorises the Presiding Officers to approve expenditure under an appropriation for a parliamentary department.
The administration and staff of the Department of the House of Representatives and the Parliamentary Service Act are discussed in more detail at page 204.
The Speaker (or the Speaker and the President), may respond to committee recommendations concerning matters within the Speaker’s (Presiding Officers’) responsibility.
Services to Members
It is a recognised responsibility of the Speaker to ensure that Members are provided with the necessary facilities and resources within Parliament House for the proper execution of their duties. The departmental heads of the parliamentary departments are responsible for the services provided by their departments and administrative actions taken by them, all public expenditure and, where applicable, accountability for revenue collected. However, the Presiding Officers have responsibilities in so far as matters of policy are concerned, and sensitive matters—where, for instance, a Member feels that a service has not been provided or has been provided inadequately—may be referred to or discussed with the Speaker. Some government departments also provide services to Members, principally electorate office and travel entitlements.
Ex officio membership of committees and associations
The Speaker is appointed by statute to the Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, and is customarily appointed chair. Under the standing orders the Speaker is, ex officio, a member of the House Committee and member and chair of the House Appropriations and Administration Committee. The Speaker (or in the absence of the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker) was included as a member (and chair) of the Selection Committee when it was re-established in the 43rd Parliament.
The Speaker, Deputy Speaker and Second Deputy Speaker can only be appointed to a committee if a standing or other order requires the appointment, or if they consent. Speaker Cameron agreed to be a member of the Select Committee on Hansard provided he was not a party nomination.
The Speaker is, ex officio, a member of the (non-parliamentary) Historic Memorials Committee. With the President of the Senate, the Speaker is joint president of the Commonwealth of Australia Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), of the Australian Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and of the Australian National Group of the Asia Pacific Parliamentary Forum (APPF).