The opening proceedings
Welcome to Country ceremony, Opening of Parliament, 2013. Image: DPS AUSPIC
Opening day begins with a Welcome to Country ceremony conducted by representatives of local Aboriginal people. First held in 2008, the ceremony has since become a permanent feature of the opening of Parliament after both the Senate and House of Representatives changed their standing orders to include it.
Proceedings on opening day vary according to whether there are new senators and members to be sworn in and whether it is necessary for either or both houses to elect a new presiding officer. Generally speaking, the office of the President of the Senate becomes vacant on the 30th of June following a half-Senate election, or on the date of a proclamation dissolving the Senate, while the Speaker of the House of Representatives is elected for the duration of a Parliament. Following a double dissolution, therefore, it will be necessary for both houses to choose a new presiding officer; but when Parliament is opened after an election for the House of Representatives, it may be necessary to choose only a Speaker. If there has been a half-Senate election as well, there may not be a requirement to elect a new President provided the opening takes place before the 30th of June on which the outgoing senators’ terms expire.
During the course of a Parliament, any newly-elected or appointed members of parliament are sworn in by the President or Speaker, as appropriate. On opening day, however, there may be many new senators and members to be sworn in and no appropriate presiding officer in office. In this situation, the Governor-General appoints a Deputy, or Deputies, to do all things necessary for the opening of the session. The instrument of appointment, signed by the Governor-General, gives the Deputy, who is usually a Justice or Chief Justice of the High Court, the authority to declare open the Parliament. The Governor-General also gives the Deputies a commission authorising them to administer the oath or affirmation to newly-elected or re-elected senators and members. The chart on the following pages shows that Deputies have always been involved in the opening of the first session of a Parliament, but not necessarily in the opening of second and subsequent sessions.
Looking first at opening proceedings involving a Deputy, both houses gather at the time fixed by the proclamation, usually at 10.30 or 11.00 am. If there is a President in office, he or she takes the Chair and the Clerk of the Senate reads the Proclamation calling the Parliament together. The Usher of the Black Rod announces the arrival of the Deputy who then instructs the Usher of the Black Rod to request the presence of members of the House of Representatives in the Senate chamber. When they have gathered, the Clerk of the Senate reads the Governor-General’s authorisation for the Deputy to declare the Parliament open. Having done so, the Deputy then tells the assembled members that the Governor-General will declare in person in his or her opening speech the reasons for calling Parliament together.
Members of the House of Representatives return to their chamber where the Deputy administers the oath or affirmation to newly-elected or re-elected members who then proceed to elect a Speaker. In the Senate, the President swears in any new senators. The sitting of the Senate is then suspended until the time for the Governor-General’s opening speech, usually at 3.00 pm the same day.
If there is no President in office, the train of events is similar, except that the Deputy swears in new senators to enable the Senate to elect a new President, who is later presented to the Governor-General.
In the afternoon, the Governor-General’s arrival is announced by the Usher of the Black Rod who escorts the Governor-General to the high-backed chair on the dais of the Senate chamber. Having vacated the Chair, the President of the Senate sits to the Governor-General’s right. At the command of the Governor-General, the Usher of the Black Rod summons members of the House of Representatives to the Senate chamber where the Governor-General delivers the opening speech. The speech sets out the government’s program of legislation for the session. At its conclusion, copies of the speech are presented to the President and the Speaker by the Governor-General’s Official Secretary.
When the Governor-General withdraws from the chamber, followed by the Speaker and members of the House of Representatives, the President resumes the Chair. One of the President’s first actions is to report the Governor-General’s speech to the Senate. A motion for an address-in-reply to the Governor-General’s speech may then be made or consideration of the speech deferred.
If there are serving presiding officers when a new session of Parliament is opened, there is no need for a Deputy to be appointed. In these circumstances, Parliament meets in the afternoon of the opening day, the Clerks read the Proclamation in each house and the Speaker or President, as appropriate, swears in any new senators or members. The Governor-General arrives, dispatches the Usher of the Black Rod to summon members of the House of Representatives to the Senate chamber, and then delivers the opening address.