The role of the President of the Senate

The President of the Senate

Senator the Hon Sue Lines. President of the Senate

Senator the Hon Sue Lines,
twenty-seventh President of the Senate.

The President of the Senate in the Australian Parliament is the presiding officer who chairs meetings of the Senate. The President is also the spokesperson for the Senate, who represents the Senate in dealings with the Governor-General, the executive government, the House of Representatives and persons outside the Parliament, and overseas. The position also has responsibilities relating to the administration of the Senate and the management of Parliament House. While the presidency is an office which was designed and has evolved particularly for the Australian federal Parliament, the role of the President in Parliament has its roots in the tradition of speakers of the houses of the British Parliament, and of the Australian colonial Parliaments.

The President is a senator, usually with some years of experience, who is elected to the position by the members of the Senate.

The election, duties and responsibilities of the President reflect the original and independent nature of the Senate itself, as entrenched in the Australian Constitution at federation. Under section 50 of the Constitution, senators determine their own rules and orders in respect of the conduct of the business of the Senate and the way in which its powers, privileges and immunities should be upheld. The Constitution also gives authority for the office of the President of the Senate:

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.
Constitution, section 17

Election of 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 while doing so.

The President is not elected for a fixed term, but the term of office expires after a normal election for senators (a half-Senate election), on the day before the first day of sitting after 30 June (when newly-elected senators take their seats).

The presidency also becomes vacant if the President resigns the office (by writing addressed to the Governor-General), or ceases to be a senator, such as when his or her term as senator expires without re-election, or dies, or when the whole Senate is dissolved by the Governor-General simultaneously with the House of Representatives in the circumstances of a disagreement between the houses and a subsequent election under the terms of section 57 of the Constitution.

The President may also be removed from office by a vote of the Senate, although this has never happened.

Nominations for the office of President are made by a senator or senators moving that a senator who is present 'take the chair as President'. If only one senator is proposed there is no vote on the motion and the nominated senator is considered to be elected and is 'called by the Senate to the chair'. This has happened quite frequently in the history of the Senate, due to general acceptance among senators of the conventions of filling the office with a senator of the party in government. However, ballots have also been common.

If more than one senator is proposed, senators making nominations (usually the Leader of the Government and the leader or leaders of opposition groups in the Senate) may speak to their motions for up to 15 minutes, after which a ballot is held, by each senator present writing a preference on a ballot paper which is collected and counted by the Clerk. This is a secret ballot, and the votes of individual senators are not divulged. The candidate who has the greater number of votes is declared by the Clerk to be elected. If the vote is drawn, the vote is taken again, and if the result is still tied, the Clerk draws lots to decide the election, by placing both names in a ballot box and withdrawing one. The senator whose name remains in the box is elected President. This occurred in 1941 when the election of Senator James Cunningham was determined by lot.

 Where there are more than two candidates, the votes are taken in the same way, and if one senator receives a majority of the votes of the senators present he or she is declared to be elected. If one candidate does not receive an absolute majority of votes, the candidate who receives the least number is eliminated and senators are asked to vote again for the remaining candidates. There were three candidates for the first election for President of the Senate, on 9 May 1901, when Senator Richard Baker received more votes than the other two candidates put together on the first ballot and was therefore declared elected. In 1987 Senators George Georges, Donald Jessop and Kerry Sibraa were all nominated. Senator Sibraa was elected after two ballots, the first time in the history of the Senate that this has happened.

Once elected, the successful candidate is conducted to the chair, by the senator or senators who proposed the candidate, to take office 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 other senators, to be presented to the Governor-General.

Presidents participate in the deliberations of the Senate

As a senator, the President is a representative of one of the states or territories of the Commonwealth, and has a vote of equal weight with any other senator on all matters before the Senate (Constitution, section 23). If the President were not able to cast such a vote, the equal representation of the states established in the Constitution would be lost. The President therefore has the right to vote on any matter, and tellers of formal votes in the Senate count the President's vote with all other votes. The President can choose not to vote while in the Chair of the Senate, but if the President remains in the chamber but is not in the Chair, as when the Senate is in committee, he or she is required to vote on any question put. In contrast, the Speaker of the House of Representatives cannot vote in the chamber unless a vote is drawn, in which case the Speaker exercises a casting, or deciding, vote (Constitution, section 40).

In the early years of the Senate, presidents actively participated in debates. Two well-known speeches by early presidents are those of President Baker against election of the Senate by proportional representation in 1902, and the speech by President Givens in favour of conscription in 1916, which one observer described as 'the finest speech ever delivered in the Senate'. Presidents now rarely speak in debates, unless on parliamentary matters.

In 1986, President McClelland 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 contained the first legislative declaration of the 'powers, privileges and immunities' of the Australian Parliament since federation.

The Senate, Parliament House, Melbourne, 10 August 1923 nla.pic- vn4199499, National Library of Australia

The Senate, Parliament House, Melbourne, 10 August 1923 nla.pic- vn4199499, National Library of Australia

Impartiality of the presiding officer

In order to maintain the confidence of its members and to keep order effectively, the presiding officer or speaker of a legislative house must make decisions with a degree of political impartiality. This tradition has implications for the office of the President of the Australian Senate which it does not have in many other democratic parliamentary systems, due to the composition of the Senate and the means of choosing the President. The first President of the Senate, Richard Baker, said in the Senate in 1904:

The difficulties of the dual position which I am called upon to fill are very great, and I ask that allowances may be made for me. In the first place, I have to perform the ordinary duties of a President or a Speaker, and in the second place, under our Constitution, I have to give not a casting vote, but a deliberative vote when, as it sometimes happens, party feeling runs high. The difficulty of reconciling these dual positions is very great …

(Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 2 March 1904, p. 6)

All presidents have been aligned with political parties, and early presidents were most often nominees of the largest party or coalition of parties in the Senate. The current convention is that presidents are elected from the party or coalition which holds government because it has a majority of members in the House of Representatives, even if, as is often the case, that party does not have a majority of members in the Senate.

While the duties of the office both inside and outside the chamber must be carried out in an impartial manner, and to some extent the President is distanced from the day-to-day political activity of the party, presidents have the same constraints as other senators with regard to maintaining support within the party and securing preselection for election. They also have the same responsibilities to the people of the states or territories who elected them, and are equally active in constituent work.

In the Senate chamber

The President has a pivotal role in the Senate chamber. While in the President's chair in the Senate, the President manages the meetings of the Senate.

The President calls on items of business throughout the day, as listed in the daily program. All debate must be addressed to the President, who decides which senator has the 'call' or the right to speak. All questions for consideration of the Senate are submitted to the President, who puts a question on the matter to the Senate. When the Senate votes on a matter, the President ascertains and declares the will of the Senate either on the voices (the 'ayes' or 'noes') or as the result of a division (a formal counted and recorded vote). All messages or formal correspondence between the House of Representatives and the Senate in relation to proposed laws or other matters are sent or received by the President.

Interpreting and defining the rules of the Senate

The President interprets and applies the standing orders of the Senate, which are the rules of procedure which the Senate has agreed will govern its business and proceedings. When a question of interpretation of a standing order arises, the President makes a decision or ruling on how a standing order will apply, always leaning towards a ruling which preserves or strengthens the powers of the Senate and the rights of senators.

It is the responsibility of the President to maintain order in the Senate and in the conduct of debate. If the Senate is disorderly the President can call for order, and may stand in his or her place, in which case the Senate must be silent. When a point of order is raised by a senator, or when the President feels that a ruling on order is required, debate cannot proceed until the President has resolved the matter. The President decides whether a senator has infringed standing orders by obstructing the business of the Senate, or by disorderly conduct, including the use of objectionable words or other behaviour, and may call the senator to order and issue a warning. If the matter is not resolved, the President may 'name' or report the senator to the Senate. The named senator can make an explanation or apology, which the President can accept, but if it is not accepted, any senator can move, and the Senate vote, that the senator be suspended from the sitting of the Senate. While the President plays an important role in this process, ultimately the whole Senate is instrumental in suspending a senator.

Successive Presidents of the Senate have made rulings on matters not covered by the standing orders. Very early in its history the Senate decided that rather than agreeing, as the House of Representatives did, that where matters were not provided for in standing orders the 'rules, forms and practice' of the British House of Commons would be followed by default, the Senate would develop rules suited to its own unique conditions. Presidents since federation have given rulings which provide a body of precedents which, if not dissented from, have the authority of a resolution of the Senate. The Rulings of the President are an important adjunct to the standing orders.

A senator may object to a President's ruling, and the ruling may be upheld or overturned by a majority vote of the Senate.

It is the President's duty to see that the powers and privileges of the Senate, as provided by the Constitution, are observed. Senators can raise matters of privilege by writing to the President, who decides whether the matter warrants reference to a committee because, for example, there may have been obstruction of the Senate, its committees or members. The President determines these matters with reference to extensive precedents and the Senate's resolutions on parliamentary privilege.

Deputy President and Chair of Committees

The Deputy President takes the chair in the Senate when requested by the President, and exercises the same authority when presiding in the Senate as the President. The method of election and term of service for the Deputy President is the same as for the President. The current convention is that a senator from the largest non-government party in the Senate holds this office.

Besides deputising for the President, the Deputy President is also the Chair of Committees, and presides over committee of the whole in the Senate, which is a committee of all senators formed in the chamber largely for the detailed examination of legislation. When the Senate transforms itself from a plenary body to a committee, the President leaves the President's chair, and the Chair of Committees takes the chair at the table below.

The President nominates a number of senators of all parties to act as temporary chairs when they are requested to do so by the Chair of Committees and to relieve the President in the chair of the Senate when the Deputy President is absent.

Usher of the Black Rod

The President is attended in the Senate chamber by the Usher of the Black Rod, an officer who carries a silver-capped ebony rod as a symbol of the authority of the office to maintain order in the Senate. This officer announces the arrival of the President in the Senate on a sitting day, and sits in the chamber in a seat on the President's right. Black Rod carries messages from the Senate to the House of Representatives, and when the President indicates, locks the doors of the Senate during divisions. At the direction of the President, Black Rod may remove any person who causes a disturbance in the Senate, its galleries, or committees.

Administrative duties

As the executive head of the Department of the Senate, the President acts in a capacity similar to that of a minister in relation to a government department, and is responsible for the department's activities in the service of the Senate, its committees, and senators. The President is required to answer for the performance of the department as a witness at hearings of the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee when that committee is considering the financial estimates of the Department of the Senate. The President also chairs the Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing, which determines the annual budget and oversees the organisational structure for the Department of the Senate.

Together the presiding officers (the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives) are jointly responsible to the Parliament for the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS).  DPS is responsible for publishing Hansard and supplying and maintaining of audio visual and information technology to the Parliament, the physical environment of Parliament House and the parliamentary precincts, including care of the building and gardens, and the Parliament House Art Collection.  There is also a Parliamentary Library within DPS, which provides research and support for senators and members, independent of the executive government of the day. The presiding officers together have statutory responsibility to appoint the Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services and the Parliamentary Librarian.

Under the Parliamentary Precincts Act 1988, the presiding officers have management and control of the parliamentary precincts. This gives the President and the Speaker certain rights in relation to matters such as policing and security within Parliament House and its surrounds. The presiding officers approve, for example, membership of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and may withdraw press gallery passes for perceived misconduct. They can request that the Australian Federal Police arrest and hold in custody persons who either house has ordered to be detained, and the police will consult with the presiding officers before conducting investigations, making arrests and executing any process such as a search warrant in the parliamentary precincts.

The President has particular authority over the Senate chamber and the accommodation of senators in Parliament House and over security arrangements for the Senate and the Senate Department. This authority is exercised through the Usher of the Black Rod.

The President as spokesperson for the Senate

The President speaks for the Senate in formal communications with the monarch, or his or her representative in Australia, the Governor-General. On behalf of the Senate, the President receives the Governor-General's speech on opening day and reports it to the Senate. When the Senate has completed its address-in-reply to the Governor-General's speech, the President, accompanied by other senators, presents it to the Governor-General at Government House.

The Governor-General commissions the President (if there is a President in office) to administer an oath or affirmation to newly elected or appointed senators, on opening day following a general election or during any normal sitting throughout the year.

The President represents the Senate during formal visits by foreign heads of state. Throughout the year the President receives many parliamentary delegations and other distinguished visitors, including foreign diplomats who call at the President's suite at Parliament House to pay their respect to the President as the representative of the Senate. Occasionally, with leave of the Senate, the President invites visitors, usually presiding officers of other parliaments, to take a seat on the floor of the Senate chamber.

The President's office

The President has a suite of rooms close to the Senate chamber. They comprise a large office and reception areas, including a dining room and a sitting room, where the President can greet and offer hospitality to visitors. There is also office accommodation for his staff: a senior advisor and two other advisors, and a receptionist. Traditionally, presidents have personalised the suite by choosing to display art works from the Parliament House art collection which reflect their interests and concerns, including reference to the state the President represents in the Senate.

The rooms open to two courtyards, divided by a glazed walkway. The walkway provides a direct route to the door in the Senate chamber behind the Vice-Regal Chair. During ceremonies for the opening of Parliament the Governor-General enters the chamber from the President's suite and walkway.

Diary of a typical day for the President

Today the President of the Senate ...

8.30 am–9.10 am attended a meeting of the Joint House Committee and discussed a range of matters about the operations of Parliament House with senators and members;
9.10 am–9.15 am was briefed by the Deputy Clerk on the day's proceedings in the Senate;
9.30 am–10.30 am presided at the meeting of the Senate—opening the day's proceedings with prayers;
10.30 am–11.00 am was relieved in the chair by the Deputy President to enable the President to receive a new ambassador;
11.00 am–12.15 pm met with the Speaker of the House of Representatives to discuss a range of matters about the administration of Parliament House and the Department of Parliamentary Services;
12.30 pm–1.30 pm had a working lunch in the office discussing a forthcoming visit to the United States as leader of a parliamentary delegation;
1.30 pm–1.45 pm was briefed on procedural matters by the Clerk of the Senate;
2.00 pm–3.15 pm resumed the chair of the Senate for question time and the debate on a procedural matter which followed;
3.15 pm–3.45 pm met a group of school children;
3.45 pm–4.30 pm met with a parliamentary delegation visiting from overseas;
4.30 pm–5.30 pm met with staff in the President's office to discuss the program of business for the next few days;
5.30 pm–6.00 pm met with the Clerk to finalise a statement to be made to the Senate at 6.00 pm relating to the procedural matter discussed earlier in the day;
6.00 pm–6.30 pm resumed the chair of the Senate to make a statement to the Senate and presided over further debate;
6.30 pm–7.30 pm held discussions with the Usher of the Black Rod and the Parliament House Security Controller relating to a security matter;
  [The Senate adjourned at 7.30 pm till tomorrow at 9.30 am]
7.30 pm–8.00 pm chaired a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing to consider the Senate's proposed budget; and
8.00 pm hosted an official dinner in honour of the visiting parliamentary delegation.

Senator Margaret Reid, President of the Senate 20.8.1996–18.8.2002

When elected in 1996, Margaret Reid became the nineteenth President of the Senate, and the first female President as well as the first territory President. A representative for the Australian Capital Territory from 1981, Senator Reid was an experienced senator who had held other positions in the Senate, including Liberal Party Whip, and Deputy President.

Senator Reid saw her role as President as that of a defender and champion of the institution of the Senate, saying at the time of her retirement: 'I have an abiding commitment to the role of this chamber and the way in which it does its business.'

A notable feature of her presidency was the support and assistance she offered to parliamentary institutions in developing countries of the South Pacific. Senator Reid was also an active delegate to parliamentary conferences in Australia and overseas, and was a president of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

She had the distinction of being the President in office at the time of the celebrations for the centenary of Australian federation, and took leading roles in ceremonies at the Exhibition Building and Parliament House, Melbourne, on 9 and 10 May 2001. She also represented the Senate at centenary of federation ceremonies in London in July 2000.

Richard Chaffey Baker, First President of the Senate (9.5.01–31.12.06)

On the day of the first meeting of the Australian Senate, 9 May 1901, Senator Richard Baker was elected President of the Senate on the first ballot. He served a total of six years as President, being re-elected in 1904, and retired from the Senate at the end of 1906, when he did not stand for election.

Baker had a profound influence on the creation, founding and early development of the Senate, both as a framer of the Constitution, and as the presiding officer of the Senate during its earliest formative years.

A South Australian barrister who was first elected to the South Australian House of Assembly in 1868 at the age of 27, Baker was elected in 1877 to the Legislative Council. He became President of the Legislative Council in 1893, and his experience as a presiding officer in South Australia was to be significant for the procedural development of the new Australian Senate.

Baker was a representative for South Australia at the Australasian Federal Convention of 1891, where a draft constitution for a federated Australia was developed. He was widely read on constitutional and procedural matters and produced a list of readings for the delegates: A Manual of Reference to Authorities for the Use of the Members of the National Australasian Convention. Baker was elected to the federal Convention of 1897/8 where he was a powerful advocate of a new constitutional order for the Australian Commonwealth. He argued for a Senate that was a 'strong, a powerful, and a living house' which would be an equal partner with the House of Representatives in the consideration and review of legislation.  Baker was the Chairman of Committees at that Convention.

In the first federal Parliament, as President of the Senate, Baker continued to assert the power and independence of the Senate. This was manifest in his contributions to the Standing Orders Committee, of which he was the first chairman, in his interpretations of standing orders in the Senate chamber, and in rulings on Senate practice supplementary to and explanatory of standing orders. The tradition of independence and originality commenced by the first President has been a model for subsequent presidents.

Traditional dress

Formal paintings of the first presiding officers in the Parliament House Art Collection show them wearing the costume of a judge of the Supreme Court, including knee breeches, silk stockings, and court shoes. This regalia reflected traditional parliamentary dress worn at Westminster, and is part of the ancient ceremonial of parliament. Early presidents generally wore a modified costume, comprising a black silk gown (similar to the gown worn by a Queen's Counsel) over a dark suit, lace accessories and a full-bottomed wig.

Senator Joseph Turley of Queensland, elected President on 1 July 1910, was the first Labor Party President. This cartoon from the Worker implies that there was consternation in the Senate when he chose not to wear the President's wig and gown. The subsequent President, Henry Thomas Givens, began wearing the traditional dress again in 1921, but no President has worn it since 1983.

Presidents of the Senate since 1901

Name State
or Territory
Party Term of Office
Baker, Richard Chaffey SA F.T. 9.5.1901–31.12.1906
Gould, Albert John NSW A.S. 20.2.1907–30.6.1910
Turley, Joseph Henry Lewis QLD A.L.P 1.7.1910–8.7.1913
Givens, Henry Thomas QLD A.L.P. 9.7.1913–30.7.1914
    Nat. from 1917 8.10.1914–30.6.1926
Newlands, John SA Nat. 1.7.1926–13.8.1929
Kingsmill, Walter WA Nat. 14.8.1929–30.8.1932
Lynch, Patrick Joseph WA Nat. 31.8.1932–30.6.1938
Hayes, John Blyth TAS U.A.P. 1.7.1938–30.6.1941
Cunningham, James WA A.L.P. 1.7.1941–4.7.1943
Brown, Gordon QLD A.L.P. 23.9.1943–19.3.1951
Mattner, Edward William SA Lib. 12.6.1951–7.9.1953
McMullin, Alister Maxwell NSW Lib. 8.9.1953–30.6.1971
Cormack, Magnus Cameron VIC Lib. 17.8.1971–11.4.1974
O'Byrne, Justin Hilary TAS A.L.P. 9.7.1974–11.11.1975
Laucke, Condor Louis SA Lib. 17.2.1976–30.6.1981
Young, Harold William SA Lib. 18.8.1981–4.2.1983
McClelland, Douglas NSW A.L.P. 21.4.1983–23.1.1987
Sibraa, Kerry Walter NSW A.L.P. 17.2.1987–5.6.1987
Beahan, Michael Eamon WA A.L.P. 1.2.1994–30.6.1996
Reid, Margaret Elizabeth ACT Lib. 20.8.1996–18.8.2002
Calvert, Paul Henry TAS Lib. 19.8.2002–14.8.2007
Ferguson, Alan SA Lib. 14.8.2007–25.8.2008
Hogg, John QLD A.L.P. 26.8.2008–6.7.2014
Parry, Stephen TAS Lib. 7.7.2014–2.11.2017
Ryan, Scott VIC Lib. 13.11.2017–13.10.2021
Brockman, Slade WA Lib 18.10.2021 to 26.7.2022
Lines, Sue WA A.L.P. 26.7.2022 to present
Party Initials Party Name
Australian Labor Party
Anti-Socialist Party
Free Trade
Liberal Party of Australia
Nationalist Party
United Australia Party