House of Representatives Factsheet No. 2

Revised June 1996

The start of a sitting day

Bells ring throughout Parliament House for five minutes prior to the time fixed for the meeting of the House, to call Members to the Chamber. As the bells stop, the Speaker enters the Chamber, preceded by the Serjeant-at-Arms, who announces 'Honourable Members—the Speaker'. On taking the Chair the Speaker bows to each side of the Chamber and the Members present, in turn, bow to the Speaker. The Speaker commences proceedings by reading two Prayers (as required by the standing orders, one being the Lord's Prayer), with Members standing, and then calls on the first item of business.

Time of meeting

The standing orders provide for the time of meeting each day and for the routine of business. Under current arrangements the House meets at 12.30 p.m. on Mondays, at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays, at 9.30 a.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The House adjourns at 11 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays, at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and at 6 p.m. on Thursdays.

The normal routine of business

The normal routine of business on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays is as follows (the routine on Mondays is different and is described later in this Factsheet):

On Wednesdays and Thursdays when the House meets in the morning, prior to questions at 2 p.m., the time is devoted to notices and orders of the day, government business.

Questions without notice

At 2 p.m. the Speaker calls on questions without notice, asking 'Are there any questions?' Members stand to attract the Speaker's attention and the Speaker selects the first questioner, traditionally an opposition Member. Thereafter questions alternate between government and non-government Members. Question time is concluded after about 50 minutes by the Prime Minister or another Minister asking that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper. Question time is a highlight of the sitting day , most Members are usually present, the galleries are full and media attention is at its greatest (Factsheet No. 1— Questions deals with Question Time in more detail).

Presentation of papers

The accountability of the Government to the House is demonstrated when Ministers present (or 'table') government papers in the House , thus making them public. The current practice is for a Minister, usually the Leader of the House, to announce that papers are tabled as listed in a schedule circulated to Members earlier. If a Minister wishes to make a statement in connection with any paper he or she will present the paper separately. The previous practice was for all papers to be presented individually, and this is still necessary if a list has not been circulated. Following presentation the Leader of the House or another Minister may move that particular papers be printed, or that the House take note of certain papers.

The motion 'That the House take note of the paper' is used as a means to enable a paper to be debated, either at the time it is presented or, more usually, at a later sitting. The selection of papers for debate is agreed on between the Opposition and the Government prior to presentation.

Ministerial statements

By leave of the House, that is, agreement of all Members present, Ministers may make statements concerning government policy or other matters for which they have ministerial responsibility. This is a demonstration of the accountability of the Government to the House. Ministerial statements are not an everyday occurrence but, if made, are usually made at this stage of the day's proceedings. It is normal practice for the opposition spokesperson on the subject, and occasionally other Members, to make a statement, by leave, on the same matter in response. Arrangements for ministerial statements are, in practice, negotiated beforehand with the Opposition, which is supplied with advance copies of a Minister's intended statement.

Matter of public importance

A matter of public importance, or MPI, is a discussion (on which no vote is taken) on a single and specific topical issue, usually proposed by the Opposition and often critical of the Government's handling of a matter , perhaps covering the economy as a whole or concentrating on a particular aspect or issue. A Member wishing to initiate such a discussion must write to the Speaker before 12 noon on the day in question and set out the terms of the matter. The Speaker reads out the proposed matter to the House. Discussion may proceed if it is supported by at least eight Members. Under the standing orders up to two hours are allowed for the discussion but it may be terminated before the allotted time by any Member (in practice a Minister) moving 'That the business of the day be called on'. In recent years the time has been limited to about 50 minutes by agreement between the parties, permitting two Members on each side to speak.

Notices and orders of the day (government business)

Most of the time of the House is taken up with these items of business, that is, with the Government's business for the day.

'Notices' are written advices or notifications of motions to be moved or bills to be presented. Notices must be signed and handed in in time to be printed on the next day's Notice Paper. When a notice is called on (that is, announced) by the Clerk the relevant Minister rises to move the motion or present the bill concerned. Most notices are for the presentation of bills. Following presentation, a bill is formally read a first time, the Minister explains the principles of the bill (second reading speech) and (with the exception of appropriation and supply bills) presents to the House an explanatory memorandum containing a detailed explanation of the reasons for, and clauses of, the bill.

An 'order of the day' is a matter that has come before the House earlier and which the House has decided should be considered further at a later date. Often orders of the day are for the resumption of debate on the second reading of bills. Other orders of the day could be the resumption of debate on motions to take note of papers. When an order of the day is called on by the Clerk, debate is resumed at the point at which it was stopped earlier. If an order of the day before the House is not disposed of (that is, voted on and decided) it continues as an order of the day for the next sitting.

Notices and orders of the day are called on by the Clerk in the order in which they appear on the Notice Paper, that is, the order determined by the Government before the Paper is printed, usually the previous day. Other business may be interspersed, for example a Minister may present a taxation bill for which notice is not necessary. Although not appearing on the Notice Paper, such items would normally be included in the Daily Program, a published informal guide to the day's business.

The length of time devoted to debate on each item depends on its urgency, the amount of time available and the number of Members wishing to speak on it. Usually such matters are arranged by negotiation between the parties.

When debate on an item of business has concluded, a vote is taken. This may be 'on the voices' (that is, without a count) or, if demanded by more than one Member, by division. If a division is called, the bells are rung to summon Members to the Chamber and the House divides, that is, Members move to opposite sides of the Chamber for their votes to be counted for or against.

Adjournment debate

Thirty minutes before the House is scheduled to adjourn the Speaker proposes the question 'That the House do now adjourn' (a Minister may move the motion earlier if other business has been completed). The adjournment motion is an opportunity when matters not relevant to the question before the Chair may be debated. The opportunity is particularly valued by private Members because they may use this time to raise matters of individual or constituency concern. Each Member may speak for five minutes. As with question time the call is alternated between non-government and government Members. At 11 p.m. (or 8 p.m. on Wednesdays or 6 p.m. on Thursdays) the Speaker interrupts proceedings. At this stage a Minister may require the adjournment debate to be continued, for a maximum of ten minutes, in order to reply to points raised by Members during the preceding debate. If the debate is not required to be continued, or after the conclusion of the Minister's reply or after 10 minutes, the Speaker adjourns the House until the time of its next meeting.

Other business and interruptions

As necessary and convenient other business, for example the announcement of communications ('messages') from the Governor-General or the Senate, or the presentation of papers or committee reports, may be taken between items of scheduled business. Business may also be interrupted by such matters as points of order arising, quorum calls, or by Members being granted leave of the Chair to explain matters of a personal nature (most personal explanations occur following the presentation of papers).

Private Members' Mondays

The order of business on Mondays is as follows:

Factsheet No. 6 — Opportunities for Private Members describes these proceedings in detail.

Preliminaries—Setting the agenda

Prior to each sitting of the House (other than the first of a session of Parliament) a Notice Paper, or agenda, is published. The Notice Paper lists all business currently before the House and all business intended to come before the House for which notice (that is, advance warning) has been given—thus covering business to be considered over several weeks. Items of business are listed in the order they are to be considered.

A better idea of the program of business each day can be obtained from the 'Daily Program'. The Daily Program shows only the business expected to be dealt with on a particular day. Unlike the Notice Paper it is not a formal document, but is a very useful guide.

Quorum and presence of Members

All Members are not present in the Chamber throughout the sittings. Members are busy people with many demands on their time. Besides their duties in the Chamber itself and in the Main Committee, they have meetings of parliamentary and party committees to attend, research to undertake, speeches to prepare and innumerable matters to deal with on behalf of their constituents. The demands on the time of Ministers and office holders, with more public duties to carry out and administrative responsibilities, are even greater.

The quorum of the House (that is, the minimum number of Members present) is one fifth of its Members, that is, 30. A quorum must exist when the House meets and when a division occurs. Otherwise the House can, and often does, conduct its business with fewer Members present. However, any Member may at any time insist on the presence of a quorum by drawing the Chair's attention 'to the state of the House'. On a quorum being called, the bells ring to summons Members, who break off whatever activity they are engaged in in other parts of the House to go to the Chamber. It is accepted practice that a quorum will not always be present, as it is acknowledged by all parties that Members have other legitimate demands on their time.

Suggestions for further reading

House of Representatives Practice, 2nd edn. A.G.P.S., Canberra, 1989. pp 277–316.

House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure. Days and hours of sitting and the effective use of the time of the House. AGPS, Canberra, 1986. (Parliamentary Paper 108 of 1986.)

House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure. About time: bills, questions and working hours. Report of the inquiry into reform of the House of Representatives. AGPS, Canberra, 1993. (Parliamentary Paper 194 of 1993. pp 34-36.)

Last updated: 24 June 1996