The Chamber

The Chamber, like the Chamber of the British House of Commons and the Chamber of the provisional Parliament House, is furnished predominantly in green. The derivation of the traditional use of green is uncertain.[12] The shades of green selected for the Chamber in the permanent building were chosen as representing the tones of native eucalypts.

Facing the main Chamber entrance from the Members’ Hall is the Speaker’s Chair and the Table of the House of Representatives.[13] High on the Chamber wall above the Speaker’s Chair is the Australian Coat of Arms. Four Australian national flags are mounted high in each corner of the Chamber, and an additional two flags flank the main entrance.

The Speaker’s desk has monitors on it to enable the occupant of the Chair to be connected into the parliamentary computer network and to view a range of online services. Immediately in front of the Speaker’s Chair are chairs for the Clerk of the House and the Deputy Clerk. Set into the Clerk’s desk is a button which enables the bells to be activated with associated flashing green lights in rooms and lobbies of the building. A similar system operates from the Senate using red lights. The bells are rung for five minutes before the time fixed for the commencement of each sitting[14] and before the time fixed for the resumption of a sitting after a suspension. Before any division or ballot is taken, the Clerk rings the bells for the period specified by the standing orders, as timed by the sandglasses kept on the Table for that purpose.[15] For most divisions a four-minute sandglass is used; a one-minute sandglass is used when successive divisions are taken and there is no intervening debate after the first division.[16] The bells are also rung to summon Members to the Chamber for the purpose of establishing a quorum.[17]

Electronic speech timing clocks are set on the walls below each side gallery. There are two clocks on each side of the Chamber, one analogue and one digital. The hand or digital display is set by remote control by the Deputy Clerk to indicate the number of minutes allowed for a speech.[18] The clocks automatically count down to zero as a Member speaks. A small warning light is illuminated on each clock face one minute before the time for the speech expires. Electronic display screens on stands at each side of the Chamber show the current item of business and question before the Chair.

Microphones in the Chamber are used for the broadcast[19] of the proceedings of the House and for sound reinforcement purposes. The radio broadcast announcements are made from a booth at the rear of the Chamber. Control of the radio broadcast also occurs there with the control of the telecast and webcast taking place in a basement production control room. Amplifiers are provided in the Chamber in order that speeches may be heard by Members. The Chamber floor is equipped with facilities for hearing-impaired persons wearing hearing aids.

The House of Representatives Chamber

Plan for the 45th Parliament

Proceedings of both Houses are relayed to rooms throughout the building. Only the microphone of the Speaker is live all the time. The nearest microphone to a Member is switched on when he or she is making a speech.

Connections to the parliamentary computer network are provided to each desk and at the Table for Members’ laptop computers. Wireless connectivity is also available. The Chamber has been designed to accommodate electronic voting.[20]

Two despatch boxes, with elaborate silver and enamel decorations, are situated on the Table in front of the Clerk and Deputy Clerk, respectively. These were a gift from King George V to mark the opening of the provisional Parliament House in Canberra in 1927 and the inauguration of the sittings of the Parliament in the national capital.[21] The despatch boxes, which are purely ornamental, are exact replicas of those which lay on the Table at Westminster prior to their loss when the Commons Chamber was destroyed by bombs in 1941. They are a continuing link between the House of Commons and the House of Representatives. The Prime Minister, Ministers and members of the opposition executive speak ‘from the despatch box’. The origin of the boxes is obscure, the most accepted theory being that in early times Ministers, Members and the Clerk of the House of Commons carried their papers in a box and, thus, one or more boxes were generally deposited on the Table.

The Chamber of the House of Representatives is used only by the House itself, for some joint meetings or sittings of the House and Senate, and for the occasional major international parliamentary conference.

The Mace

A mace was originally a weapon of war similar to a club. During the 12th century the Serjeants-at-Arms of the King’s bodyguard were equipped with maces, and over time the Serjeants’ maces, stamped on the butt with the Royal Arms, developed from their original function as weapons to being symbols of the King’s authority. Towards the end of the 14th century Royal Serjeants-at-Arms were assigned to duties in the House of Commons. The powers of arrest of the Royal Serjeants came to be identified as the powers of arrest of the House of Commons.

This authority is associated with the enforcement of parliamentary privilege, the exercise of which had depended in the first instance on the powers vested in a Royal Serjeant-at-Arms. The Mace, which was the Serjeant’s emblem of office, became identified with the growing privileges of the House of Commons and was recognised as the symbol of the authority of the House and hence the authority of the Speaker.

The House of Representatives adopted the House of Commons’ practice of using a Mace on the first sitting day of the Commonwealth Parliament on 9 May 1901, and it is now accepted that the Mace should be brought into the Chamber before the House meets.[22] However, there was no such acceptance in respect of the first Mace used by the House of Representatives. It was not considered essential for the Mace to be on the Table for the House to be properly constituted during the period when the Mace lent by the Victorian Legislative Assembly was in use (see below), and during this time there were periods (1911–13, 1914–17, 1929–31) when the Mace was removed from the Chamber completely (on the instructions of the Speaker).[23]

Current standing orders require that, once the newly elected Speaker has taken the Chair, the Mace, which until then remains under the Table, is placed on the Table.[24] This is the only mention of the Mace in the standing orders. In practice the Mace is placed on the Table by the Serjeant-at-Arms when the Speaker takes the Chair at the commencement of each sitting and it remains there until the Speaker leaves the Chair at the adjournment of the sitting. The Mace remains on the Table if the sitting is suspended for a short time, but the current practice is for it to be removed for safekeeping during an overnight suspension.

The Mace used by the House of Representatives from 1901 to 1951 was lent to the House of Representatives by the Victorian Legislative Assembly. The current Mace was presented to the House of Representatives, at the direction of King George VI, by a delegation from the House of Commons on 29 November 1951 to mark the Jubilee of the Commonwealth Parliament,[25] and was, by Australian request, designed to resemble the Mace in use in the House of Commons. It is made from heavily gilded silver and embodies much symbolic ornamentation, including symbols of the Australian Commonwealth and States and numerous representations which illustrate Australian achievement.

The Mace traditionally accompanies the Speaker on formal occasions, such as his or her presentation to the Governor-General after election, when the House goes to hear the Governor-General’s speech opening Parliament, and on the presentation of the Address in Reply to the Governor-General at Government House. As the Mace is also a symbol of royal authority, it is not taken into the presence of the Crown’s representative on these occasions but is left outside and covered with a green cloth, the symbol being considered unnecessary in the presence of the actual authority. When the Queen arrived to open Parliament in 1954, 1974 and 1977 she was met on the front steps of the provisional Parliament House by the Speaker. The Serjeant-at-Arms, accompanying the Speaker, did not carry the Mace on these occasions.[26]

Seating

The Chamber is designed to seat up to 172 Members with provision for an ultimate total of 240 to be accommodated. Should additional seats be required, for example, as in the case of a joint sitting or joint meeting of the two Houses, temporary seating can be added around the Chamber perimeter. Seats are also provided on the floor of the Chamber for the Serjeant-at-Arms and for a number of government and opposition officials and advisers.[27] The Chamber has a horseshoe shaped seating arrangement. It therefore differs from many other legislative chambers which provide for their members to sit either on opposite sides of the room directly facing one another or in seats arranged in a fan-shaped design around a central dais or rostrum.

Members of the governing party or parties sit on the right of the Chair and the Members of the Opposition on the left. The two chairs on the right of the Table are, by practice, reserved for the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister but are also occupied by other Ministers or Parliamentary Secretaries when they are in charge of the business before the House. Similarly, the two chairs on the left of the Table are reserved for the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition but may be occupied by Members leading for the Opposition in the business before the House. The separate small table and two seats at the end of the main Table are used by Hansard reporters. The front benches on the right of the Speaker are reserved for Ministers.[28] Members of the opposition executive sit on the front benches on the Speaker’s left. Other Members have allotted seats. Standing order 24 allows Members to retain the seats they occupied at the end of the previous Parliament unless there has been a change of government. Any question arising regarding the seats to be occupied by Members is determined by the Speaker.[29]

At floor level, at the right and the left of the rear of the Chamber, are Distinguished Visitors Galleries to which access is by invitation of the Speaker only. Seats in these galleries are available to Senators, although a number of seats are provided for them in the central first floor gallery (see page 114).

The ‘area of Members’ seats’ is defined in the standing orders as the area of seats on the floor of the Chamber reserved for Members only. It does not include seats in the advisers’ box or special galleries, but does include the seat where the Serjeant-at-Arms usually sits.[30]

Bar of the House

Situated at the back row of Members’ seats at the point of entry to the Chamber from the main entrance facing the Speaker’s Chair is the Bar of the House, consisting of a cylindrical bronze rail which can be lowered across the entrance. It is a point outside which no Member may speak to the House or over which no visitor may cross and enter the Chamber unless invited by the House. In parliamentary history, the Bar is the place to which persons are brought in order that the Speaker may address them on behalf of the House or at which they are orally examined.

A witness before the House is examined at the Bar unless the House otherwise orders.[31] In theory a person may be brought to the Bar of the House to receive thanks, to provide information or documents, to answer charges or to receive punishment. Neither the standing orders nor the practice of the House allow an organisation or a person as of right to be heard at the Bar.

The only occasion when persons have appeared at the Bar of the House of Representatives was in 1955 when Mr Raymond Fitzpatrick and Mr Frank Browne, having been adjudged by the House to be guilty of a serious breach of privilege, were ordered to attend at the Bar. On 10 June 1955 accompanied by the Serjeant-at-Arms each was heard separately at the Bar ‘in extenuation of his offence’ and later that day, again accompanied by the Serjeant-at-Arms bearing the Mace, appeared and received sentences of imprisonment for three months.[32] During the examination of Mr Browne, who addressed the House at length, the Speaker ordered him to take his hands off the Bar.[33]

In 1921 the Prime Minister put forward a proposal that the House grant leave to a Senate Minister to address the House on the administration of his Department and that he be heard from the floor of the House. The point was then made that, if the proposal was agreed to, the Senator should address the House from the Bar. The Speaker stated:

… I know no authority whatsoever which will permit anyone who is not a member of this Chamber to address honourable members from the floor of the House. It is competent for anyone, with the permission of honourable members, to address the House from the Bar … [34]

Following debate on the matter the Prime Minister did not proceed with the proposal. On two occasions proposals that persons be brought or called to the Bar have been unsuccessful.[35]

A number of witnesses have appeared before the Senate, some at the Bar and some being admitted into the Chamber.[36]

Galleries

There are open galleries on all four sides of the Chamber on the first floor from which proceedings can be observed. The gallery facing the Speaker’s Chair and the side galleries are visitors’ galleries which can seat 528 persons. There is also special provision for disabled persons to be accommodated. The seats in the first row of the central gallery are known as the Special Visitors’ Gallery, and are reserved for special visitors and diplomats. The seats in the second and third rows of the central gallery are known as the Speaker’s Gallery. Apart from the four seats in the front row on the right hand side (viewed from the Speaker’s Chair) which are reserved for Senators, the Speaker alone has the privilege of admitting visitors (although in practice Members make bookings through the Speaker’s office for guests in this gallery). The remainder of the seats in the three visitors’ galleries form the public galleries. Members of the public are able to obtain admission cards to the public galleries from the booking office in the Members’ Hall, booking in advance through the Serjeant-at-Arms’ Office. Members may book seats in the galleries for their guests.

Admission to the galleries is a privilege extended by the House and people attending must conform with established forms of behaviour and, for security reasons, are subject to certain conditions of entry (see page 128). People visiting the House are presumed to do so to listen to debates, and it is considered discourteous for them not to give their full attention to the proceedings. Thus, visitors are required to be silent and to refrain from attempting to address the House, interjecting, applauding, conversing, reading, eating, and so on.[37] An earlier prohibition on note-taking in the public galleries was lifted in 1992. Visitors are not permitted to take photographs in the Chamber when the House is sitting nor are they allowed to display signs or banners,[38] or wear clothing designed to draw attention.[39] Successive Speakers of the House have upheld these rules.

The Press Gallery, seating 102 persons, is located behind the Speaker’s Chair. This gallery may be used only by journalists with Press Gallery passes.

At second floor level on the three sides of the Chamber above the visitors’ galleries are enclosed soundproof galleries which can seat some 150 people. These galleries enable the operations of the Chamber to be described to visitors without disturbing the proceedings, and are mainly used by school groups.

Strangers and visitors

‘Stranger’ was the term traditionally given to any person present in the Chamber (including the galleries) who was neither a Member nor an employee of the House of Representatives performing official duties. Parliamentary reporting staff, as employees of the Parliament, were not normally regarded as strangers. The use of the word ‘stranger’ to describe people within the parliamentary precincts who are not Members or staff of the Parliament is commented on by Wilding and Laundy:

The official use of the word ‘stranger’ is yet another symbol of the ancient privileges of Parliament, implying as it does the distinction between a member and a non-member and the fact that an outsider is permitted within the confines of the Palace of Westminster on tolerance only and not by right.[40]

When the standing orders were revised in 2004 the word ‘stranger’ was replaced by ‘visitor’, then defined as ‘a person other than a Member or parliamentary official’. In 2016 standing orders were amended to provide that a visitor does not include an infant being cared for by a Member.[41] The Speaker may admit visitors into the lower galleries, and may admit distinguished visitors to a seat on the floor of the Chamber.[42] While the House or the Federation Chamber is sitting no Member may bring a visitor into that part of the Chamber or that part of the room where the Federation Chamber is meeting which is reserved for Members.[43] Officials in the advisers’ boxes must behave appropriately. It is highly disorderly for any such person to interject or to otherwise seek to interfere in proceedings,[44] and they must not display items regarded as props.[45] If a visitor or person other than a Member disturbs the operation of the Chamber or the Federation Chamber, the Serjeant-at-Arms can remove the person or take the person into custody.[46] If a visitor or other person is taken into custody by the Serjeant-at-Arms, the Speaker must report this to the House without delay.[47]

Strangers ordered to withdraw

Visitors (then referred to as ‘strangers’) have been ordered to leave the House of Representatives for special reasons, the last occasion being in 1942. On three occasions the House’s power to exclude visitors was used to allow the House to deliberate in private session. This has only happened in wartime—see below. Visitors have also been refused access to the galleries to prevent proceedings from being interrupted by potential disturbances. On 28 July 1920 a large number of people gathered outside Parliament House, Melbourne. The Deputy Speaker, in the absence of the Speaker, issued an instruction that, while there was any probability of a disturbance outside, all strangers should be excluded from the galleries of the Chamber.[48]

In the past the motion ‘That strangers be ordered to withdraw’ (without expectation that it would be agreed to) was frequently moved as a delaying or disruptive tactic.[49] The standing orders no longer explicitly provide for such a motion, although there is nothing to prevent an equivalent motion being moved, and there remains provision for a Member to call attention to the unwanted presence of visitors.[50]

Wartime private meetings

On three occasions during World War II strangers were ordered to withdraw[51] to enable the House to discuss in private certain matters connected with the war. On the first of these occasions in committee, the Chairman of Committees stated that he did not regard Senators as strangers.[52] However, on the next occasion the Speaker ruled that Senators would be regarded as strangers but that the House could invite them to remain and a motion that Senators be invited to remain was agreed to. The Speaker then informed the House that members of the official reporting staff were not covered by the resolution excluding strangers, whereupon a motion was moved and agreed to ‘That officers of the Parliamentary Reporting Staff withdraw’, and the recording of the debate was suspended.[53]

Also during World War II, joint secret meetings of Members and Senators were held in the House of Representatives Chamber and strangers were not permitted to attend, although certain departmental heads were present. The Clerks and the Serjeant-at-Arms remained in the Chamber.[54]

Senators

Senators are technically visitors, but recognised as having preferential access to observe the proceedings of the House. On rare occasions they may be present in the advisers’ gallery. Senators have the privilege of being admitted into the Senators’ gallery or the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery on the floor of the Chamber without invitation. When present in the Chamber or galleries Senators must observe the Speaker’s instructions regarding good order.[55] The same requirement applies when Senators are invited onto the floor of the Chamber as guests on the occasion of an address by a visiting head of state.

In 1920 the Senate proposed a change in the standing orders of both Houses to enable a Minister of either House to attend the other House to explain and pilot through any bill of which he had charge in his own House.[56] The proposal lapsed at prorogation in 1922 without having been considered by the House of Representatives.

In 1974 the Standing Orders Committee recommended that, subject to the concurrence of the Senate, and for a trial period, Ministers of both Houses be rostered to attend the other House for the purpose of answering questions without notice.[57] The House was dissolved without the report having been considered.

In 1982 the matter of the attendance of Senate Ministers to answer questions in the House was referred to the Standing Orders Committee,[58] but the committee did not report before the 32nd Parliament was dissolved. In 1986 the Standing Committee on Procedure considered the rostering of Ministers between the Houses during its inquiry into the rules and practices which govern the conduct of Question Time. In its report[59] the committee stated that it did not support the proposal, being of the opinion that all Ministers should be Members of and responsible to the House of Representatives. The committee noted that the standing orders and practices of both Houses had complementary provisions for Members and Senators to appear before the other House or its committees as witnesses but stated its belief that, as far as the accountability of Ministers at Question Time was concerned, Ministers who were Members of the House should be responsible to the Parliament and the people through the House of Representatives only.

Distinguished visitors invited to the floor of the House

Distinguished visitors to the House, such as parliamentary delegations, may be invited by the Speaker to be seated at the rear of the Chamber on seats provided for such visitors, in the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery, the first floor Special Visitors’ Gallery or the Speaker’s Gallery. When such visitors are present Speakers have sometimes adopted the practice of interrupting the proceedings and informing Members of the presence of the visitors, who are then welcomed by the Chair on behalf of the House.

Other distinguished visitors, such as foreign heads of state or government and visiting presiding officers, may be invited by the Speaker to take a seat on the floor of the House.[60] Such an invitation is regarded as a rare honour. It is customary for the Speaker to exercise this right only after formally seeking the concurrence of Members. The practice on these occasions is for the Speaker to inform the House that the visitor was within the precincts and, with the concurrence of Members, to invite the visitor to take a seat on the floor. The Serjeant-at-Arms escorts the visitor to a chair provided immediately to the right of the Speaker’s Chair. A private citizen, Captain Herbert Hinkler, a highly distinguished Australian aviator, was accorded the honour in 1928 after his record breaking flight from England to Australia.[61] The only other recorded invitation to a private citizen was in 1973 when the Australian writer, Patrick White, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, was invited to take a seat on the floor of the House in recognition of his achievement. Mr White wrote to the Speaker declining the invitation.[62]

Only once[63] have visitors been invited to address the House from the floor. This was on 29 November 1951 when a delegation from the UK House of Commons presented a new Mace to the House to mark the Jubilee of the Commonwealth Parliament. The Speaker, with the concurrence of Members, directed that the delegation, which consisted of three Members and a Clerk, be invited to enter the Chamber and be received at the Table. Members of the delegation were provided with seats on the floor of the House at the foot of the Table. The Speaker welcomed the visitors and invited members of the delegation to address the House. The Mace was presented by the delegation and was laid on the Table. The Speaker acknowledged the gift and the Prime Minister moved a motion of thanks which was supported by the Leader of the Opposition, and agreed to by all Members present rising in their places. The delegation then withdrew from the Chamber.[64]

In recent years foreign heads of state or government have been invited to address the Parliament. Initially such addresses were to formal meetings of both Houses in the House of Representatives Chamber, but more recently to sittings of the House to which Senators have been invited as guests.[65]

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