Thank you very much, Chair.
Good evening, members.
My name is Claressa Surtees. I appear before the committee in my official capacity as Acting Clerk of the House of Representatives of the Parliament of Australia.
I'm pleased to be able to speak with you in relation to your committee's study of parallel debating chambers. In 1994 the House of Representatives amended the Standing Orders to establish the Main Committee, as it was then called, as a parallel debating chamber. This establishment gave effect to recommendations of the House procedure committee in a 1993 report. The Main Committee met for the first time on June 8, 1994, so as you see, it's coming up for it's 25th birthday next month.
The Main Committee was renamed the Federation Chamber in 2012. Over time its role has expanded, as have its hours of meeting. The parallel chamber allows extended time to debate mostly non-contentious bills, as well as committee and delegation reports and government papers. The agenda also permits private members, other than the Speaker and the ministers, opportunities to raise and debate matters of concern to them. Overall it assists the House with not only its legislative function but also government accountability, ventilation of grievances and matters of interest or concern.
The Standing Orders provide that the Deputy Speaker has principal authority in relation to the Federation Chamber in the same manner as the Speaker does in the House. With the establishment of the Main Committee, the office of Second Deputy Speaker was created to assist the Deputy Speaker in this regard. This office is filled through an election process and is held by a non-government member.
Through practice, the Deputy Clerk is the clerk of the Federation Chamber and has responsibilities for the minutes of proceedings.
The establishment of this second debating chamber has had an enduring impact on the work of the House of Representatives. Aside from the additional opportunities it has provided to members to speak on proposed legislation and matters of their own choosing, it has had an impact on resourcing. Just like the chamber, the Federation Chamber must be supported by chairs and clerks and broadcasting and Hansard services.
Of course, the other aspect of this is that those requirements have contributed to building capability. The Federation Chamber has been a valued initial venue for the professional development of chairs and of clerks.
The venue itself must be suitable for the purpose. For us, this meant the adaptation of a committee room, but that means that room is alienated for most other purposes for which it had previously been used.
The Federation Chamber meets every day the House sits, for 21.5 hours each sitting week.
It meant a fundamental change to the legislative process. Prior to the establishment of the Main Committee, detailed consideration of bills was taken by a committee of the whole membership of the House in the chamber. However, with the establishment of the Main Committee, the name of this stage of the legislative process was changed to consideration in detail. The key motivating factor for the establishment of the Main Committee was to provide a second legislative stream to ease pressure on the legislative business of the House, because the guillotine had been increasingly used and, therefore, debate often was limited.
In particular, the parallel debating chamber may consider bills referred to it for the second reading stage and the consideration-in-detail stage. An immediate improvement was noted by the reduction of the use of the guillotine in 1994. Only 14 bills were guillotined in that year, compared to 132 in the previous year.
Originally only bills where there was no disagreement were to be considered in the Main Committee. However, before long, more controversial bills were referred, as long as there was agreement to this end. The role of the Main Committee has expanded over the years.
The enduring feature of the Federation Chamber is that it operates on the principle of consensus, and from the beginning, procedures were designed to strongly encourage co-operative debate. In particular, the quorum requirements—the Deputy Speaker or the chair, one government member and one non-government member—mean that quorum can be lost easily. The requirement for unanimous decisions provides any member with the ability to have a question considered unresolved and the matter then reported to the House for a decision.
Although it is formally the government's decision which bills and other matters are referred to the Federation Chamber, the co-operative nature of operations in this second chamber makes referral of government business items also contingent on agreement with the opposition.
There have been several reviews into the operation of the second chamber. The procedure committee's 2015 inquiry labelled the Federation Chamber an unparalleled success and concluded that it had earned its permanent place in the functioning of the House, having met the aims first put forward and evolved with the needs of the House. Review and recommendations designed to increase effectiveness have continued, including in relation to providing for a more interactive debate.
Some of the measures that are trialled in the Federation Chamber are later confirmed in the standing orders and then introduced into the House itself.
Thank you, Chair. Those are my opening remarks.
Yes, it is, and I find it fascinating.
I want to go back to the comment you made about the guillotining of certain bills. Here we call it “time allocation”. The current government receives criticism about time allocation; the former government probably received even more. However, it is quite common, and we do it for that reason.
It seems that we don't have the mechanism by which to quell that. For instance, I know that in Great Britain in the mid-1990s, in the Westminster system, they introduced bill programming.
Your answer to that, though, is the parallel chamber. You went from over 100 guillotining motions down to about 14.
This sort of negotiation takes place outside the chamber, so we don't have a great visibility on it. I know what happens. The leader of the House and the manager of opposition business will negotiate over the matters to be scheduled for the agenda for the Federation Chamber, so there is agreement.
As I tried to indicate, if there weren't agreement, if there were a great deal of unhappiness, it would be very easy to withdraw the quorum because the quorum is the chair, one government member and one non-government member. If the opposition were unhappy, it could simply leave the chamber and the proceedings would immediately suspend.
The issue of how contentious some of the legislation is, or some of the other items perhaps, I think is quite interesting. We've always had the main appropriation bills considered in the Federation Chamber. There's always been an opportunity for members to take quite opposing views about policy during the course of the debate on the budget bills. That hasn't prevented the bills being debated in the Federation Chamber, and it's actually regarded as quite a successful aspect of the operations there.
The terminology is interesting. The guillotining and time allocation remind me of when I was much younger, in the 1970s, with the auto workers. We called it guided democracy. Everybody has a term for the hand on the throat.
The reason I raise this is that in my experience, governments will sometimes want to guillotine a bill because of the debate that's happening in the House, and the media attention, but at the end of the day, it's usually because of time management. The most expensive commodity for government vis-à-vis the House is House time. It's almost like an airport, where you have planes ready to take off. You have ministers lined up, all trying to cajole the House leader to get their bill in the House. It's often about that pressure, as opposed to the politics around the issue. There are exceptions.
You said there was less guillotining by a big number. You also said that you didn't deal with contentious issues, as a rule, although you're starting to now. Were there that many non-contentious issues that required guillotining? Why? Was it time management or was it more small-p politics?
What the operation of the Federation Chamber permits is for two streams of legislation to be debated at the same time. For example, at the time that a bill about higher education is being debated in the Federation Chamber, there can be a debate in the House about something to do with tax policy. Two separate bills are being debated at the same time. This means that the government can be progressing two bills over the course of a single day, whereas that may not have been possible in the past.
In our system, members have an opportunity to speak for 15 minutes in the second reading debate on a bill, so they're limited. I know that's not the case in some jurisdictions where they might be unlimited, but there is a limitation on the length of a member's speech in the second reading debate. If a lot of members wish to speak, then of course this will take hours. We have only 150 members, so it's a smaller chamber than yours; nevertheless, it's hours of debate.
It's not that the debate is going to be stopped because of the contentious nature of the legislation or the proposals, but it's just that if there were unhappiness about the bill being in the Federation Chamber at all, it is very easy to withdraw the quorum and then automatically the bill must be referred back to the House. I have to say this doesn't happen very often. It's usually because there has been quite careful negotiation between the leader of the House and the manager of opposition business to agree on the agenda for the Federation Chamber, so the bill will progress.
At the detail stage, if there are amendments being proposed by the opposition and they would like to record the formal division, then of course that must go back to the House. There are no divisions in the Federation Chamber.
Not all bills go to the Federation Chamber. They can either go to the Federation Chamber or remain in the main chamber for debate. The stage of our legislative process in which bills may be considered clause by clause we now refer to as consideration in detail. We hardly ever have a clause-by-clause approach these days.
Although the Standing Orders recognize the default position as clause by clause, usually a bill is taken as a whole by leave. Then if there is a debate about particular aspects of the bill, that can occur. If there are amendments, they can be moved and then voted on during that debate.
For us, the clause by clause is the consideration-in-detail stage, where members have opportunities of five minutes at a time to speak to the issues, and as with the other debates in the House, the call will vary from side to side. It's five minutes for one.
What I can say is that when our second debating chamber was first introduced, some members were skeptical. They weren't welcoming. Some of the ministers didn't like going there, so they'd send the junior ministers.
That level of resistance has completely disappeared. There is absolutely no sense that people resent having to go to the Federation Chamber. In fact, during the debate on the appropriation bills, the ministers go. We had the deputy prime minister there responding to issues during the consideration-in-detail stage of the budget bills.
It's grown in authority over the years. I guess with any change to long-established procedures, there is always concern about how valuable it will be and whether you will actually be able to achieve what you're trying to address to overcome the issues. An approach that allows some flexibility is probably a good one, and if there is a need to adjust whatever the original arrangements are, then I think that would be helpful. Certainly, in the case of our Federation Chamber, it has evolved since it first commenced. It's gone from two days for a few hours, if required, to each day on which the House sits, with indicative hours of business for the Federation Chamber.
Of course, if the business that's been allocated is concluded, then the Federation Chamber can conclude earlier. I think members appreciate, too, that it's not that people have to go there just because it's available. It's only going to be operating when there's actual business that needs to be addressed. That's the way it works.
I hope that addresses some of your issues.
Inevitably, having another debating chamber means there can be greater demands on a member's time. It's a busy time for members of our Parliament. I can imagine it's the case with yours. A lot is going on on a sitting day. The committees are meeting. The House is operating. Visitors are coming in all the time. So members' diaries are quite full. The members need to be careful not to double-book themselves; by that I mean put their name on the list to speak at the same time as a matter comes up in both chambers, because of course they need to make sure that they can fulfill their commitments about speaking.
A little flexibility is necessary with things like speaking lists. Members might need to converse with their colleagues to adjust the order in which they're expecting to speak in the two chambers. It can be visible sometimes. Members literally dash from one chamber to meet a commitment in the other.
What perhaps wasn't anticipated was the evolution of the Federation Chamber itself and [Technical difficulty—Editor] that is conducted now in the Federation Chamber has really grown. Members in particular appreciate the short speaking [Technical difficulty—Editor]. It wasn't always the case, but every time the Federation Chamber meets on any day, the first period is set aside for constituency statements, so members have an opportunity to speak for three minutes. They can say a lot in three minutes, reflecting on the good work of people in their communities. They really value those opportunities.
At the moment, the members include ministers. Some ministers have an opportunity to speak about their constituencies during those three-minute periods. Ministers did not have an opportunity to do that before. The Standing Orders were changed about 10 years ago to enable ministers to have that opportunity as well as just private members having that opportunity, and I know the ministers have valued that. Otherwise, of course, they have the opportunities to speak as a minister, but not necessarily to talk about something in their constituencies. Those sorts of things have been very valued.