The Speaker, holding purely parliamentary office, is less well known than some of the other figures in the Parliament who hold greater power and influence in governmental or political terms. Nevertheless, as far as the parliamentary institution is concerned, the Speakership is the most important office in the House of Representatives.
Section 35 of the Constitution provides that: 'The House of Representatives shall, before proceeding to the despatch of any other business, choose a Member to be the Speaker of the House.'
The Speaker is the principal office holder in the House of Representatives. He or she is the House's representative or spokesperson, the chair of its meetings and its 'Minister' in respect of its support services. Because of this second function, the Speaker is commonly referred to as the House's Presiding Officer, the Senate counterpart being the President of the Senate. The importance of the Presiding Officers is acknowledged by the position of the Speaker and the President in the Australian Order of Precedence, where they rank directly after the Governor-General and State Governors, the Prime Minister, and a State Premier within that Premier's State.
The Speaker's authority is derived from the House, to which his or her duty lies and to which he or she is answerable. Just as the Speaker is elected by the House, he or she may be removed from office by a vote of the House.
The current Speaker is the Hon. Bob Halverson OBE MP, Member for Casey, Vic., who was elected Speaker on 30 April 1996.
The Speaker is the spokesperson for the House (hence the derivation of the name 'Speaker') in its relations with the other constituent parts of the Parliament—the Senate and the Sovereign (represented by the Governor-General), the other arms of government—the Executive and the Judiciary, and with other outside bodies and persons. In this role Speakers are careful to maintain the authority of the House, and to protect its rights and privileges.
Important official communications from and to the House are signed by and addressed to the Speaker. The Speaker receives delegations from other Parliaments and special visitors on behalf of the House. On formal occasions the Speaker represents the House and plays a central ceremonial role.
In representing the House the Speaker represents and is responsible to the House and the totality of its Members, whether in government or opposition. He or she is not responsible to the Executive Government and seeks to preserve the House's independence from it.
As Presiding Officer the Speaker presides over, or chairs, the meetings of the House and ensures they are conducted in an orderly manner and according to the provisions of the Constitution and the standing orders of the House. The duties performed in the Chair are probably the Speaker's most important and onerous.
At the commencement of each day's sitting, the Speaker, being satisfied that a quorum is present, reads the Prayers set out in the standing orders. Having read Prayers, the Speaker then calls on the various items of business in the order set down in the standing orders.
The Speaker must ensure that the rules of parliamentary procedure as embodied in the standing orders and practice of the House are applied. The Speaker interprets and enforces the standing orders, responds to Members' points of order and gives rulings when necessary.
The Speaker calls upon Members wishing to speak and in doing so seeks to allocate the call evenly between the government and non-government Members and, despite the greater responsibilities of Ministers and opposition frontbenchers, to ensure that backbenchers are not overlooked.
The Speaker must maintain order during debate. While most proceedings pass routinely and without incident there are occasions when passions become inflamed, excessive interjection occurs and the House becomes noisy and unruly. The standing orders provide disciplinary powers to enable the Speaker to maintain order. These vary in their severity and allow the Speaker to deal with breaches of order in the most appropriate manner. For a minor infringement a Member may merely be called to order or warned. For a more serious offence, a Member may be ordered to withdraw from the Chamber for a period of one hour and, for a major offence or persistent defiance of the Chair, a Member may be 'named' by the Chair and a motion for the Member's suspension moved.
The Speaker supervises rather than participates in proceedings. He or she does not normally take part in debate and does not vote in the House except in the event of numbers being equal, in which case the Speaker has a casting vote. The Speaker makes statements or announcements to the House as necessary, and may be questioned on matters of parliamentary administration.
It is the Speaker's duty to call the House together following an adjournment, by resolution, to a date and hour to be fixed.
The Speaker, while spending a considerable part of each sitting day in the Chamber, is not present throughout proceedings, being relieved in the Chair by the Deputy Speaker, the Second Deputy Speaker or one of the members of the Speaker's panel serving as Deputy Speaker. Except in extraordinary circumstances the Speaker always takes the Chair during question time and for more important occasions, such as the presentation of the Budget by the Treasurer and the Leader of the Opposition's speech in reply.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Speakership has long been regarded as a political appointment, successive Speakers have striven to discharge their duties with impartiality. The degree of impartiality achieved depends on the occupant but, as a rule, Speakers have been sufficiently detached from government activity to ensure what can be justly claimed to be a high degree of impartiality in the Chair.
Members are entitled to expect that, even though politically affiliated, the Speaker will carry out his or her functions impartially. At the same time a Speaker is entitled to expect support from all Members regardless of their party.
The Speaker has ultimate responsibility, either alone or jointly with the President of the Senate, for the administration of Parliament and the operation of Parliament House and thus has an added administrative work load.
The Speaker is considered to be by law, or is in effect, 'Minister' for the Department of the House of Representatives, having a similar role to that of a Minister of State in relation to a government department. The permanent head of the department is the Clerk of the House.
The Department of the House of Representatives provides the administrative machinery for the efficient conduct of the House of Representatives and its committees and a range of services and facilities for Members in Parliament House. These include the provision of office accommodation and associated support in Parliament House, transport and travel requirements, and the responsibility for the payment of Members' parliamentary salaries and allowances.
Jointly with the President of the Senate, the Speaker has the same 'ministerial' role in respect of the parliamentary service departments—the Department of the Parliamentary Library, which provides information and research services to Members and Senators; the Department of the Parliamentary Reporting Staff (Hansard), which reports the debates and proceedings of both Houses and their committees and provides, through the Parliamentary Information Systems Office, computer and telecommunication services to Parliament House, and, through the Sound and Vision Office, radio and television broadcast and closed circuit facilities; and the Joint House Department, which maintains Parliament House and its grounds, provides housekeeping and catering services, and guide services for visitors.
The Parliamentary Precincts Act provides that the parliamentary precincts are under the control and management of the Presiding Officers who may, subject to any order of either House, take any action they consider necessary for the control and management of the precincts. In respect of the ministerial wing these powers are subject to any limitations and conditions agreed between the Presiding Officers and the Executive Government. The Speaker exercises singular authority over the House of Representatives area in Parliament House.
At the beginning of each Parliament the Speaker is commissioned by the Governor-General to administer the oath or affirmation of allegiance to any Member not present at the opening of Parliament and to new Members elected during the course of a Parliament. (The majority of Members are sworn in by the Governor-General's deputy prior to the Speaker's election).
The Speaker is responsible for the issue of writs for by-elections. In addition to this constitutional function the Speaker has a variety of specific duties laid down by a number of Acts, and in particular by the Commonwealth Electoral Act.
The Speaker is, ex officio, a member of several parliamentary committees, including the Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings (Chairman), the House Committee (Chair) and the Library Committee. With the President of the Senate, the Speaker is Joint President of the Commonwealth of Australia Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Joint President of the Australian Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Chairman and Joint President of the Australian National Group of Asia Pacific Parliamentary Forum.
The process for choosing the Speaker is set down in detail in the standing orders of the House. These provide for the Speaker to be elected by Members, if the election is contested, by secret ballot. The Speaker is elected for the duration of a Parliament. In practice the office of Speaker is normally filled by the nominee of the governing party or parties.
The Speaker remains a member of his or her political party, and may choose to attend party meetings. Speakers also take part in election campaigns. On taking office the Speaker continues to carry out his or her duties as an ordinary Member of Parliament and retains an 'electorate role' of representing and assisting constituents.
A Member elected Speaker is entitled, while Speaker, to the title 'Honourable', which, with the approval of the Sovereign, may be retained for life. This privilege is usually only given to those who have served as Speaker for three years or more.
In the Chamber and for ceremonial occasions the Speaker may wear the formal Speaker's dress of a black Queen's Counsel gown, wing collar and bands. Traditionally, Speakers from the non-Labor parties have worn the formal dress but Speakers from the Australian Labor Party have not done so.
The Speaker receives an additional salary and expense of office allowance (slightly more than those of the majority of Ministers) in addition to his or her salary and allowances as a Member of Parliament.
At the beginning of each Parliament the House elects Members to the positions of Deputy Speaker and Second Deputy Speaker after the Speaker has been elected. The procedure is similar to that for the election of Speaker. The standing orders provide that the Second Deputy Speaker must be a non-government Member.
In the absence of the Speaker the Deputy Speaker takes the Chair as Acting Speaker. He or she may also take the Chair as Deputy Speaker whenever requested by the Speaker. While in the Chair the Deputy Speaker has the same procedural powers and functions as the Speaker. The Deputy Speaker is assisted by the Second Deputy Speaker and a panel of Members drawn from both sides of the House and nominated by the Speaker to serve in the Chair. If the Deputy Speaker is absent, the Second Deputy Speaker or a member of the Speaker's panel may take the Chair as Deputy Speaker. In practice an unofficial roster is maintained to provide occupants for the Chair throughout a sitting.
The Deputy Speaker takes the Chair of the Main Committee. The Chair of the Main Committee has basically the same functions and similar powers to regulate the conduct of business, and authority to preserve order (other than the power to 'name' a Member), in the Main Committee as the Speaker has in the House. The Second Deputy Speaker and members of the Speaker's panel assist the Deputy Speaker in this role.
The office of Speaker is a very ancient one, dating back eight hundred years to 13th century England. It is an essential feature of the parliamentary system derived from Westminster. In early times Speakers were variously described as 'Parlour' (mouth), 'Prolocutor' (chairman) and 'Procurator' (agent). Essentially each acted as mouthpiece or spokesman and hence 'Speaker' on behalf of the House in communicating its resolutions to the Sovereign.
The office of Speaker was central in the centuries-long battle for supremacy between Parliament and the monarchy. Historically the role of the Speaker has sometimes been an unenviable one. The chequered history of the Speakership shows a number of Speakers dying violent deaths by way of execution or murder while others were imprisoned, impeached or expelled from office.
Up to the 17th century Speakers were often agents of the Sovereign and subsequently, with the supremacy of Parliament, were usually associated politically with governments, sometimes holding government office. However, by the mid 19th century the convention of the Speaker being above party had become established in the United Kingdom.
In the House of Commons the Speaker abandons all party loyalties. When governments change, the current Speaker is re-elected to office, and at general elections a Speaker is usually unopposed by the major parties. This development has not been transposed to Australia, although from time to time it has been proposed that a similar arrangement should be introduced here.
House of Representatives Practice, 2nd edn. A.G.P.S., Canberra, 1989. pp 194–249.
Philip Laundy. The Office of Speaker in the Parliaments of the Commonwealth. Quiller Press, London, 1984.