Motions of condolence
It is the practice of the House to move a motion of condolence on the death of the Governor-General or a sitting Member or Senator. The practice is also extended to those who formerly held the following offices:
Speaker of the House
President of the Senate
Leader of the Opposition
Leader of a ‘recognised’ political party
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.
A condolence motion may also be moved following the death of a former Senator or Member when:
- the person ceased to be a Senator or Member during the current Parliament;
- the person has had previous distinguished ministerial service or other distinguished service in Australia; or
- the death of the former Member or Senator coincides with the death of another person in respect of whom a motion of condolence is to be moved.
However, in normal circumstances the death of a former Member or Senator is announced by the Speaker, who refers to the death without a motion being moved. The Speaker then asks Members to rise in their places for a short time as a mark of respect. This practice has sometimes been criticised, on the ground that the House should show more recognition of the services of a former Member or Senator. Sometimes Members have made statements of condolence by indulgence, or have chosen to refer to the deaths of former Members at a suitable time later—for example, on the adjournment debate. On the opening day of the 32nd Parliament, the Speaker, by indulgence, allowed Members to pay tribute to former colleagues, there being no question before the House, and the speeches were bound and forwarded to the next of kin (the practice for condolence motions—see below). The Speaker has announced the death of a former Member, foreshadowing a condolence motion at a later date.
From time to time condolence motions may also be moved following the deaths of distinguished Australians, Heads of State or Government of other countries, and other distinguished persons overseas whose achievements are considered to have some direct relevance to Australia. Condolence motions have also been moved for service personnel and victims of natural and other disasters. When a condolence motion is not to be moved the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, and other Members, may note the death of a person by seeking the Chair’s indulgence to make statements of condolence.
The guidelines for the moving of condolence motions have, in practice, been determined by the Government but, depending on the circumstances, they may not always be observed.
At the request of a Member, during questions without notice, and with the agreement of the Prime Minister and Speaker, Members stood in silence as a mark of respect to Dr Martin Luther King, a world figure who had been assassinated in the United States of America. There was an understanding that this departure from practice should not be considered to be a precedent.
In 1920, at the initiative of a private Member, Members stood in silence for one minute in memory of members of the Australian Imperial Force who fell in World War I. On the 80th anniversary of Remembrance Day on 11 November 1998, proceedings were interrupted by the Chair at 11 a.m. and Members stood for a minute’s silence. On another Remembrance Day, pursuant to a motion moved by a private Member, the House was suspended for two minutes at 11 a.m., with Members standing in silence in commemoration.
In 2002, on a motion in remembrance of the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 being agreed to, Members rising in silence, at the Speaker’s invitation people in the gallery also rose in their places as a mark of respect.
On 1 March 2011 the House met at 10.48 a.m. in order to observe two minutes silence at the exact time of the earthquake in Christchurch the week before, as a mark of support for and solidarity with the people of New Zealand. The sitting was then suspended (at 10.53 a.m.) until the normal time of meeting at 2 p.m.
As noted above, the House may show its respect for a person who has died by Members standing in silence for a short period, without a motion being moved. This usually occurs on the death of former Members, and in 2011 occurred on the death of a long-serving member of staff of the Department of the House of Representatives.
A motion of condolence, by practice of the House, is moved without notice. It is usually moved by the Prime Minister and seconded by the Leader of the Opposition, and is ordinarily given precedence. Time limits do not apply, although individual speeches are normally quite brief. Debate on a condolence motion may be adjourned after a small number of Members (for example, party leaders) have spoken, and resumed at a later hour the same day. At the conclusion of the speeches the Speaker puts the question and asks Members to signify their approval of the motion by rising in their places for a short period of silence. A single condolence motion may be moved in respect of more than one death.
Former standing orders had no provision for condolence motions to be referred to the Main Committee (now Federation Chamber), and to enable this to occur the practice commenced of presenting documents relating to the deaths of persons in order to facilitate motions to take note which could be referred to the Main Committee for later debate. During such debates conventions applying to a condolence motion were observed—no time limits were placed on speeches and Members stood in silence when the debates were adjourned. Documents referred to the Main Committee in such circumstances included copies of condolence motions that had just been agreed to. However, current practice is for the debate on the condolence motion to be adjourned and the adjourned debate referred as an order of the day to the Federation Chamber—ultimately returning to the House for final agreement. It has become customary for Members to show sympathy and respect by rising in silence when debate on a condolence motion is adjourned on the first occasion in the House, in the Federation Chamber when the motion is referred back to the House, as well as when the question is eventually put and agreed to in the House.
Depending on the circumstances a condolence motion may be followed by a suspension of the sitting to a later hour. Some deaths have been marked by an adjournment to the next sitting. However, over the years there has been a tendency for the periods of suspension or adjournment to be reduced with the increase in pressure on the time of the House, and neither is now usual.
It is usual for bound copies of motions of condolence and extracts from the Hansard together with a video recording of proceedings on condolence motions to be presented to the next of kin of the deceased person.