House of Representatives Practice, 6th Ed – HTML version

6 - The Speaker, Deputy Speakers and officers

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Staff of the House and administration

The historical distinction between Parliament and Government is of particular importance to the staff of the House. The Clerk and his or her staff, above all, serve the House and must exhibit at all times complete impartiality in dealing with all sections of the House. Distinctively, as ongoing staff of the House, their role transcends the contemporary and the temporary. Marsden describes the important distinction which characterises the special and traditional role of the parliamentary officer in these terms:

The staff which serve the Commons…are not answerable in any way to the Government of the day. Nor are they appointed by politicians or political organisations; if they were, their usefulness would disappear overnight. They are the servants only of the House, and it is this long-preserved independence from political control that has endowed them with their own special value to the smooth running of the machinery of government. Within the Palace precincts they are rigidly, almost religiously, non-political. Whatever the complexion of the Government in office the House can be certain of receiving that completely impartial and professionally expert service for which its Officers enjoy a reputation second to none, and upon which all Members can, and do, rely unhesitatingly, regardless of party affiliations, religious distinctions or personal differences of temperament.

Because these officials are servants of the House, and have not to rely on political patronage either for their appointments or for their continuation in office, they are able to devote the whole of their lives to their task and to develop their individual capacities to a very high standard of professionalism.[298]

These ideals have always applied in the Commonwealth Parliament, but they were strengthened and given legislative recognition by the passage of the Parliamentary Service Act 1999.

The Parliamentary Service Act

Staff of the Department of the House of Representatives, and the other parliamentary departments, are employed under the Parliamentary Service Act 1999.[299] The objectives[300] of this Act are:

  • to establish a non-partisan Parliamentary Service that is efficient and effective in serving the Parliament;
  • to provide a legal framework for the effective and fair employment, management and leadership of Parliamentary Service employees;
  • to define the powers and responsibilities of Secretaries, the Parliamentary Librarian, the Parliamentary Service Commissioner and the Parliamentary Service Merit Protection Commissioner;[301] and
  • to establish rights and obligations of Parliamentary Service employees.

The legal framework provided by the Parliamentary Service Act for the employment of Parliamentary Service employees follows that established by the Public Service Act 1999 for Public Service employees, except where differences are necessary to reflect the unique character of the parliamentary service and the obligation of parliamentary staff to serve the Parliament.

The Act sets out the following values specific to the Parliamentary Service:[302]

  • the Parliamentary Service provides professional advice and support for the Parliament independently of the Executive Government of the Commonwealth;
  • the Parliamentary Service provides non-partisan and impartial advice and services to each House of the Parliament, to committees of each House, to joint committees and to Senators and Members;
  • the Parliamentary Service is openly accountable for its actions to the Parliament.

Principal staff of the House

The Clerk of the House

The Clerk of the House of Representatives is responsible for administering the Department of the House of Representatives and advising the Speaker and Members on parliamentary law, practice and procedure. Since 1901 there have been 15 Clerks of the House of Representatives.[303]

The office of Clerk of the House had its origins in the early English Parliament but the first record of the appointment of a Clerk was in 1363. The records kept by Clerks of the House of Commons date from the 16th century. The word ‘Clerk’ simply meant a person who could read and write. Since many Members could then do neither, one of the Clerk’s main functions was to read out petitions, and later bills and other documents, to the House.

In the 16th century the Clerks began to undertake a wider range of functions. The first of this new generation, John Seymour, began to record the proceedings of the House in an unofficial journal. At first mainly a record of motions and bills, it was later expanded to include such things as the election of the Speaker, records of attendance, divisions and decisions on matters of privilege. Today the responsibility for recording all proceedings and decisions of the House is vested in the Clerk, and they are recorded in the official record, the Votes and Proceedings.[304]

The first Clerk of the House of Representatives was Sir George Jenkins who, in an acting capacity only, served for less than two months before resuming his position as Clerk of the Parliaments of Victoria. He was succeeded by Charles Gavan Duffy who remained as Clerk until 1917 when he became Clerk of the Senate.

Clerk Duffy’s successor Walter Augustus Gale served as Clerk for 10 years until he died in office in July 1927 following the Parliament’s first meeting at Canberra on 9 May. His successor John Robert McGregor also died in office, two months later on 28 September, only 27 days after his appointment, on the night of his first sitting day as Clerk and of the second meeting of the House in Canberra. Earlier that day the House had agreed to a motion of the Prime Minister:

That this House records its sincere regret at the death of Walter Augustus Gale, C.M.G., who was an officer of the House of Representatives since the inauguration of the Commonwealth, and Clerk of the House from the 1st February, 1917, until his death, and this House expresses its appreciation of the loyalty and ability with which he devoted himself to his official duties, and tenders its profound sympathy to his wife and family in their great bereavement.[305]

At 8.12 p.m. Clerk McGregor’s death was announced by the Speaker and as a mark of respect the House immediately adjourned.[306] The death of former Clerks has been reported to the House, Members standing as a mark of respect.[307]

In 1937 Frank Clifton Green was appointed Clerk and served for a record period of 18 years. A Clerk’s term of office is now limited to 10 years.[308]

The Clerk is appointed by the Speaker after the Speaker has consulted Members of the House about the proposed appointment.[309] In practice, party leaders are consulted. Without exception, a person who is appointed as Clerk has been in the service of the House and has served at the Table for a long period. The parliamentary experience thus gained is important to the required understanding of parliamentary law and procedure and its application to varying circumstances. A person cannot be appointed as the Clerk of the House of Representatives unless the Speaker making the appointment is satisfied that the person has extensive knowledge of, and experience in, relevant parliamentary law, procedure and practice.[310]

The title Clerk of the Parliaments was used by the first Clerk of the Senate but in 1908, for statutory reasons, his successor was appointed Clerk of the Senate, and the title Clerk of the Parliaments[311] has not been used since in the Australian Parliament. This reflects the distinctive nature of the bicameral legislature. The title owes its origin to early English Parliaments before the Lords and Commons were formed into two distinct and separate Houses. In some bicameral Parliaments either the Clerk of the Upper House or the senior Clerk of the two Houses carries, in addition to his or her own title, that of Clerk of the Parliaments.

While the House is sitting the Clerk and the Deputy Clerk sit at the Table in front of the Speaker’s Chair. The Clerk sits to the right of the Speaker and the Deputy Clerk to the left.

It is the practice in the House of Representatives for the Clerks at the Table to wear a black gown. Clerks at the Table wore wigs until January 1995,[312] except for two periods, 1911–13 and 1914–17, when Speaker McDonald directed that the Clerks should not wear wigs. In 1929 Speaker Makin left it to the Clerk to decide whether he would continue to wear the wig and gown. Clerk E.W. Parkes decided to continue the practice of wearing the formal dress.

Role and functions of the Clerk

The Clerk has an administrative role as well as being a specialist in the rules of parliamentary procedure and practice. As departmental head the Clerk administers the Department of the House of Representatives in the same way as the secretary of an executive department administers his or her department. The Clerk administers a department of about 165 staff members responsible for providing services to the Speaker and the House including the Prime Minister, Ministers, party leaders, shadow ministers and private Members. The management role of the Clerk covers the usual range of departmental functions including staffing matters, financial management and so on.

The Clerk is responsible for procedural and related matters both inside and outside the Chamber.[313] In this capacity the Clerk has responsibilities laid down in the standing orders which include the recording of the Votes and Proceedings of the House (the official record), the safe keeping of all records and documents of the House, the arrangements for bills, production of the Notice Paper, and the signing of Addresses agreed to by the House, motions of thanks and orders of the House.

The Clerk also performs essential functions in the legislative process. As each bill is passed by the House, before it is sent or returned to the Senate the Clerk must certify on the bill that it has passed the House. In whatever way and whenever the House deals with an amendment to a bill or disposes of a bill the Clerk is required to certify accordingly the action taken by the House. Every bill originating in the House and passed by both Houses must be certified by the Clerk to that effect before it can be forwarded to the Governor-General for assent.

When the House proceeds to elect a new Speaker the Clerk assumes the role of chair of the House, calling on the proposer and seconder and putting such questions as are necessary until the Speaker’s Chair is filled (see page 166).

The Clerk and the staff must also assist the smooth running of the Chamber by the provision of routine support services, documentation and advice. To do this adequately the Clerk must have extensive knowledge and experience in the interpretation of the standing orders, in parliamentary practice and precedent, and in the requirements of the Constitution in so far as they affect the role of the House and its relationship with the Senate. He or she is also required to be informed on the law and practice of other Parliaments and in particular of that of the United Kingdom House of Commons from which much of House of Representatives practice was derived.[314]

The Clerk’s advice is offered to the Chair, to Governments, Oppositions, individual Members of the House, the Committee of Privileges and Members’ Interests, the Procedure Committee, the House Appropriations and Administration Committee and other committees. Advice is given to Members on a wide range of subjects relating to their work and to their participation in proceedings. In 1988 a request from a Member that the Clerk obtain a private legal opinion on the legal status of certain executive activities was not met. While sitting at the Table the Clerk must always keep an ear to the debate as he or she may be called upon to give immediate advice to the Chair or others in relation to a procedural or technical matter suddenly arising.

Each day before the House meets the Clerk needs to examine the business scheduled for the day’s sitting, consider any difficulties which may arise and, prior to the meeting of the House, brief the Speaker in relation to the day’s business. The Clerk and staff also maintain a close relationship with the other parliamentary departments and with executive departments and provide advice or guidance in relation to proposed, current or past House business affecting departments.

Deputy Clerk and senior staff

The office of Deputy Clerk is the second most senior in the House of Representatives. In the absence of the Clerk the Deputy Clerk performs the Clerk’s duties.[315] During any “Absence of:Clerk” vacancy in the office of Clerk, the Deputy Clerk exercises all the Clerk’s powers and performs all his or her functions and duties.[316] The Deputy Clerk is the Clerk of the Federation Chamber.

The Clerk and Deputy Clerk may be relieved in their Chamber duties by the Clerks Assistant and the Serjeant-at-Arms, and by other senior parliamentary staff. The Clerks Assistant and the Serjeant-at-Arms manage areas of the Department of the House of Representatives (see below).

Serjeant-at-Arms

The Serjeant-at-Arms is another office having its origins in early English parliamentary history. About the end of the 14th century the office assumed a form recognisable in its descendant of today. Early concepts of the role of the Serjeant-at-Arms as ‘attendant upon the Speaker’ and acting only ‘on the instruction of the Speaker’ still characterise the functions of the Serjeant-at-Arms today. Over the centuries the Serjeant-at-Arms as bearer of the Mace became identified with protecting the privileges of the Commons, the Speaker being the guardian, the Serjeant-at-Arms the enforcer.

The Serjeant-at-Arms’ functions in the Chamber are associated mainly with the ceremony of Parliament and the preservation of order. Bearing the Mace on the right shoulder, the Serjeant-at-Arms precedes the Speaker into the Chamber and announces the Speaker to Members. The Serjeant-at-Arms, the Deputy Serjeant or Assistant Serjeant attends in the Chamber at all times when the House is sitting. The duties of the Serjeant-at-Arms in the Chamber include the recording of Members’ attendance and delivering messages to the Senate. If a Member refuses to follow the Speaker’s direction, the Speaker may order the Serjeant-at-Arms to remove the Member from the Chamber or the Federation Chamber or take the Member into custody.[317] The Serjeant-at-Arms announces to the Speaker any visitor seeking formal entrance to the Chamber, such as the Usher of the Black Rod. The Serjeant-at-Arms is responsible for maintaining order in the galleries and can remove or take into custody any visitor or person other than a Member who disturbs the operation of the Chamber or the Federation Chamber.[318] Outside the Chamber the responsibilities of the Serjeant-at-Arms include the provision of a range of support services and the security of that part of the parliamentary precincts occupied by the House of Representatives. The Serjeant is a Member of the Parliament’s Security Management Board.

On certain ceremonial occasions a male Serjeant-at-Arms wears the traditional Court dress of knee breeches, buckled shoes, lace jabot and cuffs, gloves, and sword and carries a cocked hat. A female Serjeant-at-Arms wears a specially designed skirt, or slacks, in place of the knee breeches.

The Department of the House of Representatives

The Department of the House of Representatives provides the administrative support for the efficient conduct of the House of Representatives, its committees and certain joint committees and a range of services and facilities for Members in Parliament House. The department also administers certain shared functions on behalf of both Houses. In 2010 the organisational structure of the department consisted of five output groups as follows:

Chamber and Federation Chamber, managed by the Clerk Assistant (Table), provides programming, procedural and administrative support necessary for the conduct of the business of the House and the Federation Chamber; undertakes research on parliamentary matters; produces publications and provides information about the House and its proceedings; and provides secretariat services for certain domestic committees.
Community awareness, managed by the Clerk Assistant (Committees), promotes awareness and understanding of the House of Representatives and the Parliament.
Committee services, managed by the Clerk Assistant (Committees), provides secretariat services to the House of Representatives investigatory committees and some joint committees (other joint committees are supported by the Department of the Senate).
Inter-parliamentary relations, managed by the Clerk Assistant (Committees), supports the Parliament’s relations with other Parliaments (jointly funded by the Department of the Senate).
Members’ services, managed by the Serjeant-at-Arms, administers salaries and certain entitlements of Members and provides a wide range of services to Members in Parliament House; and delivers corporate support services, including human resources, financial management and information technology services.

The other parliamentary departments

The Parliamentary Service comprises four departments, namely, the Department of the House of Representatives, the Department of the Senate, the Department of Parliamentary Services, and the Parliamentary Budget Office. The Presiding Officers are the parliamentary heads of these departments, their authority and administrative responsibility being established by the Parliamentary Service Act 1999. The Speaker has ultimate responsibility for the Department of the House of Representatives, and the President for the Department of the Senate. The two Presiding Officers are jointly responsible for the Department of Parliamentary Services, which provides joint support to Senators and Members, and the Parliamentary Budget Office. The Clerk of each House is the head of his or her department; the head of the Department of Parliamentary Services has the title of Secretary; the Parliamentary Budget Office is headed by the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

Department of the Senate

The role and functions of the Department of the Senate are equivalent to those of the Department of the House of Representatives. The Department of the Senate also administers certain shared functions on behalf of both Houses. The Department provides the secretariats to those joint committees not supported by the Department of the House of Representatives. It also administers the Parliamentary Education Office, which provides educational material and programs on the role and functions of the Parliament (jointly funded by the Department of the House of Representatives).

Department of Parliamentary Services

The Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS) was formed on 1 February 2004[319] by the amalgamation of the three former joint departments—the Department of the Parliamentary Reporting Staff, the Department of the Parliamentary Library, and the Joint House Department. It covers the following services:

Library services. The Parliamentary Library provides Members with information, analysis and advice and maintains information resources. The Parliamentary Librarian is a statutory office within DPS.[320]
Security services, providing security and emergency services to occupants of and visitors to Parliament House.
Facilities services, including facilities management, health and wellbeing and visitor services to occupants of and visitors to Parliament House.
Building infrastructure services, including building and security infrastructure, maintenance services and landscape services.
IT infrastructure services, including the maintenance of information technology, broadcasting and telecommunications infrastructure, and customer support for these services.[321]
Broadcasting services, involving the production of an audio-visual record of parliamentary proceedings (including committees) which is available for broadcasting and archiving.
Hansard services, comprising transcribing and publishing reports of proceedings in the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Federation Chamber of the House of Representatives including parliamentary committees. Hansard also provides transcription services for some ministerial or parliament-related conferences.

Parliamentary Budget Office

Legislation to establish the Parliamentary Budget Office was passed in 2011.[322] The function of the Parliamentary Budget Office is to provide non-partisan and policy neutral analysis of the budget cycle, fiscal policy and the financial implications of policy proposals, in particular to provide:

  • election policy costings on request of authorised party representatives and independent members of parliament;
  • policy costings outside of the caretaker period on request of individual Senators and Members;
  • responses to budget-related non-policy costing requests of individual Senators and Members; and
  • formal contributions on request to relevant parliamentary committee inquiries.

The Parliamentary Budget Office may initiate its own work program in anticipation of client requests, including research and analysis of the budget and fiscal policy settings. The Joint Committee on Public Accounts and Audit has an oversight role in respect of the Office’s annual work plan, draft budget estimates and annual report.[323]

Bodies advising the Presiding Officers

In the administration of services to the Parliament the Presiding Officers are assisted by the following advisory bodies:

The Joint House Committee, consisting of the members of the House Committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives meeting together as the Joint House Committee, advises the Presiding Officers on the provision of services and amenities to Senators, Members and staff in Parliament House.[324]

The Joint Standing Committee on the Parliamentary Library, appointed by resolution of both Houses, advises the Presiding Officers on matters relating to the Parliamentary Library.[325]

The Security Management Board, consisting of the Secretary of DPS,[326] the Serjeant-at-Arms and the Usher of the Black Rod, provides advice to the Presiding Officers on security policy and the management of security measures for Parliament House.[327]

The Presiding Officers’ Information Technology Advisory Group (POITAG), a group of Members and Senators appointed by the Presiding Officers, advises the Presiding Officers on the information and communication technology (ITC) requirements of Senators and Members, and the use of ITC in the Parliament.

The Art Advisory Committee, consisting of the Presiding Officers, their deputies and the Secretary of DPS, and assisted by an art adviser from the National Gallery of Australia, provides advice in relation to the Parliament House Art Collection.

Parliamentary finances

Since 1982–83 funding for the Parliament has been provided separately from funding for executive government operations, through the annual Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Acts. From 2000–2001 budgets for the parliamentary departments have been prepared using an accrual basis. The Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Acts contain appropriations for each department, under the headings ‘departmental outputs’, and ‘administered expenses’.

House Appropriations and Administration Committee

The House Appropriations and Administration Committee was first appointed in 2010.[328] Its function is to:

  • consider estimates of the funding required for the operation of the Department of the House of Representatives each year;
  • provide to the Speaker for presentation to the House and transmission to the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, the committee’s estimates of amounts for inclusion in appropriation and supply bills for the Department of the House of Representatives;
  • consider proposals for changes to the administration of the Department of the House of Representatives or variations to services provided by the Department;
  • consider and report to the Speaker on any other matters of finance or services as may be referred to it by the Speaker;
  • consider and report to the House on any other matters of finance or services as may be referred to it by the House;
  • make an annual report to the House on its operations;
  • consider the administration and funding of security measures affecting the House and advise the Speaker and the House as appropriate; and
  • consider any proposals for works in the parliamentary precincts that are subject to parliamentary approval and report to the House on them as appropriate.

In addition, the committee may confer with the Senate Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing to:

  • consider estimates of the funding required for the operation of the Department of Parliamentary Services each year; and
  • provide to the Speaker for presentation to the House and transmission to the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, estimates of amounts for inclusion in appropriation and supply bills for the Department of Parliamentary Services.

The committee has nine members, including the Speaker as chair, four government Members and four non-government or non-aligned Members. The committee is assisted by the Clerk, Serjeant-at-Arms and officers of the Department of the House of Representatives appropriate to any matters under consideration.


298. Philip Marsden, The officers of the Commons 1363–1978, 2nd edn, HMSO, London, 1979, p. 15.
299. Before the commencement of this Act parliamentary staff were employed pursuant to specific sections of the Public Service Act 1922.
300. Parliamentary Service Act 1999, s. 3.
301. These are separate offices from those of Public Service Commissioner and Public Service Merit Protection Commissioner, but in practice have been held by the same persons.
302. Parliamentary Service Act 1999, s. 10.
303. See Appendix 5.
304. S.O.s 27, 28.
305. VP 1926–28/354.
306. VP 1926–28/359.
307. E.g. VP 2004–07/127.
308. Parliamentary Service Act 1999, s. 58 (3).
309. Parliamentary Service Act 1999, s. 58 (2).
310. Parliamentary Service Act 1999, s. 58 (4).
311. See J 1908/2. The question of title later became an issue in respect of the Clerk of the House in 1920 when a recommendation by the Speaker for him to use the title was not pursued as it met with some opposition.
312. VP 1993–95/1759; H.R. Deb. (31.1.1995) 1. Party leaders were consulted about the proposed change. Although there was not unanimity, the Speaker directed that the change proceed.
313. The Clerk’s role in these matters is discussed in detail throughout the text.
314. Constitution, s. 49.
315. S.O. 21.
316. S.O. 22.
317. S.O. 94(f).
318. S.O. 96. If a person is taken into custody the Serjeant-at-Arms must report this to the House without delay.
319. In accordance with resolutions passed by each House (VP 2002–2004/1079, 1092), pursuant to s. 54 of the Parliamentary Service Act 1999.
320. Parliamentary Service Act 1997, s. 38A.
321. IT support for electorate offices is provided under a purchaser-provider arrangement between DPS and the Department of Finance and Deregulation.
322. Parliamentary Service Amendment (Parliamentary Budget Officer) Act 2011.
323. Functions as outlined in the Minister’s second reading speech, H.R. Deb. (24.8.2011) 9141–2.
324. See ‘House Committee’ in Ch. on ‘Parliamentary committees’.
325. See ‘Joint Standing Committee on the Parliamentary Library’ in Ch. on ‘Parliamentary committees’.
326. Or other DPS employee nominated by the Presiding Officers.
327. Established pursuant to s. 65A of the Parliamentary Service Act 1997. See also ‘The security of the parliamentary precincts’ in Ch. on ‘Parliament House and access to proceedings’.
328. S.O. 222a.

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