A private Member is defined generally as a Member who does not hold any of the following positions: Prime Minister, Speaker, Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Leader of a recognised party or Parliamentary Secretary. However, for the purposes of private Members' business, a private Member is any Member of the House other than the Prime Minister, the Speaker, a Minister or Parliamentary Secretary. The commonly used term 'backbencher', which is sometimes used as a synonym for the term private Member, strictly refers to Members who sit on a back bench, as opposed to those Members who sit on the front benches reserved for Ministers and members of the Opposition Executive.
A simplistic view of the role of the House is that it exists merely to 'rubber stamp' government legislation. Such analysis ignores the roles of the Opposition and of private Members in the House, not to mention their very active participation in parliamentary committees. Certainly, given the strength of party discipline, the Government's will ultimately prevails in the House, but it is a mistake to assume that proceedings of the House are completely dominated by the Executive Government.
Not surprisingly, the largest proportion of the time of the House is taken up with government business, that is, government sponsored legislation and, to a lesser extent, motions and ministerial statements. Although all Members, subject to time constraints, are able to participate in debate on government business, the requirement for debate to be relevant to the question before the House obliges them to confine their remarks to matters on the government agenda. However, the rules of the House do provide important opportunities for private Members to initiate legislation and to have topics of their own choice debated. There is also a variety of other opportunities for private Members to speak in the House on matters of concern to them.
Most of each sitting Monday is reserved for non-government business. The sequence of business is as follows:
The normal daily routine resumes at approximately 5.20 p.m. with notices and orders of the day (i.e. government business). To enable Members to be assured of a significant period free of interruptions, any division called for in the House during private Members' business, on a question other than a motion moved by a Minister, is deferred until after grievance debate.
The period immediately following prayers (at 12.30 p.m.) is reserved for the presentation of reports of parliamentary committees and delegations. The objective of all committee inquiries is the presentation of a report to the House, setting out the committee's conclusions and recommendations (see Factsheet No. 4 — Committees). Reports are also presented from delegations of Members who have taken part in fact-finding visits overseas or who have attended parliamentary conferences. The Member presenting a report and other Members may make statements in connection with it. The Member presenting the report may also move a motion in connection with it, for example, 'that the House take note of the report'. Debate on the motion is normally adjourned until a future day. Following the presentation of reports, the period until the start of private Members' business is reserved for the resumption of proceedings on reports presented previously.
The Selection Committee decides the order of presentation, and allots time for the consideration, of committee and delegation reports.
Commencing no later than 1.15 p.m. and continuing until 1.45 p.m. and again for another hour following the presentation of petitions debate takes place on private Members' business, that is, bills and motions sponsored by private Members.
A private Member wishing to move a motion or introduce a bill gives notice (that is, advance warning of his or her intention) in writing to the Clerk. A notice may be handed in to the Table Office or given to one of the Clerks in the Chamber. Notices are listed on the Notice Paper under the heading 'Private Members' Business'. Those not selected by the Selection Committee for debate within eight sitting weeks are dropped from the Notice Paper.
The arrangement of private Members' business is the responsibility of the Selection Committee, a committee of 12 backbench Members. When the House is sitting the committee meets weekly and considers notices lodged by private Members. It normally reports on Tuesdays, listing the matters for debate on the Monday of the next sitting week. It usually selects, and allocates time for, three or four items for each private Members' business period. In choosing items for debate the committee pays regard to selection guidelines agreed to by the House. The guidelines ensure that all Members have a fair chance of having matters debated and also take into account the nature of the subject, for example, its importance and the extent to which it comes within the responsibility of the Commonwealth Parliament.
A motion is a proposal framed in such a way that, if agreed to, it would claim to express the will or judgment of the House. Typical private Members' motions may take the form 'That this House places on record its support for/opposes/is concerned about . . .' or 'That this House calls on the Government to/condemns . . .'. An extremely wide range of propositions has been put to the House under these procedures. Topics of national and international importance have been discussed, as well as matters of concern to particular regions, groups or industries.
By decision of the Selection Committee, the majority of motions considered as private Members' business are not voted on, the debate being adjourned and made an order of the day for a subsequent private Members' Monday.
The introduction of a private Members' bill is given priority over other private Members' business. When the notice for a private Members' bill is called on by the Clerk, the Member presents the bill and may speak in support of it for up to five minutes. It is then read a first time, the second reading of the bill automatically becoming an eligible item of business for the next private Members' Monday. The allocation of time for the debate on the second reading is determined by the Selection Committee. If the second reading is agreed to by the House, further consideration of the bill is given priority over other private Members' business.
Under the procedures of the House, private Members have great freedom in the introduction of bills, with the important exception that only the Government may initiate a bill imposing or varying a tax or requiring the appropriation of revenue or money. Statistically, bills initiated by private Members are a small proportion of legislation dealt with by the House. Nevertheless, the ability of any Member to put legislative proposals before the House is a very important right, and procedures in operation since 1988 have seen an increase in the number of private Members' bills. 104 private Members' bills were introduced into the House between 1901 and 1988 — by the end of 1995 this figure had risen to 175. Since Federation 14 non-government bills have passed into law — 13 introduced by private Members or private Senators and one by the Speaker.
During this 15 minute period (1.45 to 2 p.m.) any Member other than a Minister or a Parliamentary Secretary may be called by the Chair to make a statement of up to 90 seconds in duration. The call is alternated between non-government and government Members. If no other Member seeks to speak, a Member who has already spoken may make up to two additional statements. Members may make statements on any topic of concern to them. They may also use the occasion to give an oral notice of intention to move a motion or present a bill, although this opportunity is rarely used.
This short period of 'statements by Members' each week is one of the most interesting innovations to occur in the procedures of the House in recent years. Although 90 seconds seems a very short time, it is surprising how much can be said during such a period. The range of subjects raised is enormous, from international tragedies to complaints about petrol prices in a town or congratulations on sporting achievements.
Petitions lodged for presentation to the House are announced by the Clerk as the first item of business following questions without notice. The announcement indicates the Member lodging each petition, and gives a brief summary of the action sought and of the identity and number of petitioners. The time taken for this announcement is between about five and ten minutes. (Factsheet No. 11 — Petitions outlines the petitioning process in more detail.)
At approximately 4 p.m., after the conclusion of private Members' business, the Chair proposes the question 'That grievances be noted'. Debate on the question is practically unlimited in scope, giving Members the opportunity, in 10 minute speeches, to raise matters in which they have a particular interest or to ventilate complaints of constituents. It would be unusual for two or more Members participating in the debate to speak on the same subject. By a quirk of history, despite its importance as a vehicle for private Members, the grievance debate is listed as government business on the Notice Paper. This is because of its origins in the former financial procedures of the House (pre-1963), which were derived from the ancient practice of the House of Commons insisting on airing its grievances before granting money to the Crown. Despite its origins, the grievance debate today has no technical significance, its value being the provision of an opportunity for wide debate, similar to that provided by the motion for the adjournment of the House. The distribution of the call is similar to that of the adjournment debate, the first call going to an opposition Member, then alternating. Ministers are permitted to participate, although in practice they rarely do.
A standard half-hour adjournment debate is scheduled at the end of every sitting day. Debate takes place on the motion 'That the House do now adjourn' and the usual rule that debate must be relevant to the question before the House does not apply. In effect the scope of debate is practically unlimited. Members may speak for five minutes each. An opposition Member traditionally receives the first call and the call then alternates in the normal way. If no other Member wishes to speak, a Member who has already spoken may speak again. Normally at 11 p.m. (Mondays and Tuesdays), 8 p.m. (Wednesdays) or 6 p.m. (Thursdays), the Speaker interrupts the debate in order to adjourn the House until the time of its next meeting. A Minister may however require the debate to be extended for up to 10 minutes to enable Ministers to speak in reply to matters raised in the debate.
A Member wishing to raise a matter in the adjournment debate falling within the responsibilities of a particular Minister or concerning a particular Member usually alerts that Minister or Member beforehand. As well as being courteous, this practice allows the Minister or Member to arrange to be present during the debate if he or she so wishes and, in the case of a Minister, to make a response.
The standing orders exempt the debate on the second reading of Appropriation Bill (No. 1) from the usual rule of relevance by allowing 'matters relating to public affairs' to be debated. The Budget debate thus provides a significant opportunity, often extending over several weeks, for Members to speak on matters of their own choice.
At the beginning of each session of Parliament a formal 'Address in Reply' is prepared in response to the Governor-General's opening speech. A wide ranging debate on the motion 'That the Address be agreed to' then takes place, possibly lasting several weeks. Each Member may speak for 20 minutes. The Address in Reply debate is traditionally an opportunity for newly elected Members to make their first speeches in the House.
Members use the opportunities described above to raise matters which are of particular concern to them. Such concerns range widely, from the purely local to the international. One Member may want to speak on industrial, employment or environmental issues in his or her electorate, or to complain about a constituent's difficulties with the bureaucracy. Another Member may wish to publicise an event not widely covered by the media, such as an achievement by an individual. A Member may wish to draw attention to a new scientific discovery or to what he or she sees as a significant overseas development, perhaps with implications for Australia. A Member may want to try to correct a perceived deficiency in a particular law, or to propose alternative economic policies. The opportunities available to private Members allow such matters to be raised outside the strictures of the institutionalised contest between the parties.
Matters brought forward under the various procedures open to private Members are sometimes of a partisan nature. However a great many are not party-political, and there are occasions when matters raised are supported or endorsed by Members on the other side of the House or a motion is seconded by a Member of different political persuasion to the mover.
House of Representatives Practice, 2nd edn. A.G.P.S., Canberra, 1989. pp 543–554.
House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure Improved Opportunities for Private Members: Proposed Sessional Orders. AGPS, Canberra, 1987. (Parliamentary Paper 219 of 1987).