Information Sheet 2 - The President
The President is chosen by fellow Members of the Legislative Council to act as their presiding officer. It is the President's foremost responsibility to guide the House's deliberations by maintaining order and ensuring that votes and proceedings are conducted in accordance with parliamentary rules and conventions. While performing these functions, the President occupies a Chair above the floor of the House facing Members on either side of the Chamber. This elevated position reflects the President's standing as the Legislative Council's principal office-holder. The President's responsibilities also encompass ceremonial, representative and administrative functions.
The British inheritance
Victoria's parliament, like other Federal and State legislatures in Australia, was modelled on the British or Westminster parliamentary system. Like Westminster, Victoria established two houses of parliament, an Upper (Legislative Council) and Lower (Legislative Assembly) House. However, there have always been major differences in the powers and composition of the Legislative Council and Britain's Upper House, the House of Lords, including the role and responsibilities of the respective presiding officers.
Until 2006, the House of Lords' presiding officer, the Lord Chancellor, was a senior Government Minister and therefore active in party politics. He participated in debates and votes in the House, and was not automatically provided with the power to maintain order or to act as the Lords' representative.1 This contrasted with the Speakership in Britain's Lower House, the House of Commons, which had assumed considerable power and political independence. With the passing of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, a reformed role was created in the House of Lords, Lord Speaker, which assumed some of the Lord Chancellor responsibilities including chairing debates in the chamber and speaking for the House on ceremonial occasions. In contrast to the Lord Chancellor position, the Lord Speaker is independent of the government, is elected by the Members of the House of Lords and does not vote on proceedings in the House.
Although the British Speakership's origins can be traced at least as far back as the fourteenth century, it was not until the nineteenth century that the office gradually assumed the impartial, politically detached characteristics for which it is now famous. The principal features of this 'modern' British Speakership include:
- once elected to the Chair, the Speaker resigns from his/her party and relinquishes further political ambitions;
- the Speaker does not participate in debates and divisions when the House is in Committee;
- the House always re-elects an incumbent Speaker even if his/her former party is no longer in Government; and
- the Chair contests his/her seat at general elections as the Speaker seeking re-election, not as a party person, and is normally not opposed by candidates from the major parties.
Although Presidents of Victoria's Legislative Council (and Speakers of the Legislative Assembly) are not, and have never been, as removed from party politics as British Speakers, their role continues to be influenced by the independent traditions of their Westminster counterpart.
The President's impartiality
The President must exercise a significant degree of political impartiality in order to gain the confidence and co-operation of both sides of the House. Nevertheless, Presidents are normally party members and can attend parliamentary party meetings. Unlike Speakers in the House of Commons, they do not enjoy any form of immunity from a contest when seeking re-election to their seat and, therefore, must conduct a partisan, political campaign.
The reasons why Presidents, and Australian presiding officers in general, are not as politically independent as British Speakers are complex but are thought to have much to do with the development of Australian politics and parliaments in the nineteenth century. For example, early Victorian parliamentarians were not particularly well-versed in Westminster parliamentary practice and may have been unaware of the emergence of an independent Speakership in Britain. In addition, the British Speakership's independent traditions were still in their infancy when the Parliament of Victoria first met in 1856.2
Despite the office not having adopted all of the features of the British system, Presidents of the Legislative Council have exercised considerable independence over the years. Indeed, some have put parliamentary principle before political affiliation. A prominent example was President Sir Clifden Eager, who reportedly lost party pre-selection for his seat in 1952 due to his failure the previous year to resign the Presidency and join Liberal and Country Party colleagues on the floor of the House to vote against the Greater Melbourne Council Bill. He subsequently won back his seat as an unendorsed candidate and was re-elected President after being nominated by the Labor Party.
In 1987, President Rod MacKenzie voted with the Opposition, and against Labor Party colleagues, to help defeat a Bill to reform the Upper House. Facing expulsion from the ALP, he resigned party membership and presided over the House as an independent until the following year.
The President's attire
While the office of President is modelled on Westminster, in Victoria there has been a shift towards a less formal dress code. Traditionally on full ceremonial occasions the President, like the Speaker in the House of Commons, wore Windsor Court Uniform, consisting of a long coat, waist coat, knee breeches, silk stockings, ecclesiastical shoes with silver buckles, white gloves, lace jabot and ruffles, winged collar, full bottomed wig, three cornered hat, and barrister’s bib and gown. At other times, the President wore a winged collar, full bottomed wig, and barrister’s bib and gown over dark pants.
The first change to the everyday outfit occurred in the 1990s when Presidents began to wear the full bottomed wig and barrister’s bib and gown over a dark suit.
The most recent change occurred in the 2000s when the President dispensed with the full bottomed wig and barrister’s bib and gown. The first President to be attired without these symbols of office was Monica Gould.
Windsor Court Uniform is no longer worn by the President, even at ceremonial occasions. The last occasion it was worn was by the Honourable Bruce Chamberlain at the Opening of Parliament in 1999.
Electing a President
The election of the President is governed by the Legislative Council's Standing Orders. Under amendments to the Council’s Standing Orders which came into effect from the commencement of the 56th Parliament in 2006, a new President must be elected following each general election. Previously a new President was only elected whenever the office of President became vacant (i.e. on retirement, resignation, death or after the President's term of office as a Member has expired).
To elect a President, the Clerk calls for nominations, whereupon a Member shall address the Clerk and propose a candidate to be President. If only one Member is proposed and seconded, the Member is taken out of their place by the proposer and seconder and conducted to the President's Chair.
If more than one Member is proposed, an open vote is held. The open vote requires the Clerk to announce the name of each candidate in turn and ask Members who support the candidate to stand in their place. All Members in the Chamber must vote, but are only entitled to vote once. The candidate with the most votes is elected President.
Previously, the President was elected by division with the Clerk putting the questions to the House in the order in which nominations had been made until such time as a candidate was elected. This was uncommon amongst Australian legislatures which usually elected their presiding officers through a secret ballot.3 (A secret ballot enhances each Member's ability to vote independently of party controls). Nevertheless, contested elections have been rare in Victoria's Legislative Council — on only two occasions out of twenty one has a President's initial election to the Chair been marked by a contest (in 1988 and 2014).
The President, the Honourable Nazih Elasmar
The Hon. Nazih Elasmar is the current President. He was elected in June 2020. Prior to his election there had been twenty-one Presidents of the Legislative Council. Thirteen of the twenty-one Presidents (62%) had Ministerial experience before assuming the Chair. In the past, the President's election has reflected the influence of rural, propertied, wealthy interests which dominated the House, particularly prior to significant reform of voter and candidature criteria in the early 1950s. Thus, virtually all Presidents until the 1970s came from a pastoralist, business or legal background and seven of the twenty Presidents (35%) have represented provinces in South-Western rural Victoria.
The first, and only woman to be elected President of Victoria's Legislative Council was Monica Gould.
Only five members of the Australian Labor Party have assumed the office of President of Victoria's Legislative Council: Rod Mackenzie (July 1985-October 1988); Monica Gould (February 2003-December 2006); Robert Smith (December 2006-December 2010), Shaun Leane (December 2018-June 2020) and the current President, Nazih Elasmar (June 2020-current).
The President's roles
(a) Presiding role
The President's most important and public duties are in the Chair when acting as the House's presiding officer. Aside from the demanding tasks of maintaining order and applying or interpreting the House's rules, the President's responsibilities include:
- reading the Lord's Prayer and making an acknowledgement of Country at the commencement of each sitting day;
- allocating the call during debate and Question Time;
- proposing questions for the House's consideration;
- determining by the voices whether the 'Ayes' or 'Noes' are in the majority; and
- receiving and signing any official communications involving the Legislative Council (for example, Messages from or to the Legislative Assembly regarding the passage of Bills and other resolutions).
As the President has duties in addition to a presiding role, s/he is not always present in the Chamber. On those occasions, the Chair is taken by the Deputy President or an Acting President. The Deputy President (or an Acting President) also presides when the Legislative Council resolves itself into Committee of the whole House to consider the detail of proposed legislation.
Major sources of the President's procedural authority are the House's Standing (permanent) and Sessional (applicable to the current Session) Orders, of which there are well over 300. Many of these prescribe procedures which the President is bound to follow in particular circumstances. For instance, Standing Order 4.03(1) states that if, after summoning Members by ringing the bells, the President establishes that a quorum (one-third of the Council's Members) is not present in the Chamber, the President must adjourn the Council until the next sitting day.
There are also many Standing Orders which provide the President with considerable flexibility and opportunities to exercise discretion. When exercising discretionary power and interpreting Standing Orders, Presidents are guided by the decisions of their predecessors in the Chair whose rulings have created precedents. In cases where the Legislative Council's rules and precedents do not cover a procedural issue, Presidents are guided by parliamentary practice and conventions in the British House of Commons.
Presidents also possess informal powers to influence parliamentary processes. These powers are based on the presiding officer's capacity, as the House's principal officer, to offer procedural advice and, sometimes, to seek to initiate reform of certain practices. For example, a succession of Presidents have been staunch defenders of the Upper House's rights and advocates of further development of the committee system. Former President, Bruce Chamberlain, successfully urged for the introduction of a public right of reply (to be published in Hansard) for members of the public who believe they have been defamed in Parliament.
Prior to amendments to the Constitution (Parliamentary Reform) Act 2003, which came into effect from the commencement of the 56th Parliament, the President only voted in a Division if the number of votes on the question before the House was equal, at which time the President exercised a casting vote. The Presiding Officer no longer holds a casting vote but exercises a normal deliberative vote like other Members of the Legislative Council. This means that the Presiding Officer must vote each time a division is called; however, to cast their vote they need only advise the Council whether they are voting with the “Ayes” or the “Noes” and do not have to move to one side of the Chamber.
(b) Ceremonial role
The President's ceremonial role is closely associated with the House's relationship with the Crown's representative, the Governor. Whenever a President is elected, that person presents him/herself to the Governor to advise that s/he is the Legislative Council's choice and subsequently informs the House of the Governor's reply. When a new Parliament first meets, the President is formally presented with a copy of the Governor's Speech (which outlines the Government's policies and proposed legislation) and reports the contents to the House. At a later date, when debate on the Governor's speech has concluded, the President presents the Address in Reply to the Governor and, once again, advises the Council of the Governor's response.
(c) Representational role
The President fulfils a representational role on several levels. Not only is the President the Legislative Council's representative but, depending on the circumstances, s/he may also represent the interests of the State of Victoria and the Commonwealth of Australia. This occurs via many official contacts with overseas visitors, including members of parliamentary delegations, diplomats, ambassadors and high commissioners. In addition, the President attends conferences overseas, including those of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and regional meetings of presiding officers and clerks. It is not unusual in this situation for the President to be briefed beforehand by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in order that matters of trade and investment can be raised alongside an exchange of views on parliamentary affairs. Such activities can be some of the more satisfying aspects of a presiding officer's activities.
(d) Administrative role
The President, with the Speaker, oversees the parliamentary administration, building and the joint investigatory committees. The President also oversees the administration of any Legislative Council select or standing committees and chairs the House’s Procedure Committee. This administrative role involves the President in issues such as:
- Parliament's budgetary needs;
- the allocation of office accommodation to Members, Members' staff and parliamentary officers;
- security; and
- the provision of information to the public.
In performing these duties, the President receives advice from officers of the Parliament, particularly the Clerk of the Legislative Council who, as Departmental Head, has overall responsibility for the Council's financing, staffing and administration.
PRESIDENTS OF THE LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL
|Name||Province / Region (while President)||Term of office|
|Sir James Palmer||Western||Nov. 1856 - Oct. 1870|
|Sir William Mitchell*||North Western||Oct. 1870 - Nov. 1884|
|Sir James MacBain *||Central (later South Yarra)||Nov. 1884 - Nov. 1892|
|Sir William Zeal||North Western||Nov. 1892 - May 1901|
|Sir Henry Wrixon||South Western||June 1901 - June 1910|
|Sir John Davies||Melbourne||July 1910 - June 1919|
|Sir Walter Manifold||Western||July 1919 - Aug. 1923|
|Sir Francis Clarke||Northern, Melbourne South||Aug. 1923 - June 1943|
|Sir Clifden Eager||East Yarra||June 1943 - June 1958|
|Sir Gordon McArthur*||South Western||July 1958 - Aug. 1965|
|Sir Ronald Mack*||Western||Sept. 1965 - Feb. 1968|
|Sir Raymond Garrett||Southern, Templestowe||Feb. 1968 - June 1976|
|Sir William Fry||Higinbotham||June 1976 - July 1979|
|Frederick Grimwade||Central Highlands||July 1979 - July 1985|
|Roderick Mackenzie#||Geelong||July 1985 - Oct. 1988|
|Alan Hunt||South Eastern||Oct. 1988 - Oct. 1992|
|Bruce Chamberlain||Western||Oct. 1992 - Feb. 2003|
|Monica Gould#||Doutta Galla||Feb. 2003 - Dec. 2006|
|Robert Smith#||South Eastern Metropolitan Region||Dec. 2006 - Dec. 2010|
|Bruce Atkinson||Eastern Metropolitan||Dec. 2010 - Dec. 2018|
||Eastern Metropolitan||Dec. 2018 - June 2020|
|Nazih Elasmar#||Northern Metropolitan||June 2020 - current|
* Died in office
# Only Labor Party Members to have been elected President
2 For further details see Geoffrey Bolton, 'The Choice of the Speaker in Australian Parliaments', in C.A. Hughes, ed., Readings in Australian Government, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1968.
Prepared by: Table Office
Department of the Legislative Council
Parliament of Victoria
- Created: Friday, 05 March 2010 09:44
- Last Updated: Monday, 14 September 2020 11:30