Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives

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The Speaker's chair in the House of Representatives
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The Speaker's chair in the House of Representatives

The Speaker of the House of Representatives is the presiding officer of the House of Representatives, the lower house of the Parliament of Australia. The other presiding officer is the President of the Senate.

The office of Speaker is not created by the Constitution of Australia, but is referred to in the Constitution a number of times. The authors of the Constitution intended that the Australian Parliament should be as nearly as possible a replica of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and it was automatically assumed that the House of Representatives would elect a Speaker.

The Speaker is elected by the House of Representatives in a secret ballot. The first Speaker, Sir Frederick Holder, sat as an independent after his election as Speaker, but since his death in 1908 the Speakership has been a partisan office and the nominee of the government party has always been elected. Unlike the Speaker of the House of Commons in Britain, the Speaker continues to attend party meetings, and at general elections stands as a party candidate. There is no convention in Australia that the Speaker should not be opposed in his or her constituency.

On the other hand, the Speaker is not a political figure like the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. He or she does not take part in debates in the House, does not vote in the House except in the (rare) event of a tied vote, and does not speak in public on party-political issues (except at election time in his or her own constituency). He or she is expected to conduct the business of the House in an impartial manner, and generally does so. The Speaker is assisted by two elected Deputy Speakers, one of whom, by convention, comes from the Opposition party.

The Speaker’s principal duty is to preside over the House, although he is assisted in this by the Deputy Speakers and a panel of Acting Speakers, who usually preside during routine debates. The occupant of the Chair must maintain order in the House, uphold the Standing Orders (rules of procedure) and protect the rights of backbench members. The Speaker, in conjunction with the President of the Senate, also administers Parliament House, Canberra, with the assistance of an administrative staff.

Australian parliaments are notoriously rowdy, and the Speaker frequently exercises the disciplinary powers available under Standing Orders. The Speaker may summarily order a Member to excuse him or herself from the House for one hour. For more serious offences, the Speaker may “name” a Member. The House then votes on a motion to suspend the Member for 24 hours. (The House also has the power to expel a Member, but this has happened only once, in 1920.)

There have been several memorable clashes between Speakers and the governments which caused them to be elected.

  • In 1929 Speaker Sir Littleton Groom declined to come into the House and cast a vote in committee when his vote would have saved the Bruce government from defeat. As a result he was expelled from the Nationalist Party and defeated in his constituency at the subsequent election.
  • In 1975 the Whitlam government refused to support Speaker James Cope when he “named” a government minister for disrespect to the Chair: normally this would have resulted in the minister’s suspension from the House. The Speaker resigned on the spot, although he was under no obligation to do so.
  • In 1982 Speaker Sir Billy Snedden refused to insist that an opposition frontbencher, Bob Hawke, retract an allegation that the Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, was a liar. Snedden stood his ground despite furious demands from government members that Hawke either be made to retract or be “named.”

For more information on Speakers of Houses of Parliament see Speaker

Speakers of the House of Representatives

(This table shows the Speaker’s party, constituency and state in brackets)

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