On 23 March 2020, in response to the Governor-General’s declaration of a human biosecurity emergency, the House established a variety of practical and procedural measures to enable the House to sit, while observing physical distancing requirements and minimising the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus. Some of the practical and procedural measures adopted by the House have been modified over time to meet the changing circumstances.
Procedural arrangements that have been adopted include changes to the standing orders and resolutions varying how the House may meet. Practical arrangements that have been adopted include increasing the use of pairs to reduce the need for some Members to be present, changes to the seating plan to meet physical distancing requirements, and changes to division procedures.
Change to standing orders
Along with the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (the Constitution) and customs that have developed over many years, standing orders guide the way the House operates each day. Section 50 of the Constitution gives the House the power to make and change its own standing orders.
When the House met on 23 March, it agreed to amend standing order 47(c)(ii). The amendment provided that a motion to suspend standing orders moved without notice could be carried by a simple majority of Members voting, with the agreement of the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business. Previously, the standing order provided that a suspension of standing orders moved without notice could only be carried by an absolute majority, which is 76 Members.
At the time of moving the amendment, the Leader of the House, the Hon Christian Porter MP, noted:
There may be circumstances—and I think they have been highlighted today in the proceedings—in the present environment where the House may not be able to form an absolute majority of 76. An absolute majority can become very important if the House meets and is required for any accepted reason to suspend standing orders in order to achieve an outcome like those that have changed today’s proceeding …
I believe that change is important, and it may be a necessary mechanism—again, one we would hope not to use, or to use only very rarely, but one that it is prudent to have available to the House.
The amended standing order has been used on four occasions, once on 8 April, once on 12 May, once on 10 June, and once on 24 August. On each occasion, Mr Porter noted that he and the Manager of Opposition Business had agreed that an absolute majority was not required.
Pairing is an unofficial arrangement between Members, organised by party whips. Under this system, by informal agreement, a Member on one side of the House is absent for any votes when a Member from the other side is to be absent at the same time. By this arrangement a potential vote on each side of a question is lost, thus maintaining the relative voting strengths of the parties.
Beginning on 23 March, party whips arranged pairs to reduce the total number of people in the chamber and thereby mitigate the health risk due to the coronavirus pandemic. Through this arrangement, the relative voting strengths of the parties were maintained, while reducing the need for Members to travel and to facilitate physical distancing within the chamber.
As the Clerk noted in her submission, the practice of recording pairs has varied throughout the history of the Parliament, with pairs not reflected in the official records since 2013.
On 23 March, 92 Members were present at some time during the sitting, with 30 pairs arranged for divisions. On indulgence, the Chief Government Whip and Chief Opposition Whip read out the names of Members who had been paired, so that they would be recorded in the Hansard.
On 8 April, 59 Members were present at some time during the sitting, with 47 pairs arranged for divisions. Again, the Chief Government Whip and the Chief Opposition Whip read out the names of Members who had been paired. The Leader of the Australian Greens, Mr Adam Bandt MP, noted for the record the names of non-aligned Members who were absent for the same reason. Two of the 59 Members who attended the chamber attended as members of the Speaker’s panel and were paired for divisions.
During the 12-14 May sittings, 130 Members were present at some point during the three days, with between 38 and 41 pairs arranged for each division. This reflects that the pairing arrangements changed daily, and that some Members attended the chamber only to speak.
On 12 May, pairs began to be recorded in the Live Minutes, the Votes and Proceedings and the Hansard, with the Chief Government Whip and the Chief Opposition Whip providing a list of the paired Members to the Table Office and Hansard.
During the 10-18 June sittings, 143 Members were present at some point during the seven days. In the first sitting week, 40 pairs were arranged for divisions. In the second week, there were 20 pairs arranged for divisions.
During the August/September sitting fortnight, 109 Members attended in person and 23 Members participated via the video link that was then available (see page 16). Up to 36 pairs were arranged for divisions.
The Committee acknowledges that the pairing arrangements recently adopted played a significant role in reducing the number of Members present in the chamber during divisions. However, the Committee notes that these pairing arrangements did not prevent Members from being present in the chamber at other times, including the commencement of the sitting and during debates.
Under standing order 125, when a question is put to the House for decision, the Chair will announce whether in their opinion the majority of the voices are for the ‘Ayes’ or the ‘Noes’. If more than one Member challenges the Chair’s opinion of the vote, the question must be decided by division.
During a division, the Chair directs the ‘Ayes’ to move to the right of the Chair and the ‘Noes’ to the left. As government Members sit to the right of the Chair and opposition Members to the left, this process requires government Members voting ‘No’ and opposition Members voting ‘Aye’ to swap sides.
On 23 March, the Manager of Opposition Business, the Hon Tony Burke MP, acknowledged that several divisions regarding opposition amendments were to be called shortly and noted that normal procedure required Members to move across the floor. As it would be difficult for Members to maintain appropriate distancing when doing so, the Speaker advised Members that questions would be put in such a way that Members did not need to move from one side of the chamber to the other.
For example, the Speaker put the question on opposition amendments in the form ‘That the amendment be disagreed to’. This allowed government Members, voting ‘Aye’, to stay to the right of the Chair and opposition Members, voting ‘No’, to stay to the left.
For second reading amendments, which are usually moved by an opposition Member and opposed by the government, the Chair put the question in the form ‘That the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question’. Government Members opposing the amendment would again vote ‘Aye’ (to retain the words of the original question unamended), avoiding the need for Members to swap sides when dividing.
The formulation ‘That the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question’ had previously been used in the House. It was formally removed from standing order 122 as part of amendments agreed on 4 July 2019. However, as the Procedure Committee noted in its May 2018 interim report on the maintenance of standing orders, in practice the form had not been used for some years prior to this, as (unless any Member objected) the Chair usually put the question in the simplified form ‘That the amendment be agreed to’.
In her submission, the Clerk noted that ‘additional seats were identified for cross-bench Members (normally seated to the left of the Chair) who wished to vote “Aye” on certain questions’.
On 16 June, Members from both the government and the opposition voted ‘Aye’ to the question that an amendment be disagreed to; only two cross‑bench Members voted ‘No’. This resulted in substantial movement to one side of the chamber, where some Members did not have allocated seats. The Speaker indicated that, in order to maintain appropriate distancing, Members could remain standing while the tellers counted.
The Committee also notes that, during divisions, the tellers operated from the Hansard table, which was not otherwise occupied, to ensure appropriate spacing was maintained.
Practical operation of the chamber
Several changes were made to the functioning of the chamber to allow for the continued consideration of House business during the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes ensured that physical distancing requirements were met, as well as establishing protocols as a precaution against transmission of the coronavirus.
Following the acknowledgment of country and reading of prayers on 23 March, the Speaker made a statement regarding special parliamentary arrangements for the sitting day. In his statement, the Speaker noted that seating arrangements had been adjusted to ensure sufficient space was provided between Members. The increased spacing between occupied seats meant that some Members were not able to sit in their usual seats. The Speaker also advised that ministers and shadow ministers seated on the front bench could speak from the despatch box. Other ministers and shadow ministers seated in the rows behind the front bench were asked to speak from their allocated temporary seats.
Figure 2.1: Sitting of 23 March 2020
Members sit in their allocated temporary seats, observing physical distancing. Photo: Penny Bradfield/AUSPIC
On 8 April, name tags were placed to ensure Members sat in their allocated seats, which were arranged to better satisfy spatial distancing requirements. There were additional seats placed outside the benches. These seats were reserved for Members and were considered to be within the area of Members’ seats for the purpose of divisions and quorums. During the April and May sittings, additional seats were provided for paired Members who wished to attend the chamber. During the April sitting, there were four non‑allocated seats and during the May sittings there were three non‑allocated seats. When Members using a non-allocated seat or Members allocated a seat outside the main benches wished to speak, they were asked to move to one of the two vacant seats with live microphones set up for shared use. These two seats were cleaned by attendants between users. From
10 June, the dedicated seats were replaced by two standing lecterns with live microphones, freeing up seats for allocation to individual Members.
Figure 2.2: Seating arrangements in the chamber, 18 June 2020
Members attend Question Time sitting in their temporary allocated seats. The standing lectern used by government Members is located immediately behind the bench seating. Photo: Penny Bradfield/AUSPIC
The number of allocated seats in the chamber varied throughout the sittings, with revised seating plans issued by the Serjeant-at-Arms’ office. Examples of seating location plans from the period, along with the seating plan issued shortly before the pandemic was declared, are at Appendix A.
During the March sitting, when an absolute majority needed to be present to agree the suspension of standing orders that facilitated the sitting, there were seats available in the chamber for 93 Members (seats available throughout the sittings included the seat allocated to the Speaker). For
subsequent sittings, the number of allocated seats (including the Speaker’s seat) was as follows:
June sittings – 70 seats in the first week; 110 seats in the second week
August/September sittings – 81 seats
October sittings – 80 seats (6-8 October) then 100 seats (19-29 October).
Other practical measures put in place for the period included reduced services provided by attendants, to minimise close contact and the handling of papers and other items. Attendants only took documents from Members of the front bench and did not carry water. Bottles of water were made available by the entrances on either side of the chamber. Members were asked to collect their own water and to dispose of empty bottles themselves. Alternatively, Members could bring their own water into the chamber. Hand sanitiser was also provided at a number of locations within and outside the chamber.
The ceremonial entry doors to the chamber and the lobby doors remained open during proceedings, to reduce the need for Members to touch the door handles. The doors were closed as usual during divisions.
From 24 August, parliamentary staff working in the chamber wore masks. Members were not asked to wear masks in the chamber; however, it was recommended that all building occupants and visitors wear a mask in the public common areas of Parliament House during the sitting fortnight beginning 24 August.
Figure 2.3: Arrangements in the chamber, fortnight beginning 24 August
The Speaker listens to a question asked during Question Time on 1 September, while the Clerk and Deputy Clerk carry out their duties, wearing masks. The Hansard desk remains unoccupied. Photo: Penny Bradfield/AUSPIC
Throughout the period, in order to limit the total number of people in the chamber at any time, occupants of the advisers’ boxes were required to leave during divisions. When divisions were called, the attendants held the doors open, and remained outside the chamber when the doors were locked. On 23 March, the Speaker announced that the number of media representatives in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery was also restricted to four registered media photographers plus Auspic at any one time. One photographer was allowed to remain during divisions. The media was able to use the second‑floor enclosed galleries—normally reserved for school visits—at any time during sittings.
The Speaker and the President of the Senate had announced on 16 March that the galleries in each chamber would be closed to the public from 23 March, and they remained closed throughout the period covered by this report.
Figure 2.4: Arrangements in the chamber, 8 April 2020
The Prime Minister makes a statement on COVID-19 from the repositioned despatch box while government Members listen from their temporary allocated seats. The doors to the chamber remain open, and the Hansard desk is unoccupied. Bottled water is available near the doors. Photo: David Foote/AUSPIC
The Leader of the Opposition responds to the Prime Minister’s statement on COVID-19, while physically distanced Members and advisers look on. Bottles of hand sanitiser have been placed in front of the Speaker, Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and Clerks. Photo: David Foote/AUSPIC
The despatch boxes were also repositioned to facilitate physical distancing, as can be seen in the photos in Figure 2.4 above.
The course of the pandemic was never going to be certain and is indeed still evolving. Recognising this, the House put in place several contingency measures.
Under section 38 of the Constitution, a Member’s place becomes vacant if, without permission of the House, he or she does not attend the House for two consecutive months of any session of the Parliament. Leave of absence for all Members is usually moved and agreed to by the House at the end of each period of sitting. However, given the uncertain trajectory of the pandemic and its possible effect on the operations of the Parliament, leave of absence was granted on 23 March, 8 April, 14 May, 18 June, 27 August and 3 September in case the House could not meet as next planned.
Resolution of the House
Anticipating that the House may need to take further extraordinary steps in response to the evolving circumstances of the pandemic, on 23 March the House adopted a resolution regarding the manner and form of its meeting, to be used in exceptional circumstances.
The House resolved that:
the House may meet in a manner and form not otherwise provided in the standing orders with the agreement of the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business, with the manner in which Members may be present (including for the purposes of achieving a quorum) to be determined by the Speaker; and
any consequent changes to the rules and orders necessary to enable such a meeting to commence may be determined by agreement of the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business.
The resolution was used for the first time during the August/September sitting fortnight, to allow Members who could not be physically present in the chamber to contribute to House proceedings via video link.
Use of video facility
July saw increased community transmission of COVID-19 in Victoria and an increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases associated with specific locations in New South Wales. Medical advice was received on the risks associated with a meeting of Parliament. Following a request from the Prime Minister, on 21 July, in accordance with standing order 30(c), the Speaker notified Members that the House would next meet on 24 August, rather than on 4 August as previously scheduled.
On 24 August, the Leader of the House presented an ‘Agreement for Members to contribute remotely to parliamentary proceedings’ (agreement), which was signed by himself and the Manager of Opposition Business. The Leader of the House made a statement, by indulgence, noting that the agreement was made pursuant to the resolution adopted on 23 March.
The agreement related to the August/September sitting fortnight and enabled Members unable to be physically present in the chamber, due to COVID-19, to participate in certain proceedings in the House via an official parliamentary video facility. The agreement also required that Members participating via the video link only participate at either their Electorate Office or a Commonwealth Parliament Office.
Under the agreement, Members participating remotely were able to speak on a bill or motion and participate in Members’ statements or discussions on matters of public importance. Ministers were able to make ministerial statements and Members were also able to ask or answer questions during Question Time, via video link.
However, Members participating remotely were not able to vote or be counted for a quorum, move or second a motion, move or second any amendment to a motion or bill, propose or support a proposal to discuss a matter of public importance, call for a division or call for a quorum to be counted.
The Speaker also made a statement outlining arrangements for the sitting fortnight. Referring to the resolution of 23 March, the Speaker stated that the normal requirements of House standing orders and practice for quorums and divisions would remain in place. The Speaker also confirmed that the standing orders would apply to Members participating remotely, to the extent possible, except as affected by his determination and the agreement. Members participating remotely would be considered to be participating in ‘proceedings in parliament’ and therefore would be protected by parliamentary privilege in the same way as Members participating in person.
Following the Speaker’s statement, the Leader of the House moved, by leave, that the House authorise use of the official video facility. The resulting resolution provided that Members who participated through the video link would be identified in the attendance record and their contribution recorded, published and broadcast as if it had been made in the chamber.
Figure 2.5: Video facility screen
A screen positioned in the chamber shows Members ready to participate via the official video facility, 25 August 2020. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/AUSPIC
The names of those Members who made contributions via video during the sitting period beginning 24 August were recorded in the Votes and Proceedings (separately from Members in attendance) as having ‘participated by video link’. During the fortnight, a total of 23 Members made contributions remotely, using the facility to ask questions during Question Time, give second reading speeches, make Members’ 90-second statements, speak on the presentation of committee reports, contribute to discussions of matters of public importance, and participate in adjournment debates.
Figure 2.6: Use of video facility, 25 August 2020
The Prime Minister responds to a question asked by the Member for Melbourne, who was participating via video link. The Member can be seen on the screen positioned at the rear of the chamber, with other screens (not visible in this image) positioned at each corner of the chamber. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/AUSPIC
The Federation Chamber did not meet on 23 March or 8 April but met each sitting day from 13 May onward. On 13 May, the Deputy Speaker made a statement regarding arrangements in the Federation Chamber to ensure physical distancing was maintained.
The Deputy Speaker advised Members that there was increased space between seats, to better satisfy physical distancing requirements. Members were also advised that hand sanitiser was available and that the entry doors to the Federation Chamber would remain open throughout the day, although Members were asked not to stand outside the entrances to view proceedings.
The Deputy Speaker also informed the Federation Chamber that permission had been given to photographers to sit in the press gallery and take photos, due to the historic nature of the sittings.