Fact Sheet H3

Fact Sheet H3: The Clerk

 

Summary: The Clerk is the most senior unelected official in the Legislative Assembly. The title ‘Clerk’ comes from the United Kingdom House of Commons, where it has existed for centuries. The Clerk advises the Speaker and members impartially on parliamentary procedure and manages the Department of the Legislative Assembly. The current Clerk is also Clerk of the Parliaments, a role which has separate responsibilities.

History of the Clerk’s role

Appointment and impartiality of the Clerk

Duties in the Chamber

Duties as Department Head

Deputy and Assistant Clerks

Official dress

History of the Clerk of the Parliaments

Duties of the Clerk of the Parliaments

 

History of the Clerk’s role

Today, ‘clerk’ usually refers to a clerical job, often with responsibility for records or accounts. It does not normally describe a role as senior as the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly. The reasons for the title are steeped in history.

Record keeping in the United Kingdom House of Commons started in 1315, and in 1363, the first Clerk was appointed. Originally, the title ‘Clerk’ referred simply to someone who could read and write. As such skills were not common at the time, they were highly valuable.

The Clerk had to read out bills, petitions and other documents to the members, many of whom could not read. This is where the various stages of bills come from — first, second and third readings — as the Clerk actually read the bills aloud (see Fact Sheet C1: How a Bill becomes Law).

In 1547, the House of Commons clerks also started recording the actions and decisions of the House in a journal. Over the years they increased the detail of their records. Today, responsibility for recording all decisions of the Assembly is still one of the important parts of the Clerk’s duties.

Alongside the tasks originally started centuries ago, the Clerk now has considerable management responsibilities. The role has become highly specialised and, in many ways, more complex.

Appointment and impartiality of the Clerk

The Clerk is appointed by the Governor on the Speaker’s recommendation and must take an oath of office. The oath includes a commitment to carry out the role ‘to the best of my knowledge and ability without fear, favour or affection’.

The wording of the oath reflects the requirement that the Clerk carries out duties independently. He or she does not have any political affiliations and advises equally and impartially, whatever a member’s political background. In the Chamber, the Clerk advises the Chair on parliamentary procedure but does not rule on any matter, as that is the Chair’s responsibility.

The current Clerk of the Legislative Assembly, Ray Purdey, was appointed Clerk in 1998. In 1999, he also became Clerk of the Parliaments (see below). He is assisted by the Deputy Clerk, Assistant Clerk Committees, and the Assistant Clerk Procedure & Serjeant-at-Arms.

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Duties in the Chamber

The Clerk plays a vital role in the Chamber and sits at the table in front of the Chair. This position allows the Clerk to advise the Chair when necessary and observe everything that happens in the Chamber.

Although the Clerk can be called on to give immediate advice to the Chair, the Clerk also gives a lot of advice outside the Chamber in preparation for the sitting. Ministers and other members ask for advice, which often involves the Clerk preparing drafts, on issues such as motions, procedure and amendments. The Clerk also briefs the Speaker before each sitting day starts.

When giving advice, the Clerk has to consider standing orders (rules), the requirements of the Constitution and other Acts, parliamentary precedents and Speakers’ rulings. Issues can be complex and often must be resolved very quickly.

Apart from giving advice, the Clerk has a number of other specific responsibilities:

• certifying that the Assembly passed a bill in line with correct procedure

• tabling petitions (see Fact Sheet G1: Petitions) and documents (see Fact Sheet F1: Documents tabled in the Assembly)

• ringing the bells for divisions and to obtain a quorum

• asking for the votes during a division and recording the outcome (see Fact Sheet D2: Divisions)

• chairing the election of the Speaker

• recording the actions and decisions of the Legislative Assembly.

Since the late 1990s, the clerks have used laptop computers in the Chamber for recording minutes, drafting and research.

Duties as Department Head

The Clerk manages the Department of the Legislative Assembly under the Speaker’s general oversight. The relationship is similar to a secretary and minister of a government department. The Clerk is the Speaker’s chief policy and corporate management adviser.

Approximately 55 people work in the Department of the Legislative Assembly. They provide services, advice and support to the Speaker, committees, members, the public and government departments.

The Clerk also works with the heads of the Department of the Legislative Council and the Department of Parliamentary Services on Parliament’s strategic operations and policies.

Deputy and Assistant Clerks

Other senior managers in the Department are the Deputy Clerk, Assistant Clerk Committees, and the Assistant Clerk Procedure & Serjeant-at-Arms.

In the Chamber, the Deputy Clerk and Assistant Clerk Committees sit at the table with the Clerk and also give advice on parliamentary procedure. The Deputy Clerk oversees the day-to-day operations of the Department. When the Clerk is absent, the Deputy Clerk carries out the Clerk’s duties.

The Assistant Clerk Committees has direct responsibility to the Speaker for the operations of joint committees administered by the Assembly. Apart from responsibilities as Serjeant-at-Arms (see Fact Sheet H4: The Serjeant-at-Arms), the Assistant Clerk Procedure oversees the Department’s tours and community engagement programs.

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Official dress

In the Chamber, the clerks dress in a way that reflects the origins of their roles. In earlier times, they wore full Windsor Court uniform and a wig. The uniform consisted of a long coat with tails, waist coat, knee breeches, wing collared shirt and bow tie, lace jabot, ruffles, black silk stockings, shoes with steel buckles and white gloves.

In the mid-1980s the clerks took a less formal approach. They stopped wearing the Windsor Court uniform except on ceremonial occasions. It was last worn in 2000 and a decision was made in 2003 not to wear it or a wig at all. In its place, the clerks wear black lounge suits and gowns.

History of the Clerk of the Parliaments

The Clerk of the Legislative Assembly has a counterpart in the Legislative Council. Traditionally, the longest serving of the two clerks is also appointed Clerk of the Parliaments.

Again, United Kingdom history plays a part in establishing this role. Originally, court officials worked in Parliament as clerks. One had the specific title 'clerk del Parlement' or 'clericus parliamenti'. That title indicates the role was not a permanent appointment but only for one Parliament.

The plural term 'Clerk of the Parliaments' has been used since the early sixteenth century, in Henry VIII’s reign. It signifies that the Clerk of the Parliaments was then appointed permanently from one Parliament to the next, rather than for a single Parliament. The Clerk of the Parliaments became the administrative link between the King and the Parliament, and took on responsibility for ensuring that all Acts were recorded.

The chief clerk of the House of Lords is still known today as the Clerk of the Parliaments. He or she has responsibility for preparing bills for royal assent by the Queen. This aspect of the role is also part of the duties of the Clerk of the Parliaments appointed in Victoria.

Duties of the Clerk of the Parliaments

The Clerk of the Parliaments in Victoria is responsible for presenting bills to the Governor for royal assent. The Clerk must certify that the bill being presented is exactly the same as the bill both Houses agreed to.

Members have to disclose personal financial interests (see Fact Sheet E2: Members' Code of Conduct). The Clerk of the Parliaments keeps a register of those interests and updates it regularly.

Finally, the Clerk is also Honorary Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA). The CPA is a professional organisation for members of parliaments throughout the Commonwealth countries.

The CPA provides opportunities for members to interact with fellow parliamentarians in a number of different forums, including seminars, conferences and parliamentary visits. Arrangements are made via the Secretary, who is also a contact for CPA members visiting Victoria.

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