Election of the President
It is provided by section 17 of the Australian Constitution that:
The Senate shall, before proceeding to the despatch of any other business, choose a senator to be the President of the Senate; and as often as the office of President becomes vacant the Senate shall again choose a senator to be the President.
When the Senate meets and there is no President, the first item of business is to elect a President. Until the election is decided, the Clerk of the Senate acts as chair of the Senate, and has the powers of the President under the standing orders (rules of procedure and debate of the Senate) while doing so.
The office of President becomes vacant:
- After a normal election for senators (a half-Senate election), when newly-elected senators take their seats
- If the President ceases to be a senator (including when the Senate is dissolved under section 57 of the Constitution)
- If the President resigns office
- If a vote of the Senate removes the President from office
In electing its presiding officer the Senate differs from other upper houses of parliament in those democratic countries with which Australia is often compared. The Vice-President of the United States of America is, ex officio, the presiding officer of the US Senate, while in Canada the Speaker of the Senate is appointed by the Governor-General.
The first debate to take place in the Senate on 9 May 1901 was on how to choose a President. After debate it was decided that a secret ballot was the best way of ascertaining the choice of the majority of senators. In the first election for President there were three candidates—senators Sir William Zeal, Sir Frederick Sargood and Sir Richard Baker. Senator Baker, who had been the President of the South Australian Legislative Council from 1893 to 1901, received more votes than the two other candidates together, and so was elected on the first ballot. The only other time that three candidates have been nominated for the position of President was on 17 February 1987 when senators George Georges, Donald Jessop and Kerry Sibraa faced the ballot. On this occasion two ballots had to be held before Senator Sibraa was elected—the youngest-ever President.
On many occasions since 1901, two candidates for President have been nominated in the Senate chamber. Where a vote between candidates for President is tied, and a second ballot produces the same result, the Clerk of the Senate determines by lot which candidate should be withdrawn. This has happened only once in the history of the Senate. In 1941 a tied vote between Senator John Hayes and Senator James Cunningham was determined by lot with the result that Senator Cunningham was declared elected.
Frequently, only one senator is proposed, in which case that senator takes the chair without a vote being taken.
Once elected, the successful candidate is conducted to the chair, by the senator or senators who proposed the candidate, to take the place as President of the Senate and to accept the many responsibilities which go with the position. The President acknowledges the honour and receives the congratulations of senators. Immediately following the election, it is customary for the President, accompanied by some fellow senators, to be presented to the Governor-General.
The current convention is that presidents are elected from the governing party, with non-government senators agreeing to this arrangement even if, as is usually the case, the government does not have a majority in the Senate. Although the President remains a member of a political party, the duties of the office both inside and outside the chamber must be carried out in an impartial manner so, to some extent, the President is distanced from the day-to-day political activity of the party.
Section 23 of the Constitution provides that the President is on all occasions entitled to a vote in the Senate. This provision ensures that the equal voting rights of each state are preserved. If the vote on a question is tied in the Senate, it is ‘resolved in the negative’; that is, it is lost. The President’s vote carries the same weight as that of any other senator. In contrast, the Speaker of the House of Representatives cannot vote in a division in that house unless the numbers are equal, in which case he or she has a casting, or deciding, vote.
In the early years of the Senate’s existence, presidents actively participated in debates, but they rarely participate in debate now unless on a matter concerning the Senate or the Parliament. One such example occurred in 1986, when the President took the unprecedented step of introducing a bill, the Parliamentary Privileges Bill 1986. In first tabling a draft of the bill for senators to examine before formally introducing the bill, the President said he was taking this step because of the fundamental importance to both houses of the matters dealt with by the bill, which included maintaining the absolute right of freedom of speech in Parliament.