Report

Background

Standing order 50 provides for the President to read a prayer and make an acknowledgement of country on taking the chair on each sitting day:

50 Prayer and acknowledgement of country

The President, on taking the chair each day, shall read the following prayer:

Almighty God, we humbly beseech Thee to vouchsafe Thy special blessing upon this Parliament, and that Thou wouldst be pleased to direct and prosper the work of Thy servants to the advancement of Thy glory, and to the true welfare of the people of Australia.

Our Father, which art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

The President shall then make an acknowledgement of country in the following terms:

I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples who are the traditional custodians of the Canberra area and pay respect to the elders, past and present, of all Australia's Indigenous peoples.

The prayer has been the same since it was adopted by the Senate on 26 June 1901, some 6 weeks after the first sittings of the Parliament. The requirement for an acknowledgement of country was added on 26 October 2010.

Reference

On 27 June 2018, the Senate referred the committee for inquiry and report a proposal to replace the requirement for a prayer with an invitation to prayer or reflection; proposing to amend standing order 50 as follows:

(a)       in the first paragraph, omit all words after "following", substitute "invitation to prayer or reflection:

Senators, let us in silence pray or reflect upon our responsibilities to all people of Australia and to future generations"; and

(b)       omit the heading to standing order 50, and substitute, "Prayer or reflection and acknowledgement of country".

As background to the inquiry, the committee noted a paper by a researcher with the Senate department, published in 2015[1], which sets out the history of the adoption of the prayer by the Senate in 1901 and the details of previous proposals for change. The committee also had regard to the information set out in that paper concerning the practices of each of the Australian legislatures which, with one exception, all commence their proceedings with a prayer.

The committee invited public submissions, which are published on the inquiry's web pages[2] except where withheld on request. The committee also received responses from five senators, which are similarly published online. The committee thanks all those who contributed their views.

Summary of submissions

This inquiry received a relatively high number of submissions, primarily from individuals. Of approximately 820 submissions received, approximately half were form letters or variations of form letters[3]. The vast majority of submissions do not support replacing the prayer. All of the approximately 390 form letters opposed the change. Of the substantive submissions, 359 opposed the change, compared with 73 in favour.

There were five responses from senators (Senators Collins, Kitching, Reynolds, McGrath and Anning), all in favour retaining the prayer.

Submissions in favour of change

Submitters that supported the proposal to replace the prayer put forward arguments including:

Submissions in favour of retaining the prayer

As has been noted, however, the vast majority of submissions favoured retaining the prayer in its current form. Arguments put forward included the following:

Committee's views

The motion referring the matter asked that the committee hold public hearings. Generally the committee does not operate that way: its purview is the Senate's standing orders and it typically deals with technical questions about their application and interpretation. An argument was made that the standing order relating to prayers is different; that it holds more significance in the community. The committee formed the view, however, that the opportunity to present submissions had afforded the community an opportunity to comment and that hearings would add little to the its consideration of the matter. Partly this reflects the nature of the inquiry. For most committees, investigating bills or matters of public policy, inquiries are deliberative and therefore aided by technical evidence, or evidence from those affected. In this matter, the outcome goes to senators' own opinions as to whether the procedure requiring an opening prayer ought be replaced. The submissions provide interested senators with a range of community views which may influence their consideration of that question.

Essentially the same matter was referred to the Procedure Committee in 1997. On that occasion, the committee reported:

It is clear that many senators who join in the prayer regard its retention as important, but among those who do not join in the prayer there does not appear to be a strong view that its proposed abolition is a significant question which should occupy the time of the Senate.

A motion to amend the standing order was subsequently moved and negatived, without division.

The submissions put to the committee on this occasion, and the views of committee members and their colleagues, suggest that opinions about the prayer are not significantly different in 2018 than during the 1997 inquiry, nor indeed than when the prayer was first adopted. Those in favour of the prayer strongly favour its retention, while those opposed to the prayer are less vocal and less concerned to see it changed.  

Recommendation

The committee does not consider, on the evidence before it and after its own deliberations, that there is a momentum for change. The committee therefore does not recommend that the amendments proposed in the reference should be adopted.

In reaching this conclusion, the committee also considered whether an invitation to personal prayer or reflection could be inserted alongside the current prayer. The committee did not reach a conclusion on this question, but notes that the Senate could achieve this by inserting a preamble to the traditional prayer along the following lines:

Senators, I invite you, as I read the prayer, to pray or reflect in your own way on your responsibilities to the people of Australia and to future generations.

As has been observed elsewhere, for the most part it remains a personal matter for senators whether to attend for the prayer, or join in the prayer, at the start of sittings. One exception, of course, is that the standing order requires the President to be present to read the prayer. The committee notes that some jurisdictions provide the option of the presiding officer inviting another member to read the prayer. The Senate may wish to consider whether that option should be made available through a change to the standing orders. Again, the committee makes no recommendation on this matter.  

Senator Sue Lines
Chair

Navigation: Previous Page | Contents | Next Page

Top