A sitting means the period commencing with the meeting of the House and concluding at the adjournment of the House. A sitting commences when the Speaker takes the Chair. If there is no quorum present at that time and the Speaker is compelled to adjourn the House in accordance with standing order 57, a sitting of the House has taken place in the terms of this definition. The only occasion of such a sitting was on 19 September 1913.
The term ‘sitting day’ is not defined by the standing orders. However, the practice of the House is that a sitting day is a day on which the House commences a sitting following an adjournment, and continues until a motion for its adjournment is carried. In other words, a sitting day is taken to mean a day on which the House meets to begin a sitting and not any day on which the House sits. Thus a sitting day may continue for one or more calendar days.
Even where one sitting continues over two or more full days, for example, the sitting that commenced on Wednesday, 6 December 1933 and continued on the Thursday and Friday without adjournment, there would be only one sitting day. It is important to note in this context that, as a Notice Paper is only issued for each new sitting and as a notice of motion only becomes effective when it appears on the Notice Paper, a notice of motion to disallow a regulation, for example, which is given on the first day of a three day sitting, would not be effective until the next Notice Paper is issued.
Where two sittings of the House occur on one day ‘this could only be regarded as one sitting day; there would be two sittings but one could hardly say that there were two sitting days’.
The term ‘sitting day’ has special legal significance because of statutory requirements for the tabling of delegated legislation within a specified number of sitting days of being made, and in relation to the number of sitting days within which a notice of motion may be given for the purpose of disallowing delegated legislation and the number of sitting days within which such a notice of motion must be disposed of by the House. Many statutes also require a Minister to table a report or other document within a certain number of sitting days of its receipt. There is no statutory definition of what constitutes a sitting day for these purposes.
Two sittings commencing on the one day
On two occasions the House has commenced and concluded two sittings within the one day. The first occasion was on 11 April 1935 when leave was refused at the first sitting to allow a motion to be moved to grant leave of absence to all Members. Notice of such a motion was then given and following the alteration of the day of next meeting the House was adjourned until 5 p.m. A new Notice Paper was issued and, at the next sitting, the motion was moved, pursuant to notice. Such a motion can now be moved without notice.
On the second occasion, on 2 September 1942, the House met at 3 p.m. and agreed to a motion of condolence in respect of the death of the Duke of Kent. Following the alteration of the day of next meeting, the House adjourned as a mark of respect until 7.30 p.m.
There have been occasions when the House has adjourned after a lengthy sitting, only to meet again shortly afterwards but in a new sitting day. For example, the House met at 11.50 a.m. on Monday, 24 May 1965, and the sitting continued until 4.32 a.m. on Wednesday, 26 May. The next sitting commenced at 5 a.m. that day. The purpose of the new sitting was to enable new business to be taken.
Length of sittings
The shortest sitting of the House was on 14 March 1928 when the House adjourned one minute after it met to enable Members to attend functions in honour of the eminent aviator, Captain Hinkler. On 24 October 2002 the House adjourned 2 minutes after it met, to enable Members to attend a national memorial service in the Great Hall for the victims of terrorist attacks in Bali.
The longest sitting of the House was from 11 a.m. on Friday, 18 January 1918 until 6.22 p.m. on Friday, 25 January 1918, a period of 175 hours 22 minutes. This period, however, included a suspension of the sitting from 3.09 a.m. on 19 January until 3 p.m. on 25 January. In a sitting of the House that lasted from 2.30 p.m. on Thursday, 16 November 1905 until 12.05 p.m. on Monday, 20 November 1905 (the sitting was suspended over the Sunday) the House sat for a continuous period of 57 hours 30 minutes prior to the suspension at midnight on the Saturday.
On the occasion of one lengthy sitting Hansard staff were discharged during the adjournment debate and Members forwarded precis of their remarks for inclusion in Hansard. Modern practice allowing proceedings to be recorded would mean that such action would no longer be necessary.
The Constitution provides for a joint sitting of members of both Houses for the resolution of disagreements between the Houses over legislation if such disagreements persist following a double dissolution—see Chapter on ‘Disagreements between the Houses’. The Commonwealth Electoral Act provides for a joint sitting of members of both Houses to choose a person to fill certain casual vacancies in places of Senators for Territories other than the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory—see Chapter on ‘Elections and the electoral system’.
On several occasions ‘conferences’, or alternatively ‘joint meetings’ (as used on these occasions the terms would appear effectively synonymous), of all members of both Houses have been proposed. A meeting of this kind (as distinct from a joint sitting—see above) is not provided for in the standing orders or the Constitution but would not be prevented should both Houses agree and determine the procedure to be followed.
On 22 September 1903 the Prime Minister moved that a ‘conference’ be held of all members of both Houses to consider the selection of a site for the seat of Government, and that the Senate be requested to concur with the resolution. The motion was agreed to, after amendment, on 23 September. On 30 September the Senate resolved not to concur with the House’s resolution and the proposal was not further proceeded with.
On 14 May 1931 the Prime Minister made a statement to the House suggesting a ‘conference’ of all Members of Parliament to consider Australia’s economic and financial problems. His suggestion was that such a conference last for a week during which there would be ‘a general frank discussion, devoid of party feeling’. Some days later the Leader of the Opposition made a statement in which he opposed such a conference and the proposal was not further proceeded with.
On three other occasions proposals for a conference or joint meeting of Members of both Houses have been put forward, in each case on the subject of the site for a new and permanent Parliament House. On 28 May 1969 the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate moved that a ‘conference’ of both Houses be convened to express a point of view on the site of the new and permanent Parliament House. The motion was debated and negatived by the Senate on 29 May. On 6 May 1971 a similar motion was again moved and agreed to by the Senate. The message from the Senate requesting consideration by the House of the Senate’s resolution was received by the House on 7 May but was never debated. On 23 August 1973 a motion was moved in the House proposing a joint meeting of both Houses to determine the site of the new and permanent Parliament House. On 24 October the House agreed to the motion which was transmitted to the Senate. The House received a message from the Senate not agreeing with the proposal on 20 November 1973.
On 9 May 2001 the House met with the Senate at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne to mark the centenary of the first meetings of the Houses of the Commonwealth Parliament in 1901. At the end of the common proceedings the two Houses were adjourned separately by their respective Presiding Officers.
Addresses to both Houses by foreign heads of state
In recent years the Parliament has adopted the practice of assembling to hear addresses from foreign heads of state or government. This development has parallels to the practice of the United States Congress of receiving addresses from foreign leaders and dignitaries at a joint meeting of Congress.
The initial practice on such occasions was that the House and the Senate would meet (concurrently rather than in joint session) in the House of Representatives Chamber to hear the address. The Senate met in the House Chamber at the House’s invitation; having agreed that the Speaker would preside and that the procedures of the House would apply so far as they were applicable.
However, at the close of the joint meeting on 23 October 2003, two Senators who had caused disruption to proceedings and who had refused to leave the House when ordered were named and suspended ‘from the service of the House’ for 24 hours for defying the Chair. Following this incident the Senate endorsed the view of its Procedure Committee that in future such occasions should be conducted as sittings of the House to which Senators were invited. The House Procedure Committee made a recommendation to the same effect. Since then the practice has been that the visiting dignitary has addressed a sitting of the House, which Senators have attended as guests.
Secret sittings and meetings
During war time the House has conducted a portion of a sitting in secret and has also held secret meetings and joint secret meetings with the Senate. These meetings are not regarded as sittings of the House. For the joint meetings a regulation under the National Security Act was gazetted setting out the conditions of secrecy of any such meetings convened by a specific resolution agreed to by both Houses.
While the estimates for the Department of Defence were being discussed in the Committee of Supply on the morning of 13 December 1940, notice was taken of the presence of strangers who were then ordered to withdraw. The estimates were then discussed in secret and the recording of debates suspended from 12.32 a.m. until 3.30 a.m. On two occasions in 1941 strangers were ordered to withdraw and the sitting suspended so that the House could meet in secret. On such occasions Senators present were not regarded as strangers.
Joint secret meetings were held with the Senate on 20 February, 3 and 4 September and 8 October 1942. The meetings were held in the House of Representatives Chamber, the first during the suspension of a sitting, the others following the adjournment of the House. Certain departmental staff were permitted to be present and the Serjeant-at-Arms remained in the Chamber. During World War I a secret meeting took place informally in the Senate Club Room where Members and Senators were asked to attend by the Prime Minister.
Suspension of sittings
A sitting is suspended by the Speaker leaving the Chair, usually after a direct or indirect declaration of the will of the House, for example to allow a meal break to be taken (see page 245). A suspension of a sitting can occur pursuant to standing orders, pursuant to a resolution of the House, or in accordance with accepted practice.
Pursuant to standing orders
The standing orders make provision for the suspension of a sitting in the following circumstances.
Election of Speaker and deputies
If a special ballot for the election of Speaker, Deputy Speaker or Second Deputy Speaker is inconclusive because of an equality of votes and the equality continues, the sitting is suspended for 30 minutes. No such case has ever occurred.
Once the Speaker has taken the Chair on being elected and has been congratulated, the Prime Minister or another Minister informs the House of the time that the Governor-General will receive the Members of the House and the Speaker and the sitting is suspended until that time. The sitting was not formally suspended following the election of Speaker Rosevear in 1946 as the Governor-General received the new Speaker immediately.
Meeting of a new Parliament
After the Speaker has presented himself or herself to the Governor-General and reported that fact to the House, the standing orders provide that a Minister shall then inform the House of the time that the Governor-General will declare the causes of the calling of the Parliament together (the ‘opening speech’) and the House may then suspend its sitting until that time. The contemporary practice of the House is that there is no suspension of the sitting at this point, as Members are summoned to hear the opening speech shortly after the presentation.
In the case of grave disorder arising in the House, the Speaker may adjourn the House without any question being put, or suspend the sitting until a time to be named. Sittings have been suspended in these circumstances for a period as short as 15 minutes, until the next day, and until the ringing of the bells. On one occasion the Mace, then normally left in the Chamber during the suspension of a sitting, was removed by the Serjeant-at-Arms at the direction of the Speaker. On two occasions sittings have been suspended for short periods following grave disorder in the galleries.
Lack of quorum
Standing order 57 provides that, if it has been established that a quorum of Members is not present but the Speaker is satisfied that there is likely to be a quorum within a reasonable time, the Speaker may state the time at which he or she will resume the Chair. The sitting is then suspended until the Speaker resumes the Chair (see page 271).
Pursuant to resolution of the House
The House has agreed to a motion, moved pursuant to notice, to suspend the next day’s sitting for a stated period.
The sessional orders relating to the meeting of legislation committees adopted in 1978 required that, unless otherwise ordered, legislation committees would meet during a suspension of the sitting of the House arranged for that purpose. The only occasion that a sitting was suspended for this purpose was on 27 September 1978. On all other occasions the committees were authorised to meet during the sittings of the House.
Practice of the House
The practice has been that, in cases not provided for by resolution of the House or by the standing orders, sittings are suspended with the concurrence of the House. Exceptions have been when the Chair has suspended a sitting for the duration of power failures or because of a fault in the loud speaker system.
On three occasions the action of the Chair in suspending a sitting, without ascertaining the wish of Members, has been questioned. On two of these occasions, a motion critical of the Chair’s action was rejected by the House. In 1912 the Chair acknowledged responsibility for curtailing the normal luncheon suspension by 15 minutes. A motion that the action of the Chair was a breach of the privileges of Members was negatived. In 1917 the action of the Speaker in suspending a sitting without calling on business on the Notice Paper and without ascertaining the wish of the House was questioned. The Speaker replied that it was usual for the Speaker to suspend the sitting of the House temporarily at any time when requested to do so by the Minister in charge of business. He also stated that the Speaker might leave the Chair at any time and this was often done without any vote of the House. On 17 December 1930 the Speaker, at the suggestion of the Acting Prime Minister, suspended the sitting at 3.38 p.m. The Leader of the Opposition objected. On the resumption of the sitting the Speaker referred to doubts that had been expressed as to his authority to suspend the sitting and ruled that, in vacating the Chair when the House had no business before it and was awaiting a message from the Senate, he had followed the practice of every previous Speaker. The ruling was subject to a motion of dissent which was later debated and negatived.
In earlier years it was the common practice to suspend a sitting for lunch and dinner. The (early rising) sitting timetable in effect in 1994 and 1995 did not provide for meal breaks, but meal breaks were taken on some occasions when the normal order of business had been departed from, such as to allow the main Budget bills to be presented, to allow the Leader of the Opposition’s reply to the Budget to be made, or towards the end of sitting periods when the House sat into the evening.
The timetables in effect from 1996 provided for evening meal breaks (6.30 p.m. to 8 p.m.) on scheduled late sitting days. The Chair was regarded as having some discretion as to the precise timing of the start of these suspensions (to accommodate Members who, for example, could complete a speech shortly after 6.30 or who did not wish to be called to start a speech just before 6.30). The sitting always resumed at 8 p.m.
When the early rising timetable was adopted in 2003 there was no provision for evening meal breaks, and this situation has continued despite the later sitting hours more recently. However, divisions (unless on a motion moved during that period by a Minister) called between the hours of 6.30 p.m. and 8 p.m. (the former meal break period) on Monday and Tuesday are deferred until after 8 p.m., and in the case of quorum calls during this period, the House is counted at 8 p.m. (if the Member calling the quorum requires).
Sittings of the House have been suspended on other occasions for a variety of reasons. Sittings extending over more than one calendar day are usually suspended overnight. During all-night sittings of the House the sitting has been suspended for supper and breakfast. Sittings have also been suspended from an early hour of the morning until a later hour that morning or until afternoon. On two occasions the House has suspended sittings over Sunday and on another a sitting was suspended for almost a week.
Sittings are often suspended to allow Members to attend functions. These suspensions are not necessarily recorded in the Votes and Proceedings. It has been the regular practice of the House to suspend the sitting to allow Members to attend a social function on the opening day of a Parliament, and to enable Members to accompany the Speaker to present the Address in Reply to the Governor-General. It has also been the practice that, if the House does not adjourn following a motion of condolence on the death of a sitting Member or a Minister, the sitting is suspended until the time the House would normally meet after the next meal break.
The Speaker has also suspended a sitting for the following reasons:
- because of power failures in Parliament House;
- because of a fault in the loud speaker system;
- (in lieu of adjournment) to avoid the possibility of the House not being able to meet next day through lack of a quorum;
- as a mark of respect to a deceased Senator;
- because of the illness of a Member in the House;
- because the House was awaiting decisions by the Senate;
- because of the inauguration of a wireless telephone service between Australia and Great Britain;
- to enable Members to consider statements made by persons judged to be guilty of a breach of privilege;
- to enable the House to hold secret meetings;
- to enable secret meetings to be held jointly with the Senate;
- to allow Ministers to attend a meeting of the Australian Advisory War Council;
- to allow Members to watch or listen to the running of the Melbourne Cup;
- to allow Members to attend such ceremonies as Remembrance Day;
- because of the unveiling of a monument by the Duke of Edinburgh;
- because of the swearing in of a Governor-General; and
- when there was agreement to a later meeting, on a Monday, at which a special motion on terrorist attacks (occurring since the adjournment) would be debated.
On 11 November 1992 the sitting was suspended from 11 a.m. to 11.02 a.m., pursuant to motion, to enable Members present to commemorate Remembrance Day with two minutes silence. On 8 December 1998 the Speaker suspended the sitting immediately after the meeting of the House, after reading prayers, when a luncheon for a visiting dignitary had lasted longer than expected.
On 11 November 1975, the House having agreed to a motion expressing its want of confidence in the Prime Minister (Mr Fraser) and requesting the Speaker to forthwith advise the Governor-General to call the Member for Werriwa (Mr Whitlam) to form a Government, the Speaker suspended the sitting at 3.15 p.m. The sitting did not resume as both Houses were dissolved by the Governor-General.