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Chapter 5 Current and emerging issues
For many of the procedural reforms in the 43rd Parliament, it is too
early for the Committee to provide a considered view. However, specific issues
have been identified which the Committee would prefer to see addressed quickly,
or has noted warrant further monitoring.
Members indicated they hold significant concerns over the increase in
weekly sitting hours and the adverse impact of longer sitting days on the health
and wellbeing of Members, their staff and parliamentary staff. Members are also
concerned about the impact of additional sitting hours on their productivity
and their ability to perform their duties effectively. These are considered in
more detail below.
Other issues raised include possible refinements to enhance the
implementation of procedural changes or to address anomalies. Where the
Committee believes there is appropriate justification for immediate change, it
has made comment accordingly. For other issues that have arisen, the Committee will
monitor these closely over the next several months prior to forming a considered
view in its next report.
Changes to weekly sitting hours
Reforms to provide additional opportunities for private Members have been
accompanied by both an increase in sitting hours and an extension of sitting
days with significant consequences for Members, their staff and parliamentary
In the 42nd Parliament, the scheduled weekly sitting hours comprised
48 and a half hours: 36 hours in the House and 12 and a half hours in
the Main Committee. The scheduled time has been extended by 7 and a half hours
in the 43rd Parliament, now totalling 56 hours over four
sitting days per week (40 hours in the House and 16 hours in the Main
Committee). Figure 5.1 shows how the House’s time has been allocated in the
first five sitting weeks of the 43rd Parliament in comparison to the
first four weeks of the previous parliament. The graphic below illustrates the
significant increase in the proportion of time allocated for private Members’
business and the decrease in the proportion of time allocated to government
Figure 5.1 Business conducted in
the House of Representatives 42nd and 43rd parliaments
Digests prepared by the Chamber Research Office.
includes government sponsored legislation and motions (including motions to
suspend standing orders) and ministerial statements.
includes legislation and motions (including motions to suspend standing orders)
sponsored by private Members and statements by Members.
opportunities for private Members includes adjournment debates,
grievance debates and debate on the Address in Reply.
includes time spent on petitions, giving notices, presentation of papers
(excluding motions to take note), privilege matters, personal explanations,
dissent motions, announcements of ministerial arrangements, motions to appoint
committees (unless moved by private Members), statements and debate on
committee reports, motions for addresses, votes of condolence, leave of absence
and special adjournment.
The additional sitting hours have had a significant impact on the
average length of each sitting day. For the first sitting period of the 43rd
Parliament the extended hours translated in practice to an average sitting day
of 10 hours and 2 minutes in the House and 4 hours and 12 minutes in
the Main Committee. Compared to the equivalent period in the 42nd Parliament,
the average sitting day has been extended by one hour in the House and one hour
in the Main Committee. A comparison of the set meeting and adjournment times
for the current and previous parliaments is reflected in Tables 5.1 and 5.2
Table 5.1 Set meeting and
adjournment times of the House, 43rd Parliament
Source: Standing order
29(b), 20 October 2010.
Table 5.2 Set meeting and
adjournment times of the House, 42nd Parliament
Source: Standing order
29(b), 1 December 2008.
The duties of a parliamentarian do not begin and end when parliament is
sitting. Days start early with caucus and committee meetings, particularly on
Monday and Tuesday mornings. Many Members spend considerable time travelling to
and from Canberra and on returning to their electorate have obligations in
their offices and their communities.
When parliament is sitting, Members are not required to be present in
the House or Main Committee continuously, enabling them to attend to other activities.
Due to the close numbers, Members have a greater requirement to be ‘on call’
for divisions than in previous parliaments. Even at times when divisions and
quorums are deferred, not all Members are free from their obligations to be ‘on
call’ and do not leave Parliament House until the House adjourns.
Feedback from Members identified two further ways that the close margin
in numbers between government and opposition Members in the House has impacted
on the demands on Members’ time. It was noted that there is less flexibility in
pairing arrangements which enable Members to be absent from the House for
periods of time to attend to other business or personal matters. It was also
noted that those government Members serving on the Speaker’s Panel have faced additional
workloads as the opposition has not nominated any of its Members to serve on
The additional time for private Members’ business has had workload
implications for Members and their staff in terms of research and preparation.
As shown in Table 5.3 the number of private Members’ speeches in the first five
sitting weeks of the 43rd Parliament is more than twice the number
for the first four sitting weeks in the 42nd Parliament
(525 speeches versus 219 speeches respectively).
Table 5.3 Number of speeches
90 second statements
3 minute constituency
Research Office statistics, as at December 2010.
The impact of longer sitting hours
The longer sitting hours have been questioned publicly by
representatives from both sides of politics and prompted Members to
raise concerns about potentially adverse effects on the health of Members,
their staff, and parliamentary staff. Members who participated in a private
round table meeting with the Committee were unanimous in their view that the
current sitting hours cannot be sustained because of their implications for
good health and the quality of their work.
In October 2010 Dr Mal Washer MP expressed his concerns about the
physical and emotional toll on Members and their staff. In an interview with
the ABC, Dr Washer observed:
...at the moment I’ve got people walking around with lots of
respiratory problems because their immune systems are being compromised, they’re
fatigued, they’re not as sharp as they would normally be.
And so we’re creating to some level slight dysfunctionality
in our politicians.
Dr Washer reiterated these concerns, noting:
These additional hours are having an adverse effect on the
mental and physical health of Members, their staff and the staff of the
The result is mental and physical fatigue leading to altered
mood with higher levels of anxiety and depression, poor concentration and often
abnormal sleep patterns. Physically there is a drop in fitness levels and
reduced immunity which would affect resistance to infection and malignancy and
exacerbate chronic disease. There is a greater tendency for the use of
medication to assist with sleeping and with some increased alcohol consumption.
Many Members have time zone differences up to 3 hours during
Eastern Daylight Saving further compounding the problem and are fatigued by up
to 7 or more hours of travelling to Canberra. We all have a duty to care for ourselves
and our staff.
The potentially adverse health effects due to long sitting hours are not
a new concern. Previous Procedure Committee reports have supported the view
that the fatigue associated with late night sittings may compromise the health
and wellbeing of Members and staff.
In 1994, for example, substantial changes to the hours and routine of
business in the House, including the abolition of late night sittings and the
establishment of the Main Committee as an alternative debating forum, resulted
from recommendations of a Procedure Committee report chaired by the Hon Dr Neal
Blewett. The 1993 report, About Time: Bills, questions and working hours,
sought to address concerns about the adverse consequences of late sitting hours
on the health of Members and parliamentary staff. Members at the time had also
questioned their effectiveness in carrying out their duties as parliamentarians
due to the length and lateness of the hours they were working.
Adapting to additional sitting hours
The increased sitting hours have caused Members to significantly alter
their travel habits. Monday morning sittings now commence at 10 am in the House
and 10.30 am in the Main Committee. For some Members, it is
no longer possible to travel in the morning on sitting Mondays. Instead,
Members have to travel on the Sunday, leaving less time for constituency
matters and family commitments.
Informal feedback suggests that some Members, in considering the
wellbeing of their staff, are not requiring their staff to work the later hours
and are allowing them to travel to Canberra on the Monday morning in spite of
the earlier start. As a consequence, Members are carrying a greater proportion
of the additional workload than they otherwise might.
The Committee notes that Monday morning travel would not be a viable
option during the winter months because of uncertainty due to fog.
The Committee is conscious that while Members can choose to send their
own staff home while the House is sitting, they have no influence over the
working hours of parliamentary support staff, and Members have observed the
additional strain on these staff.
There was no evidence to suggest that the new arrangements had led
Members to spend less time discharging their responsibilities as
parliamentarians. Members noted they were adjusting by reducing their sleep and
exercise and travelling earlier to Canberra on Sundays (foregoing attending
electorate functions which they were previously able to attend) in order to
avoid an additional late night at the start of a sitting week. Members also
indicated they were less satisfied with the quality of their work now,
particularly their speeches, and this was exacerbated towards the end of a
sitting week. Members questioned whether the increased hours had generated increased
Members recognise that parliament is at the core of their role as
representatives. However, the hours in which the House chooses to conduct its
business should aim to reflect community expectations of efficiency balanced
with workplace health and safety.
During the Committee’s private roundtable, a number of options were
canvassed in consultation with Members as to how their workloads may be reduced
with minimal impact on the business of the House. Suggestions focused largely
on ways to reduce the length of sitting days to allow Members, particularly
those from Western Australia, to travel to Canberra later on Sundays or early
on Mondays. There were no suggestions to reduce the amount of time allocated to
government business. Some of the proposed ‘solutions’ included:
revising the order of
the commencement of sitting on Monday to 12 noon to allow Members to travel to
Canberra later on Sunday or early on Monday mornings of sitting weeks;
for the later commencement on Mondays by sitting at 12 noon on Tuesdays;
the time allocated for the adjournment debate from an hour to half an hour on
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, thereby reducing the sitting day by half an hour;
- moving the
adjournment debate to the Main Committee at an earlier hour;
the time allocated for private Members’ business (currently accounting for 17%
of the House’s time) and with no reduction of the time allocated for government
business (currently accounting for 40% of the House’s time);
- extending the periods
where divisions and quorums are deferred (currently on Monday and Tuesday
evenings from 6.30-8.00 pm); and
- scheduling (an)
additional sitting week(s) to enable a reduction in sitting hours through the
rest of the year.
Members expect to work hard and they are honoured to have their various
obligations. What does concern them, however, is the likelihood that because of
the increased length of sitting days and corresponding additional competition
for their time, they will not be able to meet their expectations of themselves,
much less the expectations of their constituents or colleagues in their party
or on their committees and so on. The Committee acknowledges the point made by
the Clerk of the House in a submission to the Committee’s inquiry into the
conduct of the business of the House: ‘[I]mportant as its work is, the House is
also a workplace.’
The Committee recommends that the House considers measures
to manage the workload of Members during sitting weeks, having regard to the
health and wellbeing of Members, their staff and parliamentary staff, including
but not limited to:
at 12.00 noon on Mondays in the House and 12.30 pm in the Main
at 12.00 noon on Tuesdays in the House;
the reduction in sitting hours resulting from a) and b) by reducing the time
allocated to private Members’ business each week by three hours;
that divisions called for after 8.30 pm on Mondays and Tuesdays be
deferred until the following day; and
e) reducing the time allocated for adjournment debate by half an hour on one evening.
The Committee expects that if this
recommendation is adopted, the current provision in standing orders for
divisions and quorums to be deferred between 6.30 pm and 8.00 pm
on Mondays and Tuesdays will be removed. Typically, when divisions have been
conducted after the deferral period on Monday evenings, less time has been
available for the final item of private Members’ business. Removal of this provision will ensure that there is no disruption to
private Members’ business on Monday evenings.
The Committee also acknowledges that, if adopted, the measures recommended
above will have a positive impact on Members’ commitments and working hours but
that obligations on parliamentary staff will continue to be onerous. These
obligations on staff should be monitored closely and additional staffing be
funded as necessary.
Refinements to improve the efficiency of proceedings
In addition to offering some general observations on the implementation
of the procedural changes, the Clerk of the House submitted detailed
suggestions for consideration, some of which would require fine-tuning of
standing orders, and others which would require a change in practice. The
proposed changes are intended to address unforeseen anomalies in the standing
orders and/or to enhance procedural efficacy. Specific issues raised include
- speaking times
associated with the presentation of private Members’ bills;
- scheduling of private
Members’ items in the Main Committee and return of items from the Main
- speaking time limits
for debates not otherwise provided for and items of private Members’ business
The following section summarises refinements proposed in the Clerk’s
submission which have not been addressed earlier in this report. The Clerk’s
submission has been included at Appendix E for easy reference.
Presentation of private Members’ bills
There is a degree of duplication arising from the two-stage approach to
private Members’ bills, whereby a Member may make a statement (not exceeding 10
minutes) on presenting a bill, and then may speak again in support of the bill
if the Selection Committee sets time for the second reading to be moved:
This two-stage approach has been a feature of the
arrangements for private Members’ bills for more than 20 years. It seems that
the original idea was that a private member would present a bill on a Monday
and make a 5 minute statement. The second reading would then be moved and
debated on the Thursday; the 5 minute statement having allowed members to
explain their proposals briefly.
This duplication could be addressed by amending standing orders to facilitate
Members presenting private Members’ bills to move the second reading at the time
of presentation, rather than making a statement with debate then being
adjourned. Such a move would also
ensure that private Members’ bills are treated procedurally in the same manner
as government bills.
Private Members’ items in the Main Committee
Two modifications suggested to enhance procedural efficacy relate to the
scheduling of private Members’ business items for the Main Committee and the
return of items of private Members’ business from the Main Committee.
When the Selection Committee schedules items of private Members’ business
for the Main Committee, currently the Speaker presents copies of the items to
the House and further debate is automatically referred to the Main Committee.
A refinement to the standing orders would provide that items scheduled for the
Main Committee by the Selection Committee are deemed to have been referred by
This would obviate the need for the Speaker to table the
terms of matters in the House and for the matters to be deemed to be presented
or moved before they can stand referred to the Main Committee. It would also
allow the Member responsible for a notice to initiate a matter in the Main
Committee by presenting a bill or moving a motion.
The second proposal relates to the return of items of private Members’
business from the Main Committee. Presently, this is achieved via a formal
report by the Speaker when other business is not before the House.
A more efficient practice would be for a Member to move, in the Main Committee,
that further proceedings be conducted in the House, as provided by standing
order 197(a). This would enable
returned items to be listed as orders of the day on the Notice Paper, where
they could be called upon to be voted on during government business time if
standing orders were suspended. This change would require a change in practice
and is not prohibited by the standing orders.
Speaking time limits
The reduction in time limits for most second reading speeches from 20
minutes to 15 minutes appears to be successful. Consideration might be given to
also reducing time limits for debates not otherwise provided for (currently 20
minutes for the mover and 15 minutes for other speakers) to 15 minutes for the
mover and 10 minutes for other Members. The current ‘default’ provision applies
in the case of motions to take note of papers and motions to suspend standing
orders by leave.
An anomaly relates to the time limits which apply when items of private
Members’ business are called on during government business time. The Selection
Committee routinely sets time limits for each Member speaking on an item during
time set aside for consideration of private Members’ business. However, when an
item is called on during government business time, Members are subject to the
standard time limits, which are usually longer than those determined by the
A further issue with speaking time limits was raised by the Selection
Committee in its report to the House on 21 October 2010. The Selection
Committee noted its difficulty in allocating lower speaking times than those
provided under standing order 1 for the mover and lead speakers in the second
reading debates of private Members’ bills. While standing order 222 provides
for the Selection Committee to determine speaking times for second reading
debates, it is unclear whether this overrides the maximum times specified under
standing order 1.
The Committee would welcome all of these matters being considered by the
House in the expectation that the House is committed to continuing to improve
and refine procedures.
Stating the question on amendments
A discussion paper submitted by the Clerk
considered a change in practice to the way questions on amendments are stated
and put to the House.
The long-standing practice has been for amendments to motions to be
moved in the form that all words after ‘that’ be omitted with a view to
substituting other words, as provided by standing order 122(a)(ii):
Standing order 122(a)(ii):
If the purpose is to omit certain words in order to insert or
add other words, the question shall be—
That the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the
If this question is resolved in the affirmative, the
amendment is disposed of: if negatived, the Speaker shall put a further
That the words proposed be [inserted, or added].
The Clerk noted that stating the question in this form can be
‘counter-intuitive and puzzling to members and observers’ because Members in
favour of an amendment must vote ‘no’ on the initial question. Furthermore,
where an amendment is supported by a majority but contested, two divisions are
required for the amendment to be made.
Standing order 122(b) already includes provision for the shortened form
‘that the amendment be agreed to’, provided that no Member objects. The wording
in this provision is such that if any Member objected, the Chair would have no
discretion and the longer form of the question would need to be put.
The simpler form is currently used for detailed stage amendments and sometimes
for amendments to motions, such as those moved by Ministers to non-government Members’
The Clerk identified a number of advantages of the question on
amendments always being stated in the alternative simpler form:
- it is much more
straight forward than the ”words stand” form and will always be clear to
members and those following proceedings. Members in favour of the amendment
vote ‘aye’ and those against it vote ‘no’...;
- it allows amendments
to be moved to the amendment itself;
- if an amendment is defeated
other amendments can be moved to the main question, as well as amendments to
the question “that the motion, as amended, be agreed to”;
- in the case of
amendments going to a vote, one division only is required to make a decision on
One of the negative aspects of moving to the shorter form for all
amendments is that should an amendment to a motion be agreed to, the second
question will be that the motion, as amended, be agreed to. The mover of the
original motion is therefore denied a distinct vote on their proposition.
Another, perhaps less significant, consequence of moving to the simpler form is
that, if the trend whereby most amendments are moved by non-government Members
to government sponsored motions were to continue, most Members would be
required to cross to different sides of the House for divisions.
The Committee acknowledges the potential for confusion in the way in
which questions on amendments are currently stated and put to the House. While
the closeness of the current numbers in the House has drawn attention to this
matter, the Clerk emphasised that change should only occur on the basis that it
would be a long-term change, irrespective of the composition of the House.
The Committee considers that there is merit in trialling the shortened
form ‘that the amendment be agreed to’ for all amendments, noting that standing
orders already provide that it would remain open to any Member to object and
require that the longer form be used.
Listing of private Members’ business items to be voted on in the Notice
Current practice is that items of private Members’ business which the
Selection Committee has recommended be voted on are listed in reports of the
Selection Committee. Selection Committee reports are published online on the
Committee’s home page after presentation to the House. While this makes the
recommendations public, it may be of assistance to Members and others if items
recommended for voting are listed in the Notice Paper.
This could be facilitated by a minor amendment to standing order 222 which
requires that the Selection Committee’s recommendations on items to be voted on
are published on the Notice Paper prior to any action being taken on them.
The Committee would be pleased if this action were taken and expects
that it would reduce any possible confusion.
As discussed in Chapter 2, the House Selection Committee was
re-established at the beginning of the 43rd Parliament with a wider
role than Selection Committees established in the 41st and previous
parliaments. The 11-member Committee is chaired by the Speaker and is comprised
of government, opposition and non-aligned Members. Previous Selection
Committees were chaired by the Deputy Speaker. The Clerk has suggested that,
while it has been beneficial to have the Speaker chair the Committee given its
wider responsibilities, it may be appropriate to consider whether the Speaker
should be a step removed given the potential significance of decisions of the
Committee, for example, in the scheduling of items of business and
consideration of the referral of bills to committees.
Appointment of supplementary members to House committees
Reforms to House committees have sought to increase flexibility by
reducing the number of permanent committee positions and increasing
opportunities for Members to be supplementary members on inquiries of
particular interest to them. In informal feedback provided to the Committee, it
has been suggested that the current phrasing in standing orders 215(d) and
229(c) which provide that a committee may ‘supplement its membership’ has
created the mistaken impression by some people that committees have a role in appointing
their supplementary members. A minor amendment to the standing orders may be
required to clarify that appointment of supplementary members occurs through
the usual mechanisms pursuant to standing order 229.
Naming of the Main Committee
The Deputy Speaker, the Hon Peter Slipper, invited the Committee to
consider the matter of renaming the Main Committee, which has been proposed by
previous Procedure Committees in 2000 and 2004.
In 2000, the then Procedure Committee recommended that the Main
Committee be renamed ‘the Second Chamber’, while the 2004 Procedure Committee
recommended the name ‘the Federation Chamber of the House of Representatives’
(‘Federation Chamber’ for short). Neither recommendation
The Deputy Speaker noted that the rationale behind previous proposals to
rename the Main Committee included that the separation of the Main Committee
from the Main Committee Room has resulted in confusion between the two, but
also that a name change could enhance the status and role of the alternative
chamber. The Deputy Speaker stated:
I consider the reasons given in earlier reports for a name change
were very persuasive.
The Committee intends to consult more broadly on this issue prior to
giving this matter further consideration.
The Committee agrees in principle to the need for minor amendments and
updates to the standing orders and, where necessary, changes in current
practice, to enhance the operations of the House, correct oversights and ensure
The Committee recommends that draft amendments to standing
orders which enhance the operations of the House and correct oversights and
inconsistencies be prepared and proposed for consideration by the House.
Following a prolonged period of majority governments at the federal
level in Australia, the power of the executive is reflected in the practice of
the House. A corollary of this dominance has been a decrease in the authority
of the parliament as an institution. While this situation continued, calls for
parliamentary reform to redress the balance went largely unheeded by successive
governments. However, the outcome of the 2010 election provided an ideal
opportunity to negotiate a parliamentary reform agenda and the Agreement for
a Better Parliament: Parliamentary Reform came into being. The 43rd
Parliament opened on 28th September 2010 and on the following day
significant procedural reforms were implemented.
The Committee, while recognising that the reforms will necessarily need
a period of adaptation, considered an important part of its role was to capture
early views, experiences and information. In this report the Committee has
sought to provide an overview of the Agreement and the mechanisms used to
support the implementation of its proposals. Based on observations from the early
stages of the 43rd Parliament, input from Members and the Clerk, the
Committee has, where possible, provided initial comments on the practicality
and operability of the procedural reforms. The Committee has considered more
detailed evidence including suggestions for fine-tuning standing orders to address
anomalies and/or to enhance procedural efficacy. Where appropriate the
Committee has indicated in-principle support for change.
As the 43rd Parliament progresses, the Committee will
continue to monitor and review the changes. It will provide further
opportunities for input on all aspects of the reforms. The Committee intends to
report in more detail to the House on matters associated with the procedural
reforms after there has been a greater opportunity for assessment. It may then
make further recommendations on aspects of the reforms that require fine
tuning, or more substantial amendment.
JULIE OWENS MP
28 April 2011
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