Information Sheet 19 - Parliamentary Terminology and Customs

Introduction

There are numerous terms and customs associated with Parliament. While some of these are used outside of Parliament, they frequently have a specific, yet not always obvious, meaning in the parliamentary context. This Information Sheet provides a definition of some of the more common terms used and briefly outlines their origins.

Bowing to the Chair

When the House is in session, if Members either pass in front of the Presiding Officer’s Chair or wish to enter or leave the Chamber, as a mark of respect they bow to the occupant of the Chair. Although the practice is drawn from British parliamentary tradition, its origins are uncertain. The most popular theory claims that this practice originated when the House of Commons originally sat in St Stephen’s Chapel – it being customary to bow when entering, leaving or crossing the centre of a church or chapel. It has also been suggested that the practice originated from the days before the Parliament was separated into two Houses and was presided over by the Monarch – it being customary to bow to the Monarch.

Crossing the Floor

Traditionally, this expression has been used to describe the actions of a Member of Parliament who changed their political allegiance. In the Australian context, this term has a slightly different meaning, being used to describe the actions of a Member who votes against their party in a division. Both expressions originate from the Member’s resulting move from their party’s side to the opposite side of the Chamber.

Deliberative and Casting Votes

Traditionally, there are two types of voting used by the House to assist it to make decisions – the ‘deliberative vote’ and the ‘casting vote’. A ‘deliberative vote’ is the normal vote cast by all Members in the Chamber when a question is put. A ‘casting vote’ is exercised by the Presiding Officer in some Houses if a division is tied. Traditionally, the President of the Legislative Council did not have a deliberative vote and only had a casting vote. Due to constitutional reforms, this practice changed from the beginning of the 56th Parliament in December 2006. Since then, the President has no longer had a casting vote but may exercise a deliberative vote.

Dorothy Dixers

These are pre-arranged questions asked of a Minister by a Government backbencher during Question Time. The answer in response provides the Minister with an opportunity to announce positive news for the Government, or to elaborate on the Government’s position in relation to an issue. The origin of this expression comes from the newspaper columnist Dorothy Dix, who published a column with questions ostensibly from readers, which in fact she wrote herself.

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Father of the House (or Senior Member)

This title is given to the Member of the House who has the longest period of continuous service regardless of the electorate they represent. Since the increase in representation by women, this term is now used interchangeably with the term ‘Senior Member’.

‘Gag’ or Closure Motion

The procedural device used to bring debate to a conclusion by forcing the question before the House to a vote without further debate, is referred to as a ‘gag’ or closure motion.  The Legislative Council’s Standing Orders permit any Member to employ this procedural device provided the motion is supported by 6 other Members. Although the frequency with which the closure motion is used by governments varies from one legislature to another, it is used to restrict debate and, in doing so, speed up the House’s business. A criticism of this device is that it can overly limit consideration of the House’s business. 

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Honourable

Under Victoria’s Constitution, this title may be adopted by the President of the Legislative Council, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly and all Members of the Parliament who are Ministers or former Ministers. In the past, this title was given to all Members of the Legislative Council, whether Ministers or not. This changed from the commencement of the 56th Parliament in December 2006, following constitutional reforms passed in 2003.

Inaugural, ‘Maiden’ or First Speech

These expressions are used interchangeably to describe the first speech delivered by a Member after being elected to the House for the first time. It is convention in Westminster-style parliaments that the speech avoids controversy and is heard without interruption or interjection. Although, in the United Kingdom, the Member’s speech is normally a tribute to their predecessor, in Australia the practice has developed that Members concentrate on their own special interests or issues within their electorate.

Pairs

This term describes the arrangement to maintain the relative voting strengths of the Government and Opposition when a Member is absent due to unavoidable circumstances. It is an informal arrangement between the parties which involves one Member not voting in a division to compensate for the other Member’s inability to vote.

Point of Order

This is the name given to the formal protest raised by a Member when they believe that proceedings are not in accordance with the House’s rules. When a ‘point of order’ is raised, the business before the House is suspended until a ruling is made by the Chair.

Strangers

This expression refers to anyone who is not a Member, Table Officer or official of the House.

Tellers

This term refers to the Members of the House who are appointed to count the votes in a division. In the Legislative Council four tellers are appointed for each division – two from both the ‘Ayes’ and ‘Noes’, with one of each counting on either side.

The Other Place

This term, along with the term ‘Another Place’, are generally used in bicameral parliaments when a Member from one House wishes to refer to the other House during debate. The origins of these expressions are believed to stem from two British parliamentary practices. It was long held that Members of one House may not make any reference to the proceedings in the other House. (It should be noted that, although this requirement has been somewhat relaxed, it is still a requirement in the Legislative Council’s Standing Orders that no Member will refer to proceedings in the Legislative Assembly in the previous six months of the same parliamentary session.). It is also believed that the use of this expression arose from the ancient friction and hostility between the British House of Lords and House of Commons.

Whips

This term refers to the officer of each party who is responsible for party management and ensuring party members attend divisions, take part in debates and fulfil other duties. Both Government and Opposition

 

Prepared by: Table Office
Department of the Legislative Council
Parliament of Victoria
Reissued March 2011