How Parliament Works

Parliament House - More than the Chambers
Obviously the best known parts of Parliament - and the reason for its existence - are the Houses and their debating Chambers. New South Wales is a bicameral parliament (consisting of two houses). New South Wales' two houses - the Legislative Council (or Upper House) and Legislative Assembly (or Lower House) consist of Members of Parliament directly elected by the citizens of the state.

However, the building is a complex, really of several buildings, some parts of major heritage importance, other parts of which are more contemporary. Most of the public area is close to the historic Macquarie Street facade. Apart from the two Chambers and their heritage foyer areas, there is also the 1816 Rum Hospital which makes up the central colonnaded section of the Macquarie Street frontage, and the Jubilee Room - the former Parliamentary Library reading room - now used for committee meetings and many public functions. Additions to the public areas from the 1970s include the Fountain Court, with its central fountain by Robert Woodward, and a 175 seat Theatrette directly below. The public area also has a small post office.

Beyond the public areas, a 12-storey building includes dining facilities, Members' and other staff offices, the Parliamentary Library, more meeting rooms, a fitness area, car parking and service areas. Parliamentary staff occupy part of this area (see People in Parliament). There is also a roof garden above the Fountain Court area, sometimes used for functions.

Not so visible are the modern office systems and technology which any contemporary organisation requires. Even the designers of the newer sections of Parliament House in the 1970s could have no concept of the hundreds of personal computers and ancillary equipment; copiers, fax machines and printing technology; servers and extensive networks connected not only by kilometres of cabling within the building but by phone and data networks to all 93 electorate offices across the state.

The building's plant also includes a major power co-generation unit which supplies energy not only to Parliament House but also to the adjoining Sydney Hospital and State Library.

People in Parliament
The people in parliament who gain the most attention are, naturally, the elected Members in each House and their leaders. As the representatives of the people, this is appropriate. However, no modern Parliament could operate with Members or Chambers alone. Behind the State's 135 Members of Parliament is a significant number of expert support staff, modern technology and a substantial and extensive building.

Each Member is assisted by one or more support staff located usually in electorate offices in the case of Legislative Assembly Members, or at Parliament House in the case of Legislative Council Members. Ministers, of course, have larger staffs as well as their Departmental staff but none of these are part of the Parliament House establishment.

Having two Houses, the Parliament also has two Presiding Officers - the President of the Legislative Council and the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. Jointly, the two Presiding Officers are the senior elected officers responsible for the administration and operation of the Parliament, not unlike the Ministers are of their various departments and agencies. Each Presiding Officer is assisted by their respective Clerk - the Clerk of the Parliaments (or Legislative Council) and the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly. The Clerks are the permanent heads of the two House administrations, not unlike the Directors or CEOs of Government departments and agencies. They are supported by several Deputy or Assistant Clerks with more specialised roles. Each of the Clerks also sit in the Chambers to provide direct advice to the Presiding Officers and to Members.

These officers also include the Serjeant-at-Arms (Legislative Assembly) and the Usher of the Black Rod (Legislative Council), traditional officers who assist their respective Presiding Officers in and outside of the Chamber in matters of security, ceremony, advice and order.

Each House is supported by its own House Department of expert procedural and administrative staff whose role is to ensure the smooth operation of the Houses, the proper processes and recording of legislation, preparation of business papers and general support for the work of Members.

As a great deal of the work of back bench Members these days is involved with permanent or temporary Parliamentary Committees, the Committees themselves require professional support staff. Committees and their staffs can belong to a single House or jointly to both Houses.

Then there are a series of Joint Services sections which support all Members and the whole of Parliament - the Parliamentary Library, Parliamentary Reporting Staff (Hansard), Food and Beverages, Building Services, Information Technology, Security, Education and Community Relations, Archives, Accounts and Printing.

A Sitting Day in a Parliamentary Chamber
The Houses of Parliament do not sit every working day of the year. Ministers and Members have full roles outside sitting times and the business of Parliament does usually not require more than 50-60 sitting days each year.

Annual sittings are divided into two sessions - the Budget Session (from February to early July) and the Spring Session (from September to December).

Most sitting weeks are three days, sometimes four, usually Tuesday to Thursday and often Friday as well.

Sitting hours vary between the two Houses, usually beginning at 2.15pm (2.30 in Legislative Council) on Tuesdays and 10.00am (11.00am in Legislative Council) on other days. Sittings usually end around 10.30 in the evening but will sometimes go beyond this into the early hours of the next day (particularly in the Legislative Council).

Details of sitting day programs are provided for each Chamber but the agenda below gives a generalised view of the routine of a sitting day.

A Typical Sitting Day:
  • Presiding Officer takes the Chair
  • The Prayer
  • Ministerial Statements
  • Notices of Motions
  • Tabling of Papers (eg Departmental Reports)
  • Presentation of Petitions
  • Placing or Disposal of Business (allows Members to withdraw or postpone any item of business they have put up)
  • Tabling of Reports from Parliamentary Committees
  • Question Time
  • Motions for Urgent Consideration
  • Matters of Public Importance
  • Government Business (Legislation)
  • Private Member's Statements (Members may make brief speeches on matters of particular concern to them)
  • Adjournment

Various Procedures and Processes of the Houses
    Bells - Electronic bells sound throughout the Parliament to indicate that the day's proceedings are about to commence or resume; that a division (vote) has been called; or that more Members are required to form a quorum. The Council and Assembly Bells have a different sound and the period of ringing varies, eg usually 4 minutes in the case of a call to a division.

    Divisions and Voting - Most votes in either House are taken "on the voices". Members say "aye" or "no" and the Presiding Officer says which side is in the majority. If a Member disagrees with the Presiding Officer's determination, a division may be called for. Bells are rung, at the end of which the doors to the House are locked and Members present divide, those in favour moving to the side of the Chamber to the right of the Presiding Officer's chair, and those opposing to the left. The Presiding Officer appoints tellers to count on each side and the results are collated by the Clerks and announced by the Presiding Officer. The way Members vote in a division is also recorded in Hansard. This is why Members sometimes call for a division, so that on a controversial issue the way individual Members voted is actually on record.

    The Presiding Officer normally does not vote unless there is the same number of votes for both sides, in which case they have a casting vote.

    Pairs - When Members have approved business that they know will keep them away from the Chamber, the major parties arrange pairs whereby if a Member from one party is absent, then one Member from the other party will also be absent for a division. This is to avoid votes which do not reflect the true state of the parties in the House. However, if a Member is simply late or absent for an unapproved reason, the party simply loses their vote in that division. Missing a vote is not taken kindly by party leaders.

    Tabling of Reports and Papers - Tabling papers is an important method of making information available to the House and the public. Generally, once a paper is tabled in the House it becomes a public document and when ordered to be printed, attracts parliamentary privilege and becomes part of the permanent Parliamentary record. Some papers, for various legal, security or other reasons, may be restricted to Members only.

    Parliamentary Privilege - The Houses of Parliament and the members within them have certain rights which the rest of the community does not always have. These privileges include freedom of speech; control over legislation, discussion and procedures Parliament adopts; and the right to exclude the jurisdiction of the courts.

    For example, a statement may be made under privilege in Parliament by a Member which, if it was made outside the Parliament, could become subject to a defamation action in court. This right to free speech is essential to allowing free and full debate of the matters before Parliament - for example, if discussion about a bill to change an existing law was restricted by that law, then it would not be possible to properly and openly discuss the implications of the proposed new law.

    This does not mean that Members can say whatever they like while in Parliament. Debate is subject to many rules and restraints developed by the Houses themselves over the years and which are enforced by the Presiding Officers. A breach of privilege by a Member can be regarded as contempt of Parliament. The Legislative Council also has a Parliamentary Privileges and Ethics Committee before which such breaches may be put.

    The privileges allowed to the NSW Parliament are only those which common law has established for any similar legislative body.

Question Time
Question Time is one of the most significant parts of the Parliamentary day. This is because almost all the Members are present in the Chamber and topical and challenging questions often arise which may highlight and reveal major issues or problems. Question Time has a theatrical quality which attracts the press and visitors because it can be controversial for the Government. More importantly, it is the clearest demonstration in Parliament of the concept of responsible government under the Westminster system.

Under the Westminster system, Ministers are and remain Members of Parliament and must answer to the Parliament for their actions and the actions of the Government. Question Time, in particular, is the Opposition's opportunity to ask the questions that scrutinise the Government's programs and to receive answers. Inevitably, questions asked of Minsters by the Opposition are intended to reveal something or embarrass the Government, while questions asked by Government backbenchers usually give Ministers the opportunity to highlight something positive in the Government's program. Ministers are required by the rules and conventions to give an answer and one which is neither untruthful nor misleading.

Question Time is usually the most "popular" time of the day for visitors and the Visitors' Galleries are often filled. It is advisable to book ahead for the Legislative Assembly Question Time by phoning the Legislative Assembly Attendants on Sydney 9230 2637.

There are two types of questions asked: Questions Without Notice and Questions On Notice.

      Questions Without Notice - These are the questions asked in Question Time. Ministers do not receive notice of the questions to be asked (at least, not from the Opposition). The rules and times for Question Time vary between the two Houses.

      As the Premier and most Ministers sit in the Legislative Assembly this is where the most interest usually centres in Question Time. The rules of this House require a minimum of ten answers from Ministers with a minimum time of 45 minutes, although it often exceeds this. This is to prevent Ministers giving excessively long answers and using up the available time. Supplementary questions are strictly limited. Question Time begins between 2.15 and 2.30pm and begins with a question from the Opposition to a Government Minister. Members then jump for the Speaker's attention and questions alternate between Government and Opposition with occasional opportunities for the Independents.

      In the Legislative Council there are less Ministers so that the challenge to the Government in Question Time can be less direct. The length of Question Time is at discretion of the Leader of the Government, but is usually an hour. There is no limit to the number of questions other than time and supplementary questions are often allowed. The President rotates question opportunities in the order of Opposition, Cross Bench, Government. Question Time takes place at 4.00pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; and 12.00 mid-day on Thursdays and Fridays.

      Questions On Notice - These are questions asked of Ministers in writing and the answers are also given in writing. They are tabled in the Parliament but are not the subject of any Parliamentary debate in themselves. there is no limit to the number of these questions.

    The Role of Committees
    As the complexity of society increases, the issues with which Parliaments must deal also become more complex. The work of Parliament includes passing legislation, overseeing of the Executive and providing advice on new policy areas. Parliament provides a public forum for debate on important issues facing the community. Across Australia, Parliaments are using committees to help them in their work.

    Parliamentary committees give Members of Parliament and the public a chance to play a part in the formation of public policy. They allow Parliament to scrutinise the Executive more effectively, making it more responsible to the people of NSW. The committee system also gives Members more time to consider the detail of issues and to seek expert advice.

    Members of both Houses of the Parliament of New South Wales can serve on a number of different parliamentary committees. Committees can be established by either House of Parliament or jointly by both.