Debate is at the heart of parliamentary democracy. This Factsheet explains the role of debate in the parliamentary decision-making process. It also discusses why rules of debate are necessary and briefly describes the rules applying in the House of Representatives. Finally it outlines how, whether after or without debate, decisions are taken by a vote of the House.
Debate—Although 'debate' is often loosely used to cover all speeches made in the course of parliamentary proceedings, strictly speaking it is a technical term meaning more than just discussion. 'Debate' is the proceedings between the moving of a motion and the putting of the question by the Chair for a vote, in essence, the argument for and against a motion. Some proceedings are not included in this definition of debate as there is no motion before the House for decision, for example during the discussion of a matter of public importance.
On the other hand, some parliamentary 'debates' are devices to permit general discussion of a particular topic (for example, debate on the motion 'That the House take note of the paper') or to allow Members to make speeches on practically any subject (for example, the adjournment debate, when the question before the House is 'That the House do now adjourn').
Moving a motion—A motion is a formal proposal made to the House that it take action of some kind, for example, that the House do something, order something to be done or express a particular opinion. The moving of and voting on motions is the basic building block of parliamentary procedure. Decisions the House makes are made by it agreeing to a motion, including decisions on the management of its own affairs. The passage of legislation, which takes up the largest part of the time of the House, is based on the House agreeing to a series of motions (for example, 'That the bill be now read a second time'). The proceedings of the House are controlled by machinery or procedural motions (for example, 'That the debate be adjourned', 'That the business of the day be called on').
In summary, the steps in the processing of a motion are:
Generally speaking, procedural motions are moved without notice, cannot be amended or debated, and must be voted on immediately.
Notice—that is, advance warning of what is to be considered, is necessary to avoid decisions being taken without the prior knowledge of Members. A Member gives notice of his or her intention to move a motion by giving a copy to the Clerk in the Chamber. The notice is printed in the Notice Paper for the next sitting.
Seconding—formal declaration of support. By convention a seconder is not required for a motion moved by a Minister, as it is understood to be backed by the Government.
The 'question'—the question is the matter before the House for decision at any time. Only one question can be considered by the House at one time. When the question is first proposed to the House by the Chair it is the same as the motion moved. When the question is finally put to the House for decision it may be different from the original motion, depending on whether amendments have been agreed to.
Amendments—an amendment to a motion may propose to omit, insert or add words, or omit words in order to add or insert other words. Amendments may be made to amendments.
The purpose of debate is to reach a decision. Rules are necessary to ensure decisions are reached without undue delay and, at the same time, to allow all points of view to be considered. The rules applying in the House of Representatives are outlined below. Some of these are set down by the standing orders—the written rules of the House, others are based on 'practice'—that is, convention or tradition.
Rules of debate cover, for example:
However, criticisms of the character or conduct of these persons may be made by way of a motion moved specifically on that particular subject (a 'substantive' motion).
The selection of subjects for debate and the allocation of time for each debate is a matter for the Government, in the case of government business, or the Selection Committee, in the case of private Members' business.
Time limits for almost all speeches are set down by the standing orders, and vary from 5 to 30 minutes. Only the main speakers in the Budget debate are not restricted.
The 'call' (that is, the opportunity for a Member to speak) is a matter for the Chair to decide. Occupants of the Chair follow the tradition of alternating the call between government and opposition Members, leaving reasonable opportunities for independents and minor parties (if there are any). Parties in coalition share the call in proportion to their numbers.
The Chair also usually gives priority to the Prime Minister, Ministers (except when intending to speak in reply and thus close debate) and party leaders and deputy leaders over the other Members of their respective parties. To assist the Chair a list of intending speakers is supplied by the party whips. The Chair usually follows the list, but does not have to do so.
The general rule is that each Member is allowed to speak only once on each question before the Chair. As an amendment results in a new question being put from the Chair, a Member who has already spoken to a motion may also speak on the amendment. Movers of motions may speak again in reply (to sum up the arguments) at the end of a debate. During the consideration in detail stage of bills (when the bills may be amended) Members are not limited in the number of times they may speak.
Technically all interjections are out of order. However, in practice the Chair often deliberately does not take notice of interjections if they do not obviously upset the Member speaking or disrupt the flow of his or her speech.
Debate may be limited by the 'guillotine'—motions declaring a matter to be urgent and setting times for each stage of debate to be completed. In practice this procedure is used only with bills.
Speeches or debate may be cut short by the House agreeing to the following motions, which cannot be amended or debated:
Debate may be interrupted and postponed to another day or a later hour by the motion 'That the debate be now adjourned'.
Without order in the House no worthwhile debate can take place. It is the task of the person chairing the debate, the Speaker or one of his or her deputies—to enforce the rules of the House and maintain order.
The Chair has a certain amount of discretion in interpreting the rules, and the strictness with which he or she enforces them varies, depending on the situation. It is often less disruptive to the flow of debate to ignore a minor infringement.
Most infringements are settled by a few words from the Chair drawing Members' attention to the relevant rule. In cases of unparliamentary language the Chair may order the Member to 'withdraw' the words concerned. In the event of more serious or repeated offences the Chair issues a formal warning before progressing to the disciplinary measure of ordering the offender to withdraw from the Chamber for an hour, or imposing the ultimate sanction of 'naming' the Member.
If any Member considers the rules have not been followed he or she may raise a 'point of order', which in effect is a request to the Chair to take action. The Chair then gives a ruling on the matter raised. 'Spurious' points of order, made with the purpose of interrupting debate, are fairly common and, if persistently taken, may lead to disciplinary action being taken.
Debate finishes when:
At the end of the debate the Chair 'puts the question' to the House for decision, for example, he or she announces that 'The question is that the motion (or 'the motion as amended') be agreed to'.
A decision is then made by the House for or against the question. To start with this is done by the Chair asking those supporting the motion to say 'aye' and those against it to say 'no'. This is called voting 'on the voices'. The Chair announces whether, in his or her opinion, the majority of the voices are for the 'Ayes' or 'Noes', by saying 'I think the "Ayes" have it' or 'I think the "Noes" have it'. If no Member challenges the Chair's opinion the matter is decided there and then. Most decisions of the House are in fact made at this stage, that is, by Members present in the Chamber agreeing.
If more than one Member challenges the Chair's opinion of the vote on the voices the question has to be decided by a formal vote of the House (if only one Member does so the Member's dissent may be noted in the official record but no vote is held).
In the House of Representatives a formal vote is taken by division, that is, the Members divide themselves into two groups, for and against the question.
When a division is called for, the Chair instructs the Clerk 'to ring the bells' to alert those Members who are not present and summon them to the Chamber. The Clerk activates the bells for four minutes, using a sand-glass to determine the time. The bells sound throughout Parliament House, accompanied by flashing green lights to indicate the House of Representatives (red lights indicate the Senate).
After the four minutes the bells are stopped and the Chair orders the doors of the Chamber to be locked and again states the question, directing the 'Ayes' to pass to the right of the Chair and the 'Noes' to pass to the left. Members take seats on the relevant side of the Chamber and the Chair appoints two Members (known as tellers) on each side to record the names of the Members voting. When counting has finished the tellers' lists of Members voting are handed to the Chair, and the Chair announces the number of votes on each side and whether or not the question is agreed to. The House then carries on with the next stage of the business being considered, or the next item of business.
A division takes about five minutes, not including the time taken by the ringing of the bells. If two divisions are called in succession and there is no debate in between, the bells for the second division are rung for one minute only.
If the result of a division shows an equal number of Members for and against, the Speaker has a casting vote, that is, he or she may vote one way or the other to decide the matter. The Speaker does not otherwise have a vote in the House.
House of Representatives Practice, 2nd edn. A.G.P.S., Canberra, 1989. pp 467-506.