Election of Speaker
The Constitution expressly provides that the House shall, before proceeding to the despatch of any other business, choose a Member to be the Speaker of the House, who ‘shall cease to hold his office if he ceases to be a Member’. The procedure for electing the Speaker is laid down in detail in the standing orders.
The election is conducted by the Clerk acting as chair. A prospective Speaker is proposed by a Member, who is traditionally a private Member of the government party or parties, moving that the Member proposed ‘do take the Chair of this House as Speaker’. The motion is required to be seconded, again traditionally by a private Member. The mover and seconder may speak for up to five minutes each in support of their nominated candidate. The Member nominated, who must be present, is required to inform the House whether he or she accepts the nomination.
After each proposal the Clerk asks if there is any further proposal. If there are no further proposals, the Clerk informs the House that the time for proposals has expired and no further nominations may be made. If a nominee is unopposed, the Clerk immediately, without putting the question, declares the Member so proposed and seconded to have been elected. The Speaker-elect is then conducted to the Chair by the proposer and seconder.
If there is more than one nomination, Members who have not yet spoken may speak on the election, but debate must be relevant to the election. No Member may speak for more than five minutes but there is no limitation on the length of the debate. At any time during the debate a Minister may move without notice ‘That the ballot be taken now’, which is, in effect, a closure. This question must be put immediately and be resolved without amendment or debate. If on division the numbers are equal, the question is negatived and debate may continue.
After debate concludes, the division bells are rung for four minutes and the House proceeds to a ballot whereby Members write on ballot papers the name of the nominee for whom they wish to vote. The standing order is silent on the detail of the distribution and collection of ballot papers. During an election for the Deputy Speaker in 2011, a paper which had not been placed in a box when papers were being collected, but which had been handed in a short time later, was counted, the Clerk being satisfied that there had been a strict control on the number of papers distributed. The votes are counted by the Clerks at the Table and, if there are only two nominees, the one with the greater number of votes is declared by the Clerk to have been elected.
Since the ballot procedure was introduced in 1937 there has been no instance of there being more than two nominees. Ballots continue if there are more than two nominees and no nominee has a majority of votes. In this case the name of the Member with the smallest number of votes is excluded and a fresh ballot taken. This process continues until a nominee has the required majority. Procedures are provided to meet the situation when, by reason of an equality of votes, a ballot is inconclusive. A nominee may, between ballots, withdraw his or her name from the election which then proceeds as if he or she had not been nominated. If a withdrawal leaves only one nominee, that person is immediately declared elected.
The Clerk’s duties during the election are to deal only with what might be described as the ‘mechanical’ aspects. The standing orders include the obligation to draw attention to the fact that a Member’s speech time has expired and to put the question if the closure is moved. The Clerk calls on a Member to speak using the name of the Member’s electorate, for example, ‘the honourable Member for … ’. There is no instance of the Clerk having intervened in debate on the ground of irrelevancy. However the Clerk has been called on to rule on a point of order that a Member’s remarks were not relevant, and has drawn attention to the correct procedure. Members have recognised that such matters can place the Clerk in a difficult position and have not persisted with points of order.
It is considered that the Clerk would be obliged to accept a motion for some relevant purpose, and should put a question and declare what, in the Clerk’s opinion, the result was. A motion concerning an unrelated matter (including a motion to suspend standing orders) could not be considered. It is doubtful if the Clerk has the power to name a Member. For instance, the Clerk would probably have a duty to ask for the withdrawal of an unduly offensive expression but, if the request were denied by the Member, any further action would be a matter for the House after the election of a Speaker.
Some questions as to the role of the Clerk remain undetermined but in the case of grave disorder the Clerk would probably have to appeal to the House to act to preserve order and its own dignity. If the disorder were to continue, the Clerk may have no alternative but to suspend the sitting for a period.
On 27 July 1909 the Clerk announced to the House that Speaker Holder had died at Parliament House on 23 July. Prime Minister Deakin moved a condolence motion which was put by the Clerk, by direction of the House. The Clerk then, again by direction of the House, put the question for the adjournment of the House, proposed by the Prime Minister.
The House met the next day for the election of a new Speaker. Four candidates were proposed, but one of them declined. Debate continued on the proposals until a Member moved that the debate be adjourned. The House divided and the motion was negatived 36 votes to 32. The debate continued until another Member moved that the debate be adjourned. The House divided and the result of the division was ‘Ayes’ 31, ‘Noes’ 31:
And the numbers being equal the Clerk stated that he would not take the responsibility of stopping the debate, and therefore gave a casting vote with the ‘Noes’—
And a point of order being raised that the Clerk could not vote, the Clerk, as Chairman, ruled that if he had not a casting vote as Chairman, nevertheless the motion for adjournment, not having received a majority of votes, had not been agreed to.
In explanation the Clerk said that he was acting under the authority of the standing order which, prior to the election of the Speaker, enabled the Clerk to act as chair of the House. The important point was that the motion had not been carried and it was with hindsight unnecessary for the Clerk to have purported to give a casting vote which clearly he did not have. The debate continued and Speaker Salmon was eventually elected by 37 votes to 29. During the adjournment debate the Prime Minister on behalf of all Members thanked the Clerk for ‘the able manner in which he discharged his duties under extremely trying conditions, which it was impossible for him to foresee, and prepare for’.
On the next day a Member moved as a matter of privilege that the Votes and Proceedings of the House of Representatives, page 62, dated 28 July 1909, be amended by the omission of the entries quoted above. The motion was debated for two hours and most speakers acknowledged that the Clerk had been placed in an extremely difficult situation. The motion was negatived, on division, 32 votes to 20.
In 1934, while the motion that Mr Bell take the Chair of the House as Speaker was being debated, a Member moved the closure of the Member addressing the House (Mr Gander). The Clerk ruled that the motion was in order, as during the election of Speaker the House was operating under its standing orders. The Clerk put the question on the closure and a division being called for, the bells were rung. When the Clerk appointed tellers, a Member objected that he had no authority to order a division and appoint tellers. Mr Gander then nominated himself for the position of Speaker. The tellers for the ‘Noes’ refused to act and so the Clerk immediately declared the question on the closure of the Member resolved in the affirmative. As Mr Bell was the only Member proposed, he was then conducted to the Chair by his proposer and seconder without question being put. Mr Gander also approached the Chair but despite interruption and interjection Mr Bell was able to express his acknowledgments and accept congratulations. The present standing orders provide that the closure in this situation can only be moved by a Minister, and it has been successfully moved on several occasions.
On 15 February 1956 a ballot being held to decide between two candidates for the Speakership, a Member said:
Mr Clerk, I would like a ruling. Would it be in order to nominate scrutineers while the ballot is in progress. I think each candidate should have a scrutineer.
The Clerk, in effect, gave a ruling by saying ‘There is no provision in the standing orders for the appointment of scrutineers’.
Following his or her election, and having been conducted to the Chair, the Speaker thanks the House for the honour it has conferred. The Speaker then takes the Chair, and the Mace, which prior to this time has been placed under the Table, is placed in the brackets on the Table. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, other party leaders (where appropriate) and other Members then formally congratulate the Speaker. When a Speaker is elected on opening day, a Minister, usually the Prime Minister, informs the House of the time at which the Governor-General will receive the Speaker and the sitting of the House is suspended until that time when the Speaker, accompanied by other Members, proceeds to meet the Governor-General. This may also occur when a Speaker is elected during the course of a Parliament, but it is not a requirement of the standing orders. On return to the House the Speaker reports to the House that he or she has presented himself or herself to the Governor-General and received the Governor-General’s congratulations on election to the office. In the event of the Governor-General being absent from Australia or unable to attend the Parliament, the Speaker presents himself or herself to the Administrator.
In 1909 the newly elected Speaker did not immediately present himself to the Governor-General. The Prime Minister informed the House that the Governor-General would fix a time for receiving the Speaker. In 1946 the newly elected Speaker did not suspend the sitting but left the Chamber to present himself to the Governor-General immediately. In 1934 Speaker Bell ruled that no business could be transacted until the Speaker had been presented to the Governor-General. On that occasion the Speaker had been elected on the opening day of the Parliament. Where a Speaker is elected during the life of a Parliament, business is able to be transacted regardless of whether the presentation has taken place.