Since 1901 the House has sat, on average, 67 days each year spread over 20 sitting weeks for a total of 627 hours per year. The figures for each year since 1901 are given at Appendix 16.
The usual practice since 1994 has been to have three sitting periods each year, extending from February to April (Autumn sittings), May to June (Budget sittings) and August to December (Spring sittings). Historically there were two sitting periods each year: the Autumn sittings, usually between February and June, and the Budget sittings, usually between August and December. The earlier calendar, with an August Budget, was reverted to in 1996 to accommodate that year’s general election and change of government.
Unless otherwise ordered, the House meets each year in accordance with the program of sittings for that year agreed to by the House. Within a sitting period the House generally sits to a four weekly cycle of meetings, meeting on Mondays to Thursdays for two weeks followed by two weeks without sittings. This pattern is generally kept to, although sometimes either the sitting or non-sitting parts of the cycle may be of one week only.
History of sitting pattern
Sitting patterns have varied considerably over the years. Before 1950 continuous sitting patterns were usual and it was not uncommon for the House to sit for three months or longer without a break of more than two or three days. The most usual sitting week was of four days (Tuesday to Friday) although in some years three-day weeks (usually Wednesday to Friday) predominated. In 1950 the three-day, Tuesday to Thursday, sitting week was instituted, and in the following period the practice of the House rising periodically for short breaks became established. Such breaks increased in frequency until a four-week cycle of three sitting weeks and one non-sitting week became the norm. This pattern continued to operate, with occasional experimental changes (sometimes for extended periods), until 1984. At that time sessional orders came into effect which provided generally for a four-week cycle of two sitting weeks followed by two non-sitting weeks, with the House sitting four days per week from Tuesday to Friday in the first week and from Monday to Thursday in the second week.
Sessional orders in effect from September 1987 provided for Tuesday to Thursday sittings in the first sitting week of each cycle as it was considered that the Friday was in some ways a non-productive sitting day. In 1994 the days of sitting were altered to Monday to Thursday in each sitting week. The change resulted from a recommendation of the Procedure Committee, which saw advantages in providing consistency of timetabling as well as an additional sitting day per four week cycle. In 2008 the sitting program initially agreed provided for sittings from Monday to Friday, with Friday proceedings to be restricted to committee and private Members’ business; however the proposal met with some resistance from Members and the timetable reverted to Monday to Thursday after a single Friday sitting.
The Houses scheduled hours of meeting specified by standing order 29 are discussed in detail in the following chapter on ‘Order of business and the sitting day’.
When the House is sitting its meeting times can be changed by a motion moved by a Minister without notice to set the next meeting of the House, or by a Minister on notice to set a future meeting or meetings. When the House is not sitting the Speaker may set an alternative day or hour for the next meeting, and must notify each Member of any change.
A motion for the alteration of the day of next meeting may provide that the House not meet on a day laid down in the standing orders, or meet on a day other than those laid down in the standing orders. It is not uncommon for the days and hours of meeting to be changed, especially towards the end of a sitting period when the business in hand may require an extra sitting day (or two). Such additional sittings have occurred on a Saturday, although this is infrequent.The House has varied its hour of meeting to enable Members to attend luncheons for visiting dignitaries, or public functions such as Remembrance Day, and to take account of the running of the Melbourne Cup (in these matters any action taken by the Speaker is at the request of the Government). In the past the House has frequently changed its hours of meeting by means of sessional order.
On one occasion when a sitting continued beyond the hour of meeting set down for the following sitting, it was considered that a motion for fixing the next meeting of the House for later the same day could not be moved unless by leave of the House or by the suspension of standing (or sessional) orders, but it is not clear whether this view would be taken if the situation arose again.
An amendment to a motion to alter the day or hour of next meeting may be moved but the terms of the amendment must be confined to the next sitting day, (that is, be relevant to the motion). An amendment proposing to substitute the normal day and hour of next meeting for the one proposed would be inadmissible as the same end may be achieved by voting against the motion.
Debate on a motion to alter the next sitting day must be confined to that question, although in 1940 the Speaker allowed discussion to encompass the possible closing of Parliament as Members, in giving reasons for opposing the motion, feared that it presaged such an event.
Two motions altering the hour of next meeting have been agreed to on the one day, the second superseding the first. A motion to alter the hour of next meeting must be moved during the sitting prior to the sitting day in respect of which the hour of meeting is to be changed. However, such a motion in respect of a day not being the next sitting day has been moved by leave.
A special adjournment motion must be agreed to on those occasions when the House adjourns other than in accordance with the program of sittings for the year agreed by the House pursuant to standing order 29. Typically, the motion has taken one of the following forms:
That the House, at its rising, adjourn until [day, date, time], unless otherwise called together by the Speaker, or, in the event of the Speaker being unavailable, by the Deputy Speaker.
That the House, at its rising, adjourn until a date and hour to be fixed by the Speaker, … which time of meeting shall be notified to each Member.
That the House, at its rising, adjourn until [day, date, time], unless the Speaker or, in the event of the Speaker being unavailable, the Deputy Speaker, fixes an alternative day or hour of meeting.
If the House adjourns to a date and hour to be fixed, a Gazette notice is published when the day of meeting is determined, indicating the date and hour of meeting.
In a case of the House having adjourned to a date and hour to be fixed, the Speaker, at the request of the Government, notified Members and placed a public notice in the Gazette of the date and hour of meeting, and, subsequently, the Government made a further request to change the hour of meeting. Members were notified of the change and a further Gazette notice was issued, revoking the original notice.
In a case of the House having adjourned to a fixed date and hour, the Government has requested the Speaker to change the hour of meeting to, for example, ‘2.45 p.m. or such time thereafter as Mr Speaker may take the Chair’. Members are notified of the altered time.
On eight occasions the House has reassembled on a day other than that specified in the special adjournment motion. On 20 June 1940 the House, having adjourned until 2 July 1940, reassembled to consider national security legislation. On 9 July 1975 the House reassembled to discuss the Government’s overseas loan negotiations, having adjourned until 19 August 1975. On 21 and 22 January 1991 the House reassembled to consider the Gulf War, having adjourned until 12 February 1991. On the other occasions the House reassembled prior to the date specified in the special adjournment motion to consider Senate amendments and requests to bills. On each of these occasions the adjournment resolution enabled the Speaker to set an earlier day of meeting. Standing order 30 now gives standing authorisation for the Speaker when the House is not sitting to set an alternative day or hour for the next meeting, but such action would only be taken at the request of the Government.
On other occasions the House, having adjourned until a date and hour to be fixed by the Speaker, has reassembled prematurely for special reasons. These occasions have been the presentation of an Address to the Prince of Wales, consideration of a constitutional problem relating to the suggested marriage of King Edward VIII, consideration of the declaration of a state of war with Japan, Finland, Hungary and Rumania, consideration of the conflict in Korea and consideration of Senate amendments to bills.
On 7 February 1942 the Speaker notified Members that the House would meet on 11 March 1942. On 13 February a telegram was sent to all Members changing the date of meeting to 20 February, on which day the House met and went into a secret joint meeting with the Senate to discuss the current war situation.
On 31 May 1972 the House adjourned until a date and hour to be fixed and all Members were advised on 12 July that the House would meet on 15 August. Because of a dispute in the oil industry, the Government requested the Speaker to put all Members on ‘provisional notice’ for a meeting on 4 August. All Members were advised on 2 August confirming the meeting and, after settlement of the dispute, further advice was sent on 3 August informing Members that the meeting was not to be held.
A special adjournment motion may specify more than one date—for example, ‘That the House: (1) at its rising, adjourn until 2 January 1992 … and (2) at its rising on 2 January, adjourn until Tuesday, 25 February 1992 … ’.