21 Aug 2022

Shape your own Parliament: The standing orders review

From The House , 7:30 am on 21 August 2022

Every three years, as we near another parliamentary election, MPs begin to ponder tinkering with parliament’s rules -  the Standing Orders.

It’s not a coup in the making, it’s perfectly normal. 

Changes to parliament’s rules are agreed before each election so that no-one involved knows who will be in government when they take effect. That keeps it more even-handed. 

The process actually began a few months ago when the Standing Orders Committee (which looks after these things) asked everyone for ideas about what could be improved. Really, everyone; you and me included.

They're still open to your advice. So how would you shape parliament?

The current editions of Parliament's Standing Orders and Speakers' Rulings sit atop the report recommending changes to the rules.

The current editions of Parliament's Standing Orders and Speakers' Rulings sit atop the report recommending changes to the rules. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Tidying the People's House

The man organising the process is Principal Clerk Gabor Hellyer who as committee clerk will manage the Standing Orders Committee review for 2023. He thinks asking you for advice is a good thing.

“It is ultimately the People’s House, it’s the House of Representatives of the people, and so it’s important that the people get an opportunity to have a say on how parliament works.”

It is worth noting that while submissions often come from people like law professors and parliamentary geeks, you don’t have to be knee-deep in parliamentary process to participate. 

You may have comments on how parliament functions overall, you might have a particular gripe about something that feels unfair, you may even have positive feedback about things you like (or dislike) and want to see more of, or eliminate. That’s all okay.

“It’s an opportunity to make sure that parliament is working as it’s meant to be working,” says Hellyer.

He points out that while the Standing Orders are the main rules for the conduct of parliament’s meetings, they also articulate important principles and include constitutional rules for the exercise of legislative power.

These aren’t just technical rules about debating. They include everything from what MPs should wear, to how to balance the government’s legitimate need to govern with the opposition’s legitimate need to scrutinise government and hold it to account. No pressure.

Shaping parliaments for pain and pleasure

The review is chaired by the speaker and every party in parliament is represented. The convention is that decisions about changes are made by consensus or near-unanimity. That means at least the big parties need to agree.

The review happens pre-election so that it happens at a time when the participants don’t know who will be in government when it comes into effect.

That means they have no idea whether a given rule change will advantage them or advantage their political foes. That stops anyone from trying to screw the scrum to their own advantage. 

Hellyer says: “It does tend to produce an interesting dynamic where there’s genuine negotiation amongst [MPs] that is underpinned by this knowledge that they might be in government or they might be in opposition.”

How to shape your parliament

Public submissions on the review of standing orders have been open for months already and remain open until 16 September, which gives you a few weeks to consider whether you have any feedback to offer on how parliament conducts its business. 

If you want to make a submission you can most easily do that on parliament’s website - via the page for the Standing Orders Committee.

In the audio above from The House I chat with Hellyer about the process: how it works, who is involved and how decisions are made. 

But I also wanted some more specific advice, because for this review I thought it would be instructive to make a submission myself.

I am busy writing a submission on a small area of change that I hope could make watching parliament less like the outcome of a mishap in a time machine. I’m talking about the archaic language that is sometimes used in the chamber. For example I’d love MPs to stop saying such confusing things as “the question is that the part stand part,” or “I move that the question be now put.” 

In the future I will report on the experience of submitting.

The Clerk of the House of Representatives, David Wilson, manning The Table in the House.

The Clerk of the House of Representatives, David Wilson, manning The Table in the House. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Advice on making submissions

For advice on making a submission I went to someone who has been on both sides of a committee, the Clerk of the House of Representatives David Wilson.

His team run parliament’s secretariat, including all the committees, so he knows that side of it submitting, but clerks also always make recommendations to the review of Standing Orders themselves.  

He has good advice on making submissions to any committee. You can hear him above. But in brief his main points on submissions were:

  • Don’t keep readers in suspense. “Up front, identify the issue you want to talk about.”
  • If you have evidence, add it afterwards (after you have outlined the issue). 
  • Submissions don’t have to be about what is wrong, they “can see an opportunity to make something better or something completely new.”
  • “Be really familiar” with your material, so if you speak with a committee you can relax and answer questions.
  • Don’t just read out your written submission! Engage. 
  • “A long submission isn’t necessarily a good one.” When MPs have hundreds to read, being concise is wise.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, admit the knowledge-gap or offer to send follow-up information. 

Changing the language

David Wilson also had some advice about my submission on changing archaic parliamentary language.

He notes that some words and phrases used by parliament (like the phrases I mentioned above) are mandated by parliament’s rules (the Standing Orders) but could easily change; some language is more entrenched by long convention (things like "Bill" and "First Reading"), and a third category could be changed but not easily because they are mandated by legislation.

The first category could easily shift. The second category are much harder. The third category would require changing the laws that require them. That third category include terms like "disallowable instrument" which is a category of "subsidiary instruments" or "secondary legislation". At least I think they are - they sound more like tools of torture.

Thankfully I understand that there is already an ongoing project to reform the byzantine world of secondary legislation. Hopefully it will take a torch to the terminology on the way.

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