House of Representatives Practice, 6th edition – HTML version

6 - The Speaker, Deputy Speakers and officers

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Criticism of Speaker’s actions and conduct

The Speaker’s actions can only be criticised by a substantive motion. This may be a motion of dissent from a Speaker’s ruling, where comment must be limited to the specifics of the ruling. Wider criticism is usually in the form of a censure or want of confidence motion. The Speaker and Deputy Speaker have been subject to the judgment of the House by substantive motion on a number of occasions, summarised in the table opposite.

Table 6.2 Motions of censure of or no confidence in the Speaker, Acting Speaker or Deputy Speaker, and related motions

Occupant of the Chair




Speaker Rosevear


That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the moving of a motion of no confidence in the Speaker (moved by Mr Fadden). VP 1944–45/58; H.R. Deb. (28.9.1944) 1676–82.


Speaker Rosevear


That Mr Speaker does not possess the confidence of this House (moved by Mr Menzies, pursuant to notice). VP 1945–46/429–30; H.R. Deb. (26.7.1946) 3196–203.


Deputy Speaker Clark

Moved 24.2.1949; resolved 8.9.1949.

That this House has no further confidence in Mr Deputy Speaker on the grounds: (a) That in the discharge of his duties he has revealed serious partiality in favour of Government Members, (b) That he regards himself merely as the instrument of the Labor Party and not as the custodian of the rights and privileges of elected Members of this Parliament; (c) That he constantly fails to interpret correctly the Standing Orders of the House; and (d) Of gross incompetency in his administration of Parliamentary procedure (moved by Mr Harrison, pursuant to notice). Amendment moved (Mr Dedman)—That all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to inserting the following words in place thereof ‘this House declares its determination to uphold the dignity and authority of the Chair, and deplores the fact that the Deputy Speaker while carrying out his duties with ability and impartiality, has not at all times received the support from all Members which he is entitled to expect in maintaining that dignity and authority’. VP 1948–49/236, 381–4; H.R. Deb. (24.2.1949) 655–61; H.R. Deb. (8.9.1949) 110–39, 147–61.

Amendment agreed to; motion, as amended, agreed to

Speaker Cameron


That this House, having taken into consideration the statement made by Mr Speaker from the Chair on the 30th March last referring to his relationships with His Excellency the Governor-General, is of opinion that Mr Speaker merits its censure (moved by Mr Chifley, pursuant to notice). VP 1950–51/55–6; H.R. Deb. (20.4.1950) 1691–702.


Speaker Cameron


That this House has no confidence in Mr Speaker for the reasons: (1) That, in the discharge of his duties, he has acted in a partisan way by displaying bias against Members of Her Majesty’s Opposition; (2) Many of his decisions have been arbitrary and unjust; and (3) That he fails to interpret or apply correctly the Standing Orders of the House (moved by Mr Calwell, pursuant to notice). VP 1954–55/193–4; H.R. Deb. (10.5.1955) 543–62.


Speaker Aston


That the Speaker no longer has the confidence of the House (moved by Mr Barnard, pursuant to notice). VP 1970–72/524–5; H.R. Deb. (21.4.1971) 1763–81.


Speaker Cope


That the House has no confidence in Mr Speaker (moved by Mr Snedden, standing orders having been suspended). VP 1974/90–1; H.R. Deb. (8.4.1974) 1117–26.


Deputy Speaker McLeay


That the Deputy Speaker no longer enjoys the confidence of the House (moved by Mr Sinclair, standing orders having been suspended). VP 1985–87/1152–3; H.R. Deb. (24.9.1986) 1319–28.


Acting Speaker McLeay


That the Acting Speaker no longer possesses the confidence of the House (moved by Mr Sinclair, standing orders having been suspended). VP 1987–89/786–8; H.R. Deb. (19.10.1988) 1900–12.


Acting Speaker McLeay


That the Acting Speaker no longer enjoys the confidence of the House (moved by Mr Sinclair, standing orders having been suspended). VP 1987–89/826–28; H. R. Deb. (3.11.1988) 2362–74.


Speaker Child


That this House censures the Speaker for her failure to act impartially in the exercise of her office (moved by Mr Howard, standing orders having been suspended). VP 1987–89/1063; H.R. Deb. (8.3.1989) 634–52.


Speaker McLeay


That the Speaker no longer possesses the confidence of this House (moved by Dr Hewson, standing orders having been suspended). VP 1990–92/1419–20; H.R. Deb. (2.4.1992) 1733–47.


Speaker McLeay


That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the Member for Bass moving forthwith—That the Speaker no longer possesses the confidence of the House for the following reasons: (1) that in the discharge of his duties as joint administrator of the Joint House Department he did knowingly sign an official report of that Department to the Parliament which included an anonymous reference to a public liability compensation settlement to himself without giving any personal explanation to the Parliament; and (2) that the Speaker has failed to protect the dignity of the Parliament by consistently seeking to hide the facts surrounding his compensation claim and subsequent settlement from the Parliament and the people of Australia (moved by Mr Smith). VP 1990–92/1976–7; H.R. Deb. (17.12.1992) 4071–77.


Speaker Andrew


That the Speaker no longer possesses the confidence of the House (moved by Mr Beazley). VP 1998–2001/1936; H.R. Deb. (30.11.2000) 23117–35.


Speaker Andrew


That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the Member for Lilley from moving forthwith the following motion: 1.  the unprecedented decision of the Speaker to expunge the Hansard record without reference to precedents of the House; 2.  his continuing application of standing orders in favour of the Government exemplified today in Question Time by refusing to rule the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations out of order, rather, extending to him latitude denied to the Opposition to ask a relevant and in order question to the Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the National Party; and 3.  the abuse of House procedures in gagging a dissent motion to protect the Speaker from scrutiny over his rulings in the House. (moved by Mr Swan) VP 2002–04/201–4; H.R. Deb. (28.5.2002) 2484.


Deputy Speaker Causley


That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the Leader of the Opposition moving a motion of censure against the Deputy Speaker. (moved by Mr Beazley). VP 2004–2007/541–4; H.R. Deb. (17.8.2005) 103–6.


To end June 2012.

Table does not include motions moved in respect of the former Chairman of Committees (3, all negatived)—see 2nd edn, p. 237.

On 10 April 1973 a notice of motion ‘That Mr Speaker ought to be ashamed of himself’ was placed on the Notice Paper under general business. On 12 April the motion was moved but lapsed for want of a seconder. The mover described his motion as ‘something stronger than dissent…not as strong as a censure…’.[232]

It is not acceptable for the Speaker to be criticised incidentally in debate.[233] During an adjournment debate in 1950 a Member questioned the way in which Speaker Cameron had called Members during Question Time. The Speaker in reply said that the Member ‘will come to my office in due course, examine the figures, and next week he will state the correct position’. He then gave figures showing the number of questions asked during the preceding weeks.[234] On subsequent sitting days, the Member sought to catch the Speaker’s eye at Question Time. The Speaker said on one occasion ‘I have decided that I shall not call the honourable member…for another question until he corrects the unjustified and inaccurate charges that he made against me…’ and on another ‘I cannot see the honourable member’. When the Member was the only one on the opposition side to rise for the call, the Speaker ignored him and gave the call to the government side. The incident was finally closed when the Member stated that he had not wished to cast any reflection on the Chair relating to the call or the Speaker’s impartiality.[235]

A reflection on the character or actions of the Speaker inside or outside the House has attracted the use of the penal powers of the House of Commons.[236] However, since the enactment of the Parliamentary Privileges Act, proposed actions in such circumstances have had to be considered in light of the provisions of the Act.

On 11 November 1913 the Prime Minister drew attention to a statement, reported to have been made by the Member for Ballaarat[237] (Mr McGrath) outside the House, which reflected on Speaker Johnson. Mr McGrath was alleged to have said:

The Speaker has lost the confidence of Members. We have absolute proof that the Speaker has altered a Hansard proof. The proof showed that the third reading of the Loan Bill was not carried, according to its own words, and he altered the proof to make it appear in Hansard that it was carried. The Speaker was acting in a biased manner, and was proving himself a bitter partisan.

Mr McGrath was asked by the Speaker to state whether the newspaper report of his speech was correct. Mr McGrath spoke but did not avail himself of the opportunity to admit or deny the correctness of the report. The Prime Minister then moved:

That the honourable Member for Ballaarat be suspended from the service of this House for the remainder of the Session unless he sooner unreservedly retracts the words uttered by him at Ballarat on Sunday, the 9th October [later amended to November], and reflecting on Mr Speaker, and apologises to the House.

Mr McGrath was again asked by the Speaker if the report was correct and spoke on a second occasion without admitting or denying the correctness of the report. The motion was agreed to.[238] On 29 April 1915 Mr McGrath expressed his regret in respect of the incident and the House agreed that the resolution of 11 November 1913 should be expunged from the Votes and Proceedings.[239]

On 15 May 1964 a radio journalist during a broadcast implied that Speaker McLeay had given doubtful rulings and suggested that he ‘might analyse the word “impartiality” before the next sittings’. It was considered by the Speaker that these remarks were a grave reflection on his character and accused him of partiality in the discharge of his duties. As the House proposed to rise for the winter adjournment that day, it was agreed that a reference to the Privileges Committee would be unsatisfactory. Thus, it was decided that other more immediate action should be taken—namely, that, unless a complete and full apology and retraction were made over the same broadcasting stations, the journalist’s press pass should be withdrawn and, with the concurrence of the President of the Senate, the journalist should be denied admittance to Parliament House. The journalist was summoned by the Speaker and apparently made some admissions. On being informed that a breach of privilege could have also been committed by each of the broadcasting stations, he requested the Speaker not to press the matter in relation to the stations and emphasised that he alone was to blame. He agreed to broadcast a suitable retraction and apology that night, to be repeated on the following morning, following the clearance of the script with the Speaker.

On 22 August 1986 Speaker Child advised the House that her attention had been drawn to reported remarks critical of her attributed to the Rt Hon. I. M. Sinclair, MP, Leader of the National Party, in connection with the custody of documents in possession of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry which were to be placed in the custody of the Presiding Officers. The Speaker called on Mr Sinclair to withdraw the allegations and apologise to the Chair. Mr Sinclair, explaining his remarks, said that they were not meant to be about the Speaker but about Parliament and he did not believe that Parliament was a suitable repository for documents containing unresolved allegations. He withdrew and apologised. Later, on 16 September the Speaker again referred to the matter and said that, having examined the transcript of the reported remarks and having compared it to the statement in the House, she could only conclude that Mr Sinclair had misled the House and that in her opinion the transcript contained serious personal reflections on the Chair which constituted a ‘breach of the privileges’ of the House and that the subsequent apology constituted a contempt. Mr Sinclair addressed the House, followed by the Deputy Speaker who moved a motion of censure of Mr Sinclair. The motion was withdrawn, by leave, after Mr Sinclair had acknowledged his remarks, withdrawn them and again apologised.[240]

On 24 February 1987 Speaker Child advised the House that she had become aware of certain remarks critical of the Speaker made outside the House by a Member (Mr Tuckey) following his suspension on the previous day. The Speaker alluded to the remarks and stated that she had received a letter from Mr Tuckey in which he apologised and unreservedly withdrew and sought leave to make a personal explanation at the first opportunity. The Speaker, however, granted precedence to the matter under the standing order relating to privilege, and the Leader of the House moved a motion to the effect that the House found the remarks a serious reflection on the character of the Speaker, that they contained an accusation of partiality in the discharge of her duty and therefore constituted a contempt, and that Mr Tuckey be suspended for seven sitting days. The motion was debated and agreed to.[241]

On 28 April 1987 Speaker Child mentioned in the House media reports of comments critical of her made by a Member (Mr Spender) in a private paper circulated to party colleagues. The Speaker said that, although it had been leaked, the paper was originally written as a private document, that it would be totally ludicrous now to ask a Member to reject his own writings, that she raised the matter only because of the wide media speculation the paper evoked, and that she rejected the criticism.[242]

On 9 October 1990 Speaker McLeay made a statement to the House referring to remarks reportedly made by a Member outside the House which amounted to a reflection on the Chair. The Member concerned then unreservedly withdrew the reflection and apologised to the Chair.[243]

On 30 November 2005 Speaker Hawker referred to a media release issued by a Member which had reflected on the actions and motivations of the chair. He stated that such reflections seriously undermined the orderly conducting of the business of the House and required the Member to withdraw them, which the Member did. Later, the Speaker noted that it was a well-established parliamentary principle that reflections on the chair, inside or outside the Chamber, were highly disorderly, but that since the passage of the Parliamentary Privileges Act such reflections were regarded as important matters of order rather than as a contempt of the House.[244]

Speaker’s authority not supported by the House

The Speaker’s authority and decisions are usually supported by the House. If the House dissents from rulings or in other ways fails to support the Speaker’s decisions he or she is placed in a difficult position. However, as noted at page 190, agreement by the House to a motion of dissent from a Speaker’s ruling is not necessarily interpreted as a censure of the Speaker.

Amid prolonged scenes of uproar in the House on 27 February 1975,[245] Speaker Cope announced his resignation after the House failed to support his action in naming a Minister. The series of incidents that led to his resignation began after Question Time when Mr C. R. Cameron, Minister for Immigration, rose to make a personal explanation, during which a Member pointedly implied that he was lying. After interchanges, and suggestions by Speaker Cope, accepted by the Member, that the Member substitute ‘untruth’ for the word ‘lie’, Mr Cameron rose to protest again and the Speaker called him to order. Mr Cameron then said, ‘Look I don’t give a damn what you say’ and the remainder of his utterance was lost amid opposition uproar. Speaker Cope asked Mr Cameron to apologise to the Chair. Mr Cameron remained silent. Speaker Cope then named Mr Cameron. As no Minister proceeded to move for Mr Cameron’s suspension, the motion was moved by Mr Sinclair, Manager of Opposition Business. Government Members crossed the floor to vote against the suspension (although some government Members left the Chamber), and the motion was defeated by 59 votes to 55. After announcing the result of the division, Speaker Cope informed the House of his intention to submit his written resignation to the Governor-General. Before he left the Chamber, Speaker Cope asked Mr Scholes, the Chairman of Committees, to take the Chair as Deputy Speaker. Speaker Cope resigned as Speaker later that day[246] and, following formal communication of the resignation to the House, Mr Scholes was elected Speaker.[247] This is the only occasion on which the Government has failed to support the Speaker after a Member has been named.

Motions for the suspension of a Member have been negatived on two other occasions. In the first case, in 1938, the Government did not have sufficient Members present to ensure that the motion was agreed to—proceedings continued after the vote without a statement by the Speaker or comment by Members.[248] In the second case, in 2011, the minority Government did not obtain sufficient support from crossbench Members to ensure that the motion was agreed to. Following the vote the Speaker announced that he would consider his position. A motion of confidence in the Speaker was immediately moved by the Leader of the Opposition, seconded by the Prime Minister and carried unanimously.[249]

232. NP 15 (10.4.1973) 511; VP 1973–74/121; H.R. Deb. (12.4.1973) 1396.
233. H.R. Deb. (20.5.1920) 2383; H.R. Deb. (29.3.1944) 2203–24.
234. H.R. Deb. (25.5.1950) 3279–80.
235. See H.R. Deb. (31.5.1950) 3454–62; H.R. Deb. (1.6.1950) 3577–87, 3653–5.
236. May, 24th edn, pp. 61, 263.
237. Division name changed from Ballaarat to Ballarat in 1977.
238. VP 1913/151–3; H.R. Deb. (11.11.1913) 2982–3053.
239. H.R. Deb. (29.4.1915) 2729–49; VP 1914–17/181.
240. H.R. Deb. (22.8.1986) 529, 558–9; H.R. Deb. (16.9.1986) 701–5; VP 1985–87/1089, 1090, 1102.
241. VP 1985–87/1467–8; H.R. Deb. (24.2.1987) 573, 580–7.
242. VP 1985–87/1591; H.R. Deb. (28.4.1987) 2059. On 26 April 1988 Speaker Child mentioned criticisms attributed to a Member (Mr Downer). She rejected the criticisms and said such comments did harm to the institution but said she did not intend to take the matter further—H.R. Deb. (26.4.1988) 2045.
243. VP 1990–92/223–4.
244. H.R. Deb. (30.11.2005) 78; H.R. Deb. (5:12.2005) 46; H.R. Deb. (8.12.2005) 70.
245. H.R. Deb. (27.2.1975) 824–9.
246. VP 1974–75/502–3; Constitution, s. 35.
247. VP 1974–75/508–9.
248. VP 1937–40/223; H.R. Deb. (14.10.1938) 862.
249. VP 2010–12/584, H.R. Deb. (31.5.2011) 5284–6.