What happens in parliament
Question time, motions, committees, adjournment speeches – everything you ever wanted to know about what happens in parliament
Apart from debating Bills, there are a range of other processes, opportunities to speak, and formalities which make up a typical day in parliament.
When you contact your MP about an issue, he or she may offer to make a speech, ask a question or move a motion about that issue. So, understanding what these processes mean can help you lobby your MP more effectively.
There are many opportunities for MPs and Senators to speak about various issues in parliament. Here are some of the types speeches that an MP or Senator can make.
Soon after an MP or Senator is elected to parliament, they will have the opportunity to make their first speech. This is an important occasion and is usually attended by the MP or Senator’s family and friends.
A first speech gives MPs and Senators the opportunity to introduce themselves to parliament and talk about the issues which are most important to them. It also gives them an opportunity to acknowledge and thank those who helped them in their election campaign.
Because of the insight that a first speech can give into the character, background, interests and passions of MPs and Senators, all individual profiles of MPs and Senators on the Parliament House website contain links to their first speeches. You can access the profile and first speech of each federal MP and Senator.
Matters of public importance or urgency
At a certain time each day, there is an opportunity to debate any issue which is considered to be of public importance or urgency. These debates extend for one to one and a half hours.
A proposal to debate a matter of public importance or urgency is usually initiated by one MP or Senator, who must write to the Speaker of the House of Representatives or the President of the Senate on the morning of the proposed debate. When the proposal is brought on for debate in the afternoon, it must be supported by at least eight MPs in the House of Representatives or at least five Senators in the Senate.
A matter of public importance is simply a matter which is debated without any vote being taken by the House of Parliament, whereas a matter of urgency involves both a debate and a vote.
Statements by Members
Each Monday on which the House of Representatives sits, 15 minutes is set aside for individual MPs to make a statement on any issue. Each statement is limited to one and a half minutes.
Also on Mondays, the House of Representatives sets aside one hour and 20 minutes for any MP to raise a grievance, which is simply an expression of their concern about a particular issue. During this time, individual MPs may speak for ten minutes only.
Matters of public interest
Each Wednesday on which the Senate sits, one and a half hours is set aside for Senators to speak on any matter of public interest. Each Senator may speak for 15 minutes.
An adjournment speech gives an MP or Senators an opportunity to speak for 20 minutes on a topic of their choosing as the proceedings of the House of Representatives or Senate come to close at the end of the day.
Speeches relating to a Bill
MPs or Senators can make speeches on Bills being considered by the parliament. For more information see The low-down on law-making.
Most of us have at some time in our lives seen a snippet of question time during the nightly news. It is without a doubt the most raucous – and often the most entertaining – part of any parliamentary sitting day. This is when MPs and Senators revel in the theatre of parliament and put on a show for the television cameras.Question time is the name commonly used to refer to the hour set aside each day for MPs and Senators to ask Ministers and their representatives ‘questions without notice’. This simply means that the Minister is not given any advance notice of the question to be asked.
Both government and non-government MPs and Senators have the opportunity to ask questions. Questions asked by members of the government are prearranged between the parliamentarian asking the question and the Minister answering it. These questions are designed to give Ministers the opportunity to publicise the success of government initiatives and programs, or to criticise the policies of the opposition. They are commonly referred to as ‘Dorothy Dixers’ in reference to the 19th century advice columnist Dorothy Dix who wrote many of the questions for her own ‘Dear Dorothy’ column.
In contrast, questions asked by the opposition, minor parties or independents are designed primarily to try to elicit information or explanations from the government and, frequently, to embarrass the government or make a point about its handling of a certain issue. Questions about the way individuals or organisations have been treated by government departments and agencies are also common.
Questions with notice
In-depth questions to a Minister, which are likely to take a while to answer because the Minister needs to obtain further information from his or her department, can be lodged in writing in each house of parliament. Such questions are called ‘questions on notice’. Ministers are expected to provide written answers within 30 days.
All MPs and Senators have the power to move motions. A motion is simply a proposal for the House to formally express its view, state its position and call for action on a certain issue.
An MP or Senator must give at least one day’s prior notice to the House before moving a motion. They do this by lodging a notice of motion. This gives other MPs and Senators some time to consider the motion before they are required to vote on it.
A motion can range in length from a single sentence to a couple of pages and can deal with issues as diverse as World AIDS Day, whether the Australian cricket team should play matches in Zimbabwe, paid maternity leave, or expressing disapproval regarding the conduct of a particular Minister.
If a motion is passed, it becomes a resolution of the house of parliament and is often communicated more broadly outside of parliament. For example, a motion expressing concern about human rights abuse in a particular country may be sent to the Ambassador of that country.
Individuals or organisations can seek to draw the attention of parliament to a particular issue by asking an MP or Senator to lodge a petition on their behalf. A petition can be a good way of letting parliamentarians know how members of the community feel about a particular issue. Petitions can also call on the parliament to take, or not take, certain action.
What is not commonly understood is that there are strict format requirements which petitions must comply with in order to be tabled in parliament. Some groups go to the effort of collecting thousands of signatures on a petition only to discover that it cannot be tabled in parliament because it is not in the correct format.
The parliament has developed a complex committee system for examining issues which require more extensive investigation and discussion than can occur during parliamentary debate.
Committee inquiries also provide a unique opportunity for the parliament to hear directly from experts, academics, representative groups, organisations and individuals who may be interested in or affected by a particular issue. Committee inquiries are usually publicly advertised and will accept submissions from members of the public. If the committee would like to hear further from a particular organisation or individual that has made a submission, the committee can ask them to provide evidence at a public hearing.
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have their own committees on a range of issues and there are also a number of joint committees, which have members from both houses of parliament. In addition, there are two types of committees: standing committees which are ongoing committees that conduct a range of inquiries in a particular area of policy (for example, the Joint Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee), and select committees which are established to conduct a particular inquiry and cease to exist after the inquiry is completed (for example, the Senate Select Committee on a New Tax System).
A number of committees play an important role in scrutinising the provisions of Bills before the parliament and enabling community feedback on those Bills. A specific Bill can be referred to a committee for ‘inquiry and report’, meaning the committee will conduct an inquiry on the likely impact of a Bill and then report back to parliament. Based on the evidence it has heard, the committee may recommend that certain changes be made to the Bill, however, there is no requirement for parliament to implement the recommendations of the committee.
Senate Committees also play an important role through the process of ‘Budget Estimates’. This process enables Senators from all parties to question Ministers and government departments about the ways in which government funds are being spent. In practice, however, Budget Estimates enable questioning on any aspect of government administration.
Budget Estimates hearings are conducted over a two-week period in May, with additional week-long Estimates hearings in February and November.
Existing committees are used to facilitate this process. So, for example, questioning of the Attorney-General’s department, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, the High Court of Australia and other federal courts will be conducted through the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee.
All parliamentary speeches, debates, questions, motions, petitions and committee proceedings are recorded in a publicly-available record called ‘Hansard’. Looking through Hansard is a great way to find out what your MP or Senator has been saying in parliament. The record of each day’s proceedings in parliament is available on the internet the following morning.
To access parliamentary Hansard, visit the Hansard site.