Independence of the Houses

Each House functions as a distinct and independent unit within the framework of the Parliament. The right inherent in each House to exclusive cognisance of matters arising within it has evolved through centuries of parliamentary history[200] and is made clear in the provisions of the Constitution.

The complete autonomy of each House, within the constitutional and statutory framework existing at any given time, is recognised in regard to:

  • its own procedure;
  • questions of privilege and contempt; and
  • control of finance, staffing, accommodation and services.[201]

This principle of independence characterises the formal nature of inter-House communication. Communication between the Houses may be by message,[202] by conference,[203] or by committees conferring with each other.[204] The two Houses may also agree to appoint a joint committee operating as a single body and composed of members of each House.[205]

Contact between the Houses reaches its ultimate point in the merging of both in a joint sitting. In respect of legislative matters this can occur only under conditions prescribed by the Constitution and when the two Houses have failed to reach agreement.[206]

The standing orders of both the House and the Senate contain particular provisions with respect to the attendance of Members and employees before the other House or its committees. Should the Senate request by message the attendance of a Member before the Senate or any committee of the Senate, the House may authorise the Member to attend, provided the Member agrees. If a similar request is received in respect of an employee, the House may instruct the employee to attend.[207] In practice, there have been instances of Members and employees appearing as witnesses before Senate committees, in a voluntary capacity, without the formality of a message being sent to the House.[208] Senators have appeared before the House Committee of Privileges, the Senate having given leave for them to appear, after having received a message from the House on the matter.[209] In 2001 the Senate authorised Senators to appear before the committee ‘subject to the rule, applied in the Senate by rulings of the President, that one House of the Parliament may not inquire into or adjudge the conduct of a member of the other House’.[210]

As an expression of the principle of independence of the Houses, the Speaker took the view in 1970 that it would be parliamentarily and constitutionally improper for a Senate estimates committee to seek to examine the financial needs or commitments of the House of Representatives.[211] In similar manner the House of Representatives estimates committees, when they operated, did not examine the proposed appropriations for the needs of the Senate.

As a further expression of the independence of the Houses it had been a traditional practice of each House not to refer to its counterpart by name but as ‘another place’ or ‘Members of another place’. The House agreed to remove the restriction on direct reference to the Senate and Senators in 1970 following a recommendation by the Standing Orders Committee.[212] The standing orders prescribe that a Member must not use offensive words against either House of the Parliament or a Member of the Parliament.[213]