The life of a Parliament may be divided into sessions. A session of Parliament commences upon the first sitting day following a general election and terminates only when the Parliament is prorogued or the House of Representatives is dissolved or expires by effluxion of time. The Constitution provides that there shall be a session of the Parliament once at least in every year, so that 12 months shall not intervene between the last sitting of the Parliament in one session and its first sitting in the next session. In practice this has not been interpreted to mean that a session cannot continue beyond a year, but to mean that there shall not be an interval of 12 months between consecutive sittings.
When a session is terminated by a prorogation (not being followed by a dissolution), after an indeterminate interval a further session commences pursuant to a proclamation by the Governor-General.
The duration of a Parliament therefore may be composed of more than one session and constitutionally there is no limit to the number of sessions which may occur. In practical terms the number of sessions would be unlikely to exceed three in any one Parliament. Likewise there is no constitutional limit to the duration of a session within a Parliament.
It is now the usual practice for Parliaments to consist of one session only. However, in the past the number and duration of sessions have varied considerably:
- Two sessions have contained only one sitting day. The shortest sessions have been:
- 1st Session 7th Parliament from 14 June 1917 to 16 June 1917. The only sitting was 14 June.
- 1st Session 27th Parliament from 25 November 1969 to 23 February 1970. The only sitting was 25–26 November.
- A number of sessions have continued into their third year, although not being the only session in the Parliament, for example:
- 2nd Session 7th Parliament, 1917–18–19,
- 1st Session 15th Parliament, 1937–38–39–40,
- 2nd Session 27th Parliament, 1970–71–72.
- The longest session has been the 1st (and only) Session of the 39th Parliament, from 10 November 1998 to 8 October 2001.
- The 3rd Parliament was unique in having four sessions.
In 1957, on the opening day of the 2nd Session of the 22nd Parliament, the Leader of the House announced that in future there would be a regular session of the Parliament each year with a formal opening in the Autumn preceded by a prorogation of the previous session. However, this system of annual sessions fell into disuse after the 1st (and only) Session of the 24th Parliament had continued for over 20 months.
Opening of a new session
Procedure for the opening day of a new session of the Parliament following a prorogation is similar to that for the opening day of a new Parliament except that, as the session is a continuation of and not the commencement of a Parliament, no Deputies are appointed by the Governor-General to open Parliament, only those Members elected at by-elections since the last meeting are sworn in, and the Speaker, Deputy Speaker and Second Deputy Speaker continue in office without re-election.
The House has usually met at 3 p.m., although it is not to be assumed that this time would be chosen in the future. When the bells cease ringing, the Serjeant-at-Arms announces the Speaker, who takes the Chair as the Mace is placed on the Table. The Clerk of the House reads the proclamation summoning Parliament, and Members then rise in their places while the Speaker reads the acknowledgement of country and prayers. The House then awaits the arrival of the Usher of the Black Rod with a message advising that the Governor-General desires the attendance of Members to hear the speech, traditionally in the Senate Chamber.
While awaiting the arrival of Black Rod, the House may attend to other business, which has included announcements such as the death of a Member and the issue of and return to the writ to fill the vacancy, the Speaker’s receipt of an authority to administer the oath or affirmation of allegiance to Members, and changes in staff of the House. The opportunity has also been taken to swear in Members.
Under the traditional arrangement, upon receipt of the message summoning Members to attend in the Senate, the Speaker, accompanied by Members and House staff, has proceeded to the Senate Chamber. On return to the House, and before the Speaker has reported the Governor-General’s speech, business transacted has included announcements regarding ministerial arrangements, the resignation of Members and the issue of writs, and the receipt of the Speaker’s authority to administer the oath or affirmation of allegiance to Members. It has also included presentation of documents, the moving of condolence motions and, on each occasion, the presentation of a ‘priviledge’ bill.
Following the report of the speech and the appointment of the Address in Reply Committee, the House, on the most recent occasions, has adjourned. Alternatively, condolence motions may then be moved and the sitting may be suspended or the House adjourned as a mark of respect. If the House is not adjourned, or if the sitting is resumed, the House may proceed with the ordinary order of business of a day’s sitting. On one occasion the Address in Reply was brought up and agreed to, and Customs Tariff Proposals were then introduced. On two other occasions standing orders were suspended to enable a supply bill to pass through all stages without delay.
‘Opening’ by the Sovereign
On the meeting of a new Parliament and hence the 1st Session, the actual ‘opening’ of Parliament is carried out by the Governor-General’s Deputy. The Governor-General or the Sovereign may open Parliament in person but neither has done so.
However the 1st Parliament, which assembled at the Exhibition Building in Melbourne on 9 May 1901 pursuant to proclamation of the Governor-General, was opened by His Royal Highness the Duke of Cornwall and York in the name of, and on behalf of, His Majesty King Edward VII. Some doubt has been expressed as to the legality of a person other than the Sovereign or the Governor-General (or the Governor-General’s Deputy) opening Parliament. Members took and subscribed the oath required by law before the Governor-General and then retired to the Legislative Assembly Chamber at Parliament House to choose a Speaker. The next day the Governor-General delivered a speech to Members of both Houses on the opening of the 1st Session of the 1st Parliament.
A new session of the Parliament is opened only in the sense of declaring the causes of the calling together of the Parliament constituted by the ‘opening’ speech.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has, on three occasions, made the speech to both Houses of Parliament at the commencement of a new session; the 3rd Session of the 20th Parliament on 15 February 1954, and the 2nd Sessions of the 28th Parliament on 28 February 1974 and the 30th Parliament on 8 March 1977. Prior to the first occasion the House adopted a new standing order ‘to meet the requirements occasioned by the proposed Opening of the Parliament by Her Majesty’. The standing order now provides that if the Queen attends a meeting to declare the causes for the calling together of Parliament, references in Chapter 2 of the standing orders to the Governor-General shall be read as references to Her Majesty. The proceedings on the opening day when the speech is made by the Queen are the same as those for the normal meeting for a new session.
When the House is sitting its meeting times can be changed by a motion moved by a Minister without notice to set the next meeting of the House, by a Minister on notice to set a future meeting or meetings, or by a Member after notice. When the House is not sitting the Speaker may set an alternative day or hour for the next meeting, and must notify each Member of any change.
A motion for the alteration of the day of next meeting may provide that the House not meet on a day laid down in the standing orders, or meet on a day other than those laid down in the standing orders. It is not uncommon for the days and hours of meeting to be changed, especially towards the end of a sitting period when the business in hand may require an extra sitting day (or two). Such additional sittings have occurred on a Saturday, although this is infrequent. The House has varied its hour of meeting to enable Members to attend luncheons for visiting dignitaries, or public functions such as Remembrance Day, and to take account of the running of the Melbourne Cup (in these matters any action taken by the Speaker is at the request of the Government). In the past the House has frequently changed its hours of meeting by means of sessional order.
The constitutional and parliamentary nature of prorogation is described in the following passage from May:
The prorogation of Parliament is a prerogative act of the Crown. Just as Parliament can commence its deliberations only at the time appointed by the Queen, so it cannot continue them any longer than she pleases.
Prorogation terminates a session of Parliament; a dissolution terminates a Parliament and thus there must be a general election. The decision only to prorogue the Parliament therefore does not attach to it the same significance as a decision to dissolve the House of Representatives. There is little guidance afforded by the constitutional provisions or conventions as to when or how often prorogation should take place or any established criteria regarding the taking of a decision to prorogue. While section 5 of the Constitution gives the Governor-General authority to prorogue the Parliament, the decision to prorogue follows the advice of the Government of the day.
Parliaments have often consisted of only one session without a prorogation intervening, and this is now usual. A prorogation does not necessarily precede a dissolution as is commonly the case in the United Kingdom, although this has been the recent practice. Between 1928 and 1990 Parliaments were not expressly prorogued prior to dissolution and the holding of a general election. Since then the Parliament has been prorogued just before the dissolution of the House of Representatives.
Parliament is prorogued by the Governor-General who may do so by proclamation or otherwise. On 10 October 1902 the Acting Governor-General, in a speech to Members of both Houses in the Senate Chamber, prorogued the 1st Parliament until 14 November 1902 and it was then prorogued a further five times by proclamation before it met for the 2nd Session on 26 May 1903. The 2nd Session, in turn, was prorogued by the Governor-General in person on 22 October 1903. The 2nd Parliament was prorogued in the same manner three times and on each occasion there were further prorogations by proclamation.
Since 1906 all prorogations have been made by proclamation published in the Commonwealth Gazette and on one such occasion, 28 February 1977, the proclamation was read publicly on the front steps of the provisional Parliament House by the Official Secretary to the Governor-General, consistent with the practice with a proclamation of dissolution. The proclamations proroguing the 36th, 37th and 41st Parliaments were read at the front of Parliament House immediately before the proclamations dissolving the House of Representatives. From 1998 until 2004 and in 2010 the Parliament was prorogued and the House dissolved by a single proclamation. The proclamation proroguing Parliament may set down the day for the next meeting and summon all Senators and Members to be present at an hour appointed on that day.
The history of the Australian Parliament in respect of prorogations is marked by inconsistency. In 1957 the Leader of the House stated that in future annual sessions of Parliament would be held, and this practice continued until the end of 1961. Subsequently, the division of a Parliament into more than one session by means of regular prorogations appears to have been regarded as either inconvenient or unnecessary.
There are few occasions when advantage can be perceived in the act of prorogation in the modern context. This is illustrated by the fact that there have been only four prorogations since 1961, apart from prorogation immediately prior to the end of a Parliament, and all of these were for a particular reason:
- the 1968 prorogation followed the death of Prime Minister Holt and the formation of a new Ministry;
- the 1970 prorogation was caused by a general election being held on 25 October 1969, resulting in the Parliament being forced to meet, under section 5 of the Constitution, prior to Christmas; the Parliament met for one sitting day but the Government found that it was not able to have the Governor-General announce fully its proposed program at that time; the program was announced at the opening of the second session; and
- the Parliament was prorogued in 1974 and 1977 to enable the Queen to open the new session in each case.
From the point of view of the House and its Members, prorogation has the disadvantage of disrupting the business before the House and its committees and causes some additional workload in the new session. From the point of view of committees of the Parliament, the recent practice of not proroguing, except for special reasons, is desirable in order that they may continue their operations with minimal disruption while the House is not sitting. When prorogation is found to be necessary, it is to the advantage of committees if this is done as near as possible to the proposed meeting in the new session. This reduces the ‘recess’ time and so minimises the difficulties referred to earlier of committees not being able to meet during periods of recess. The recess involved need only be very short, for example, over a weekend.
There is also the argument, however, that regular, perhaps annual, prorogations could offer advantages, such as:
- a regular statement of government policies and intentions would be put before the House;
- there would be a regular opportunity for Members to debate the Government’s statement; and
- there would be a regular and comprehensive clearing of the Notice Paper.
Effects of prorogation
Prorogation of the Parliament has the following effects on the House of Representatives:
- All proceedings come to an end—that is, all business on the Notice Paper lapses. Provision exists for the resumption in a new session, under certain conditions, of proceedings on bills which lapse by reason of prorogation.
- Any sessional orders cease to have effect.
- Resolutions or orders of the House cease to have any force unless they are deemed to continue in a new session by virtue of being passed as standing orders or pursuant to statute, or unless there are explicit provisions to give them continuing force, or unless it is implicitly understood that they are to have ongoing effect.
- The House may not meet until the date nominated in the proclamation.
- Bills agreed to by both Houses during a session are in practice assented to prior to the signing of the prorogation proclamation. However, bills have been assented to after Parliament has been prorogued.
- The procedure in relation to a notice of motion for the disallowance of a legislative instrument applies to prorogation as to dissolution.
- Committees of the House and joint committees appointed by standing order or by resolution for the life of the Parliament continue in existence but may not meet and transact business following prorogation. Committees whose tenure is on a sessional basis cease to exist. Statutory committees continue in existence and may meet and transact business if, as is the normal practice, the Act under which they are appointed so provides. The Senate has taken a different approach to that of the House in relation to the effect of prorogation on its committees, and Senate standing orders and resolutions of appointment give most Senate committees the power to meet during recess. The effect of prorogation on committees is discussed in more detail in the Chapter on ‘Parliamentary committees’.
Writs for the election of Members to fill vacancies may be issued by the Speaker, and a Member may resign his or her seat to the Speaker during a recess in accordance with the Constitution. The Speaker continues to hold all the powers and authority possessed by virtue of the office.
It has been accepted that prorogation of the Parliament prevents either House from meeting. Odgers cites Professor Howard’s view that the Senate could in fact meet to transact its own business. However, the Senate has not done this nor asserted its right to do so. The practice of proroguing the Parliament immediately prior to dissolution of the House has been said to be aimed at removing the possibility of the Senate sitting following the dissolution of the House. At the conclusion of the 40th Parliament Prime Minister Howard indicated that the timing of the prorogation and dissolution (announced on 29 August for 31 August) was to allow the Senate to sit in the intervening period.