Section 39 of the Constitution states:
Until the Parliament otherwise provides, the presence of at least one-third of the whole number of the members of the House of Representatives shall be necessary to constitute a meeting of the House for the exercise of its powers.
In 1989 the Parliament ‘otherwise provided’ by enacting the House of Representatives (Quorum) Bill 1988. The bill provided:
The presence of at least one-fifth of the whole number of the members of the House of Representatives is necessary to constitute a meeting of the House for the exercise of its powers.
Thus in a House of 150 Members the quorum is 30 Members, including the occupant of the Chair, being one-fifth of the total number of Members. The quorum is not reduced by any vacancy in the membership of the House.
Standing orders provisions
Quorum at time of meeting
If a quorum is not present when the Chair is taken at the commencement of each sitting, and if within five minutes, the bells having been rung, a quorum is still not present, the Speaker adjourns the House until the next sitting day. This is subject to the proviso that if the Speaker is satisfied there is likely to be a quorum within a reasonable time the Speaker announces that he or she will take the Chair at a stated time. If at that time there is not a quorum, the Speaker adjourns the House until the next sitting day. No Member may leave the Chamber while the bells are ringing or until a quorum is present.
The only time the Speaker has adjourned the House because of a lack of quorum at the time of meeting was on 19 September 1913, before the introduction of the proviso in the standing orders which gives the Speaker the discretion to take the Chair at a stated time. The Speaker declared the House adjourned because a quorum was not present either at the time fixed for the meeting of the House or within the prescribed time. The Members present were listed in the Votes and Proceedings and the meeting was recorded as a sitting of the House.
In 1905, on the last sitting day of a session, when there was no quorum present at the time fixed for the meeting of the House at 2.45 p.m., Speaker Holder took the Chair at 3.07 p.m. in view of the fact that a message from the Governor-General desiring the immediate attendance of Members in the Senate Chamber had been announced. This action was explained as being taken in accordance with the then practice of the House of Commons that a message from the Crown ‘makes a House’.
Following one occasion when a quorum was not initially present but formed in response to the ringing of the bells, a Member raised the possibility of changing the standing orders so that those Members who wished to avoid Prayers could do so.
Quorum during sitting
Lack of quorum in division
If a quorum of Members has not voted in a division, no decision of the House has been made on the question voted on. As in the case of a lack of quorum at the time of meeting, the Speaker may then adjourn the House, or if satisfied there is likely to be a quorum within a reasonable time, state the time he or she will resume the Chair. If there is not a quorum then present, the Speaker adjourns the House until the next sitting. If a quorum is present, the proceedings are resumed at the point at which they were interrupted.
There have been five occasions when the House has been adjourned following a lack of quorum on division. On four occasions the division was on the question for the adjournment of the House. The other occasion was in 1907 when the Chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means reported that a quorum of Members was not present during a division of the committee and the Deputy Speaker adjourned the House.
Lack of quorum noticed
The fact that a quorum is not always present does not mean that the House cannot continue. The House regularly conducts its business when less than a quorum of Members is present in the Chamber. Because of the demands placed on Members generally, and Ministers and office holders in particular, it is essential that they spend a great proportion of their time on public duties outside the Chamber. Provided that a quorum is present to constitute a meeting of the House and to record a vote of the House when one is called for, the practice of the House has been that it is not necessary to maintain a quorum continuously. However, a quorum must be formed should any Member require it. It is the duty of all Members to form a quorum, not just government Members.
Any Member is entitled at any time to draw the Chair’s attention to what is termed ‘the state of the House’, although it is out of order to debate the situation or to draw attention while the Speaker is in the process of putting a question. It has been ruled that once a quorum has been called for there can be no withdrawal and the House must be counted. It is considered to be highly disorderly for a Member to call attention to the state of the House when a quorum is in fact present. It is normal in these circumstances for the offending Member to be named and suspended from the service of the House.
When the Chair is counting the Members present, the doors remain unlocked and the bells rung for four minutes. The Chair has refused to hear a point of order during the ringing of the bells to form a quorum of Members and on one occasion ordered the bells to be rung again after the Chair’s attention was drawn to the fact that the bells were not ringing in some parts of the building.
There are two general principles to be observed by the Chair in respect of a quorum:
- it is not the duty of the Chair to count the House until attention has been drawn by a Member to the state of the House; and
- when attention is drawn, the Chair is obliged to make a count or have a count made.
The following cases have occurred in conflict with these principles and are included for historical purposes. They are irregular and their validity as precedents must be carefully assessed in the context of the particular situation.
- the Speaker has adjourned the House during the adjournment debate without ringing the bells and counting the House;
- the Speaker warned Members that, as soon as the numbers present fell below 40 (the quorum at the time), he would order the bells to be rung and did so on two occasions;
- the Speaker stated that if the Members on his left adopted the practice of calling for a quorum as soon as the Members on his right rose to speak, he would take action to have a quorum present whenever Members on his left were speaking;
- a Member having twice called attention to the state of the House within a short period of time, the Chair refused to count the House again until a reasonable period of time had elapsed, 15 minutes being considered reasonable; on another occasion when a Member had made two quorum calls within a short period the Deputy Speaker refused to give the call to the Member a third time (presuming that the Member wished to call another quorum);
- the Chair refused to count the House, regarding the quorum call as an attempt to obstruct proceedings and embarrass a Member; and
- the Chair, in order that business could be facilitated, asked Members not to cause annoyance by frequent quorum calls.
On an occasion when a quorum call was made two minutes prior to the time for the adjournment of the House, the Speaker did not have the House counted, saying that he thought it would be ill-advised to interrupt the House in this way.
When the attention of the Chair is called to the lack of a quorum no Member present may leave the Chamber while the bells are ringing, or until a quorum is present. Every Member within the physical limits of the Chamber, including the Speaker, is counted. The physical limits of the Chamber means the area inside the Chamber walls, on the floor of the Chamber. It does not include the galleries on the upper floors.
On occasions when Members, including party whips, have sought to leave the Chamber at the time of a quorum call they have been ordered to return to their seats. The Chair has directed the Serjeant-at-Arms to bring back Members leaving the Chamber. A Member who, in these circumstances, disregards the authority of the Chair by refusing a direction may be named and suspended.
On the occasion of a count out of the House on 26 August 1971 the Chair ordered the doors to be locked after it was found that a quorum was not present after the bells had rung, in order that a precise final count could be made.
If a quorum is not present, the same procedure is followed by the Chair as for a lack of quorum on division—the Speaker adjourns the House to the next sitting day or, at his or her discretion, states that he or she will take the Chair at a specified time, if satisfied that there is likely to be a quorum within that time. The House has been adjourned because of the lack of a quorum on 65 occasions. On 54 of these occasions the question before the House was the adjournment motion.
Once the House has been counted out the Speaker is still in control of proceedings until leaving the Chamber. On 22 February 1917 the House suspended a Member who had been named for disobeying the Chair after the House had been counted out at the previous sitting but before the House was formally adjourned by the Deputy Speaker.
The time allocated to a Member speaking when a quorum call is made is not adjusted to account for the time taken by the count, but if the next speaker in a debate has not been called when the quorum is called, the timing clock is not set.
Quorum count deferred
On Mondays, if any Member draws the attention of the Speaker to the state of the House between the hours of 10 a.m. and 12 noon, the Speaker shall announce that he or she will count the House at 12 noon, if the Member then so desires. Similarly, quorums called on Mondays and Tuesdays between 6.30 p.m. and 8 p.m. are deferred until 8 p.m.
Resumption of proceedings after count out
If the proceedings of the House have been interrupted by a count out they may, on motion after notice, be resumed at the point where they were interrupted. Business interrupted by a count out has been resumed by motion moved pursuant to contingent notice, by motion moved by leave, and by motion moved pursuant to notice.
Quorum in the Federation Chamber
The quorum of the Federation Chamber is three Members, comprising the Deputy Speaker (that is, the occupant of the Chair), one government Member and one non-government Member. This quorum should be present at all times. In practice each side of the House rosters Members to represent it and to ensure that the quorum is maintained. If a quorum is not present the Chair is obliged to immediately suspend proceedings until a stated time or adjourn the Federation Chamber. Standing orders have been suspended to remove the requirement for a Member from both sides of the House during debate on a bill.