A single chamber
The Legislative Assembly is a unicameral legislature, which means it only has one chamber or house. Queensland and the Northern Territory also have unicameral parliaments.
Our federal, and most state parliaments, are bicameral. Bicameral parliaments have both:
- an upper house such as the Senate in the Federal Parliament, or a Legislative Council in a state parliament; and
- a lower house such as the House of Representatives in the Federal Parliament, and a Legislative Assembly/ House of Assembly in a state parliament.
Finding a permanent home and building a new chamber
When the Legislative Assembly for the ACT sat for the first time in May 1989, it used the ACT Administration Centre, a rented building at 1 Constitution Avenue in the centre of Canberra. However, it soon became clear this was not a suitable building for the parliament. In 1992, the task of considering new premises for the Assembly was referred to the Standing Committee on Administration and Procedure.
The committee’s report recommended that the redesign and refurbishment of the South Building on London Circuit in the city centre would be a suitable way to accommodate the Assembly and its members. The Assembly agreed with the recommendation, and design work commenced soon after.
The South Building, which was originally constructed in the late 1950s, was adapted for the Assembly by adding a legislative chamber diagonally across the internal courtyard of the building. The chamber was designed by Mitchell, Guirgola and Thorp in 1993 (the same architects who designed the Federal Parliament building) and has a number of contemporary design elements. The Assembly has not adopted the traditional green colour scheme of ‘lower’ houses. Instead, the chamber’s furniture is made from Australian timbers and the carpet decoration is based on the Wahlenbergia gloriosa (Royal Bluebell), which is the floral emblem of the ACT. The Assembly first sat in its remodelled South Building premises in April 1994.
The building was extensively refurbished again in 2016 to accommodate the increase in the Assembly’s size from 17 to 25 members. These renovations included the installation of a new central table in the chamber where the Chief Minister, Deputy Chief Minister, Leader of the Opposition, and Deputy Leader of the Opposition sit.
The width of the new desk is 1.9 metres. The customary ‘two swords and one inch’ distance between opposing sides of parliament is from a time when members of the British House of Commons carried swords—thankfully, the resolution of important matters of state are now resolved in more a peaceful way!
The people of the parliament
The Speaker is a member elected by the Assembly to control the proceedings of the chamber. They sit at the head of the chamber at a raised bench. The Speaker presides over all debates, speeches and question time, making sure that the standing orders (rules of conduct) and practices of the Assembly are followed. The Speaker is assisted from time to time by a Deputy Speaker who also is elected by members, and Assistant Speakers who are appointed by the Speaker.
The government sits to the right of the Speaker, while the Opposition sits to the left. Independent members and minor party members sit at the curved benches between the Government and Opposition, called the crossbench.
There are also a number of people who work in the chamber during sittings, but are not elected. They are parliamentary officers, and include the Clerk, the Deputy Clerk (who is also the Serjeant-at-Arms), and chamber attendants.
The Clerk, who sits in the chamber in front of the Speaker, is the most senior permanent official in the Assembly. The Clerk is responsible for the administrative functions, maintains records of the Assembly, provides procedural advice in the chamber, and announces the business before the Assembly.
Deputy Clerk and Serjeant-at-Arms
The Deputy Clerk sits alongside the Clerk, and their responsibilities are similar. At our Legislative Assembly, the Deputy Clerk also holds the role of Serjeant-at-Arms, which includes carrying the mace, and leading the Speaker into and out of the chamber. At the Speaker’s direction, the Serjeant will also escort anyone from the chamber who is acting in a disorderly manner.
The chamber is prepared for use each sitting day by attendants. They are the only other people allowed on the floor of the chamber during a sitting period. They keep order in the public gallery during sittings and can remove people at the direction of the Serjeant-at-Arms.
Symbols of democracy and community
A mace is a large rod, used as a symbol of authority in lower houses of parliament all over the world. Maces are usually made of metal, but the Legislative Assembly’s mace is made of locally sourced timber and steel.
The Assembly mace was a gift from the Australian Region of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in 2004.
It is 95cm long and weighs approximately 8.5 kilograms. It has been divided into three sections representing the ‘Y’ plan that was adopted by the National Capital Development Commission in 1967 to guide the urban development of Canberra. It features symbols of the Assembly and the ACT, and was carved by a combination of hard, accurate machined lines and traditional woodworking skills.
More information about the mace is available in the fact sheet, symbols of our democracy.
Bar of the Assembly
The bar of the Assembly is situated between the public gallery and the chamber proper. Members are not able to address the Speaker from behind the bar, and anyone who is not a member of the Assembly (sometimes called a stranger) may not pass in front of the bar unless invited to do so by the Assembly.
If a member of the public is invited to address the Assembly, or be addressed by the Speaker, they are brought to the bar to speak. This has only happened once since ACT gained self-government—in 1997, when representatives from the local Aboriginal community were invited to address the Assembly.
Four flags are on display behind the Speaker’s chair—the Australian flag, the ACT flag, the flag of the Australian Aboriginal peoples, and the flag of the Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The chamber floor
While proceedings are underway, only members of the Assembly and the Assembly attendants are permitted to be on the floor of the chamber.
The gallery is seating at the back of the chamber, which is divided into sections:
- a section reserved for members’ advisers at the front;
- a public area immediately behind the area reserved for advisers; and
- a separate area behind the public gallery for members of the media.
There are lobbies on either side of the chamber. Members use these lobbies as break-out spaces during sittings, to meet with each other, staff, or government officials.
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