Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives

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Speaker of the House of Representatives
Speaker's chair, House of Representatives, Canberra.jpg
The Speaker's chair in the House of Representatives
Incumbent
Tony Smith

since 10 August 2015
StyleThe Honourable
(Diplomatic)
Madam/Mister Speaker
(within the House)
AppointerElected by the House of Representatives
Inaugural holderSir Frederick Holder, KCMG
9 May 1901
FormationConstitution of Australia
9 July 1900


The Speaker of the House of Representatives is the person in charge of the House of Representatives, the lower house of the Parliament of Australia. The person in charge of the upper house is the President of the Senate.

The current Speaker is Tony Smith. There have been three female Speakers, Joan Child, Anna Burke and Bronwyn Bishop.

The office of Speaker was created by section 35 of the Constitution of Australia. The role of Speaker was copied from the House of Commons of the United Kingdom.

Election[change | change source]

The Speaker is elected by the House of Representatives in a secret ballot. The Clerk of the Australian House of Representatives holds the election. There must always be a Speaker, and if the position becomes vacant, then an election must take place before the Parliament can do anything else.

In Australia the Speaker generally remains an active member of their party. They continue to attend party meetings, and at general elections they stand as party candidates. However, Sir Frederick Holder and Peter Slipper, resigned from their parties and sat as independents.

The Speaker can be opposed at a general election. Three Speakers, Groom in 1929, Nairn in 1943 and Aston in 1972 have been defeated at general elections. Because the Speaker is always a member of the governing party, they have not continued as Speaker following a change of government. The Opposition sometimes selects one of its own members for Speaker after a general election. This is a symbolic act, and the governing party always supports its own candidates.

Speakers do not have to resign from Parliament at the end of their term. Two Speakers, Makin and Scholes, have become Cabinet ministers after having been Speaker.

Most Speakers have been long serving party members. Four Speakers have been former government ministers Watt, Groom, Cameron and Sinclair. Martin had been a former Parliamentary Secretary. Snedden had been both a former minister and Leader of the Opposition. Holder and Watt were former state premiers.

Origin[change | change source]

The name "Speaker" comes from early times in the United Kingdom House of Commons. "Mr Speaker" was the Member of Parliament chosen to speak for them to the King. The first recorded use of the term "Speaker" was in 1377. In earlier times when the King was very powerful, he would usually only call the Parliament together in order to get it to agree to new taxes. The Speaker would report parliament decisions to the King. This was dangerous if it was not what the King wanted to hear. It was not uncommon for early speakers of parliament to be beheaded, with another being "murdered". This has led to the modern symbolic show of refusal by a Member on being elected Speaker. In early days a Member’s struggle to avoid being forced into the Chair could have been completely genuine. In Australia the tradition is continued by the act of the new Speaker being escorted to the Chair.[1]

Role[change | change source]

The Speaker's main duty is to be the person in charge of the House. The Speaker is helped by two Deputy Speakers and a group of Acting Speakers. The second Deputy Speaker is elected from an opposition party. These often take charge during routine debates. The Speaker's role is to:

  • keep order in the House
  • uphold the Standing Orders (rules of procedure)
  • rule on points of order
  • protect the rights of backbench members.
  • be in charge of Parliament House, with the President of the Senate.

Australian parliaments can be very noisy and often members behave badly. The Speaker has powers to control their behaviour as part of the Standing Orders. The Speaker can tell a Member to leave the House for one hour. For more serious offences, the Speaker may "name" a Member. The Speaker will say "I name the Honourable Member for X." In Parliament Members are always called by the name of their electorate. The House then votes on a motion to remove the Member for 24 hours. The House also had the power to permanently expel a Member. This happened once to Hugh Mahon in 1920. In 1987 a new law was passed and Members can no longer be expelled from the Parliament.[2]

Impartiality[change | change source]

Australian Speakers are supposed to be impartial; they are meant to be fair and not to take sides in arguments. They do not take part in debates and they do not usually vote, unless in a rare case the vote is tied. They do not speak out in public about party politics except as part of their own election campaign.

Although not an active political position, the Speakers see it as part of their duty to get the Government's legislation passed through the House. They usually agree with the Government on points of order brought up by Opposition members. If the members are unhappy with the Speaker they can try to pass motions of dissent, or even of no confidence. These are nearly always defeated as members vote to support their party.

There have been several famous clashes between Speakers and the government.

  • In 1929 Speaker Sir Littleton Groom would not come come into the House and vote. His vote would have saved the Bruce government from defeat. 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 Jim Cope when he named government minister Clyde Cameron. Normally the minister would have been suspended. The Speaker resigned on the spot. This is the only occasion on which a Government failed to support a Speaker after a Member had been named.[3]
  • In 1982 Speaker Sir Billy Snedden refused to make Bob Hawke take back his claim 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.

In 2011, the Speaker Harry Jenkins survived after the House did not support his decision to name Liberal MP Bob Baldwin. The Government moved that Baldwin be suspended, but he was supported by the Coalition, independent MP Rob Oakeshott and WA Nationals MP Tony Crook. The vote on suspending Baldwin for 24 hours failed 71–72. Normally the Speaker would have resigned, but the House of Representatives immediately approved a motion of confidence in the Speaker which was passed. Speaker Jenkins continued in office.[4][5][6][7]

Independent and non-government speakers[change | change source]

There have been Speakers who were not members of the government. Former LNP member Peter Slipper became an independent when the Labor Government offered him the job in 2011. Frederick Holder was elected for the Free Trade Party at the first federal election in 1901. He resigned from the party and was an independent speaker until his death in 1909. After the 1940 election, the United Australia Party's Walter Nairn was speaker during the John Curtin's Labor government that was formed in 1941. Opposition MP Carty Salmon was the speaker for Andrew Fisher's Labor government after the 1910 election. At the 1913 election, Labor's Charles McDonald was asked to remain as speaker by the incoming one-seat-majority Commonwealth Liberal Party. He refused but became speaker again after Labor won the 1914 election. McDonald stayed in the job even when the Nationalist Party took government.[8][9]

Benefits[change | change source]

George Mackay as Speaker (1932–1934), wearing the full traditional dress.

A Member who is elected Speaker is given the title 'The Honourable'. With the approval of the Sovereign, this title can be used for life. It is usually only given to those who have served as Speaker for three years or more. Harry Jenkins, was the first Speaker to ask that "The Hon." not be used for him.

Copying the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, the traditional dress of the speaker is a Court dress. This can include a black silk gown (similar to a Queen's Counsel gown), a wing collar and a lace jabot or bands (another variation included a white bow tie with a lace jabot), bar jacket, and a full-bottomed wig. The wig used by the speaker was donated by Herbert 'Doc' Evatt when he was elected to the House in 1951. He had worn the wig when he was a High Court Justice (1930–1940). The wig is currently on loan from the speaker's office to the Museum of Australian Democracy.[10] On formal occasions they may also wear court shoes and hose. The dress of Speakers has often changes according to the party in power, but it is the personal choice of the Speaker. All Labor party Speakers have worn business suits, following the example set by their first Speaker, Charles McDonald.

The Speaker, currently, no longer wears the full traditional dress. Billy Snedden (1976–1983) was the last Speaker to do so. The Labor practice resumed from 1983 until the election of the Howard Government in 1996. The new Speaker Bob Halverson chose to wear the court dress of the Speaker upon his election in April 1996, but without the wig.[11] Speaker Ian Sinclair chose wore normal business dress during his brief term in 1998. However Speakers Andrew and Hawker brought back the wearing of the silk gown. Speaker Jenkins resumed Labor practice from 2007 until the election of Peter Slipper in late 2011. Speaker Slipper wore traditional dress with a white long tie or bow tie.[10] He wore a wing collar with white bow tie and bands on the occasion of his first formal procession into parliament.[12] Speaker Burke returned to the Labor practice of wearing normal business clothes.

List of Speakers[change | change source]

# Name Party State Term start Term end
1 Frederick Holder   Independent South Australia 9 May 1901 23 July 1909
2 Carty Salmon   Commonwealth Liberal Victoria 28 July 1909 19 February 1910
3 Charles McDonald   Labor Queensland 1 July 1910 23 April 1913
4 Elliot Johnson   Commonwealth Liberal New South Wales 9 July 1913 30 July 1914
3 Charles McDonald   Labor Queensland 8 October 1914 26 March 1917
4 Elliot Johnson   Nationalist New South Wales 14 June 1917 6 November 1922
5 William Watt   Nationalist Victoria 28 February 1923 3 October 1925
6 Littleton Groom   Nationalist Queensland 13 January 1926 16 September 1929
7 Norman Makin   Labor South Australia 20 November 1929 27 November 1931
8 George Mackay   United Australia Queensland 17 February 1932 7 August 1934
9 George Bell   United Australia Tasmania 23 October 1934 27 August 1940
10 Walter Nairn   United Australia Western Australia 20 November 1940 21 June 1943
11 Sol Rosevear   Labor New South Wales 22 June 1943 31 October 1949
12 Archie Cameron   Liberal South Australia 22 February 1950 9 August 1956
13 John McLeay   Liberal South Australia 29 August 1956 31 October 1966
14 William Aston   Liberal New South Wales 21 February 1967 2 November 1972
15 Jim Cope   Labor New South Wales 27 February 1973 27 February 1975
16 Gordon Scholes   Labor Victoria 27 February 1975 11 November 1975
17 Billy Snedden   Liberal Victoria 17 February 1976 4 February 1983
18 Harry Jenkins Sr.   Labor Victoria 21 April 1983 20 December 1985
19 Joan Child   Labor Victoria 11 February 1986 28 August 1989
20 Leo McLeay   Labor New South Wales 29 August 1989 8 February 1993
21 Stephen Martin   Labor New South Wales 4 May 1993 29 January 1996
22 Bob Halverson   Liberal Victoria 30 April 1996 3 March 1998
23 Ian Sinclair   National New South Wales 4 March 1998 31 August 1998
24 Neil Andrew   Liberal South Australia 10 November 1998 31 August 2004
25 David Hawker   Liberal Victoria 16 November 2004 17 October 2007
26 Harry Jenkins Jr.   Labor Victoria 12 February 2008 24 November 2011
27 Peter Slipper   Independent Queensland 24 November 2011 9 October 2012
28 Anna Burke   Labor Victoria 9 October 2012 12 November 2013
29 Bronwyn Bishop   Liberal New South Wales 12 November 2013 2 August 2015
30 Tony Smith   Liberal Victoria 10 August 2015 Incumbent

References[change | change source]

  1. Speaker of the House of Representatives, second edition: APH
  2. Scaleplus
  3. Ian Harris, Clerk of the House of Representatives (ed.). "The Speaker, Deputy Speaker, and officers". House of Representatives Practice (PDF). Australian House of Representatives. p. 197. Retrieved 22 May 2011.
  4. Commonwealth, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 31 May 2011, 5286–86.
  5. Shanahan, Dennis (1 June 2011). "Oakeshott nearly brings down the house". The Australian. Retrieved 8 June 2011.
  6. "Coalition takes credit for saving Speaker". ABC News. 1 June 2011. Retrieved 8 June 2011.
  7. Osbourne, Paul (31 May 2011). "Abbott averts Speaker crisis". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 8 June 2011.
  8. "Appendix 2 Speakers of the House of Representatives". House of Representatives Practice Fifth Edition. Parliament of Australia. Retrieved 26 November 2011.
  9. Megalogenis, George (25 November 2011). "Rats prepared to ditch their parties to survive". The Australian. Retrieved 26 November 2011.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Miller, Barbara (8 February 2012). "Pomp-seeker Slipper told to get on with job". ABC News. Retrieved 9 February 2012.
  11. Commonwealth Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 30 April 1996, 7.
  12. Griffiths, Emma (14 February 2012). "New procession ushers in Slipper era". ABC News. Retrieved 14 February 2012.