Chapter 9 - Times of sittings and routine of business

61    Consideration of government documents

    1. On Tuesday and Wednesday, documents presented by a minister shall be considered pursuant to this standing order at the time provided.

    2. Immediately after prayers on any day when consideration of government documents occurs, a minister may present documents by handing them to the Clerk without any announcement to the Senate, and the presentation of such documents shall be reported to the Senate by the President when the consideration of government documents is called on under this standing order.

    3. Documents presented on Monday may be considered on Tuesday after the documents presented on that day, and documents presented on Monday and Tuesday and not called on on Tuesday may be considered on Wednesday after documents presented on that day.

  1. When documents are called on by the President pursuant to this standing order a motion may be moved without notice that the Senate take note of one or several of them.

  2. The debate on any motion moved pursuant to this standing order shall be conducted as follows:

    1. a senator shall not speak for more than 5 minutes;

    2. if debate pursuant to this standing order is not concluded it shall be interrupted after 30 minutes;

    3. if the debate is adjourned or interrupted, the resumption of the debate shall be an order of the day for the Thursday of that week at the time for the consideration of government documents under general business, or, if it is so ordered, for the next day of sitting; and

    4. on Thursdays, at the time provided, when an order of the day is called on under this standing order senators who have previously spoken to that order of the day may speak again for not more than 5 minutes, and debate under this standing order at that time shall not exceed 60 minutes.

  3. Where a document is presented but is not called on under paragraph (1), the consideration of that document shall be made an order of the day for the next day on which general business is considered without any question being put, and where that order of the day is called on at that time, a motion may be moved without notice to take note of that document.

  4. Where consideration of a document is an order of the day in accordance with paragraph (4), it shall remain an order of the day for each succeeding day on which general business is considered till:

    1. the order of the day is called on and no motion to take note of the document is moved;

    2. a motion to take note of the document is determined; or

    3. the order of the day is discharged from the Notice Paper,

    whichever first occurs.

  5. Where debates on motions moved under the provisions of this standing order are adjourned or interrupted and are called on in the normal course of business, senators who have spoken to the motions under the provisions of this standing order may speak again for the time allowed by the standing orders for that business.

Amendment history

Adopted: 21 November 1989, J.2219 as SO 61 (with effect from the first sitting day in 1990) (previously dealt with by sessional orders; incorporated into standing orders as part of the 1989 revision)


  • 13 February 1997, J.1442–45; 1447 (to take effect 24 February 1997) (amendments to paragraphs (1)(a) and (b) consequential on incorporation of 1994 reforms to the routine of business, as modified by subsequent orders)
  • 11 May 2004, J.3379 (adoption of paragraph (1)(c) to provide more flexibility and better use of the Senate’s time)


Order of business

An opportunity to consider government documents is provided in the routine of business each Tuesday and Wednesday

Like several other commonly used procedures in the Senate, SO 61 has its origins in efforts by senators to create opportunities to deal with emerging trends.[1] In the 1970s, after the establishment of the Senate committee system, interest in public administration intensified, as illustrated by the Royal Commission into Australian Government Administration which reported in 1976. One outcome of this trend was an increase in the number and variety of government reports being presented to the Parliament.[2]

In 1977 the Standing Orders Committee reported on the growing practice of senators being granted leave to move motions to take note of tabled documents. Its Second Report for Fifty–Seventh Session (PP No. 2/1977) gave statistics on the numbers of such motions being moved and the business generated on the Notice Paper. The committee distinguished between statements of government policy (which could be the subject of motions by ministers and dealt with as government business), reports from committees (which were appropriately the subject of motions to take note of them) and “routine Departmental reports” in relation to which the committee suggested a more selective approach:

If, after having examined the report, it is considered by any Senator that it should be debated, the appropriate course is to give notice the next day or any other day that the Senate take note of the Paper. If this course were adopted, Senators’ rights would in no way be abridged, more time would be available to Senators to consider the reports, and it would be less cumbersome procedurally than the present practice.[3]

The committee considered that current procedures were adequate for this purpose but had underestimated senators’ interest in being able to speak to a report at the time of its tabling. By 1981, time was being taken up on most days with motions, by leave, to take note of documents presented by ministers, often delaying the day’s other business considerably. The Standing Orders Committee suggested the adoption of a sessional order for a trial period to “allow the more orderly consideration of business without unduly interfering with the right of Senators to comment upon Government reports at the time of their presentation”.[4] The proposed sessional order, agreed to on 22 October 1981, provided for ministers to present documents on Thursdays only (in lieu of petitions being presented on that day) and for senators to be able to move motions without notice to take note of the documents, with a total time limit of one and a half hours and an individual speaking time of 10 minutes on any document. Senators who had spoken on documents pursuant to the sessional order would also have the right to speak again to the documents if the adjourned motion were called on in the normal course of business (now reflected in paragraph (6)).[5]

A variation of the original order was adopted at the beginning of the next session, following a change of government in 1983. In this version:

  • documents could be presented by ministers on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays;

  • senators could move to take note of any of the documents and speak for 5 minutes on each motion with a total time limit of 30 minutes (now paragraphs (3)(a) and (b));

  • an interrupted motion could be resumed at the time for general business on Thursdays when motions could also be moved in relation to any government document tabled that week and not otherwise taken note of (now paragraphs (3)(c) and (4));

  • such motions had precedence over other general business for an hour;

  • the right to speak again on a document when called on in the normal course of business was retained.[6]

An amended order was agreed to on 28 February 1984 providing for consideration of government documents on every sitting day and for senators who had spoken on the day of tabling to be able to speak again to an adjourned motion on Thursdays during general business (now paragraph (3)(d)), in addition to their preserved right to speak on the document in the normal course of business.[7] In 1986, Senator Vigor (AD, SA) proposed an amendment to exclude from the daily time limit the time taken to debate any ministerial statements presented with other government documents. Instead, the matter was referred to the Standing Orders Committee which proposed alternative amendments to ensure that documents not reached during the daily half-hour opportunity would be automatically made orders of the day for the next general business Thursday, and remain as orders of the day for that time until disposed of (now paragraph (5)). These changes preserved senators’ rights to consider documents tabled earlier than the current week.[8] At this point in its evolution, the sessional order was incorporated into the standing orders as SO 61 as part of the 1989 revision.

In 1992, the Procedure Committee considered a proposed amendment by Senator Kernot (AD, Qld) to defer to the next day consideration of government documents not tabled before noon on any day. At that time, the Senate did not meet till 2 pm on Mondays and Tuesdays but the Procedure Committee considered that the proposal, notwithstanding its intention to allow more time to consider documents, created consequential problems including loss of topicality for debates. The committee suggested an alternative strategy, allowing government documents to be tabled by a minister handing them to the Clerk before Question Time on days when the Senate met at 2 pm, thus providing at least an hour and normally longer for the documents to be examined before debate was called on (now reflected in paragraph (1)(b)).[9] The report was not considered before the 1993 election but the proposal was adopted in the new parliament as a modification to SO 61, initially on a trial basis and subsequently as a sessional order.[10]

Significant changes to the times of meeting and routine of business, adopted as a sessional order on 2 February 1994, reduced the opportunity to debate government documents to two days a week, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (now paragraph (1)(a)), with general business on Thursdays remaining as an opportunity to return to adjourned debates on documents or to consideration of documents not otherwise reached.[11] These orders continued to operate throughout 1995 and 1996 until, after lengthy negotiations following the change of government in 1996, they were incorporated, with various amendments, into the standing orders in February 1997.[12]

The adoption of a revised routine of business on Thursdays from the beginning of 1997 resulted in consideration of government documents under general business not being reached on a regular basis. The scheduling of such business was referred to the Procedure Committee on the motion of Senator Margetts (GWA, WA) in October 1997 and the committee reported the following month. The time for government documents on Thursdays had been significantly affected by the combination of rules in the new arrangements under SO 57. As explained by the Procedure Committee:

Selection of government documents

A selection of government documents

The problem of government documents not being reached at the time for general business on Thursdays arises because, while there is potentially one hour of the time for general business available for consideration of government documents, and consideration of government documents must commence no later than 6.00pm, if general business starts before the latest commencing time of 4.30pm there is nothing to prevent the first item of general business using up the whole of the 2 hours allocated for general business.

The committee did not recommend any changes to the arrangements, suggesting that consideration of government documents could be extended by leave if required and if time were available. The current procedures “were designed to give priority to the motions and orders of the day component of general business. If on particular occasions senators desire to alter the allocation of time to the various components of general business, this can be done by agreement as suggested”.[13]

When government documents are presented on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, a list is appended to the daily Order of Business (or Senate “Red”) and at 6.50 pm the documents are called through in the order in which they appear on the list. Any documents not reached are placed on the Notice Paper for Thursday under general business. In recent years there has been an expansion in the number of documents tabled when the Senate is not sitting, using the procedures available under SO 164. Documents presented out of sitting are tabled on the next sitting day, usually a Monday, and until 2004 were placed on the Notice Paper for the next Thursday, often leading to a large accumulation of government documents on the Notice Paper and uneven distribution of documents across the three debating opportunities in any week.

In 2004, the Procedure Committee considered the problem, as follows:

It often happens that large numbers of documents are presented on Monday or Tuesday, particularly at the commencement of a period of sittings, which are not considered on Tuesday or Wednesday, and then accumulate on the Notice Paper for Thursday. In the same week, the time available on Tuesday and Wednesday may not be fully used. It has been suggested to the committee that it would be a better use of the Senate’s time if documents tabled on Monday or Tuesday and not considered at the prescribed time on Tuesday could be available for consideration at that time on Wednesday, and, if not reached on any of those days, then go on the Notice Paper for Thursday. The committee agrees with this proposal.[14]

Paragraph (1)(c) was adopted as a result on 11 May 2004.