Parliaments traditionally have a barrier or marker at the entrance to the Chamber, called the Bar of the House. Referred to informally as ‘the bar’, it separates the public areas from the Chamber-proper. When parliaments are in session, only Members (or support staff) may pass beyond the bar onto the floor of the Chamber. Everyone else must remain on the other side of the bar. One of the bar’s original functions at Westminster was to keep unauthorised people from mingling and potentially voting with the members.
Historically, the bar has also had a procedural role. People would stand at the bar to be addressed by the Speaker on behalf of the House. They may have been called to answer charges, receive punishment, or provide documents. Although this was fairly common in the early days of parliament, it rarely happens now (and the ACT Assembly does not have the power to impose penalties for non-members), but this is also where members of the public stand if they have been invited to address the Assembly.
In the ACT Legislative Assembly, the bar is a wooden rod. When not in use, it hangs on the wall on the Government side of the Chamber.
The Assembly has only invited members of the public to make an address from the bar on one occasion. On 26 August 1997, representatives of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community from the ACT and surrounding region addressed the Assembly on the ACT Government’s apology arising from the report "Bringing Them Home", which looked into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. Read the Hansard of their addresses to the Assembly.
A year earlier, the Manager of Government business in the ACT Legislative Assembly had proposed that community groups be able to address the Assembly from the bar each fortnight, on matters of significance to the ACT community. The proposal was referred to a committee to consider. The committee noted that there was no precedent for an arrangement of this type in any other parliament. It was decided that the arrangement might undermine the role of committees in engaging with the public, subject experts and the bureaucracy, and the proposal was not adopted. You can read the committee’s report here.
The only occasion when people appeared at the bar of the Australian House of Representatives was in 1955. Mr Raymond Fitzpatrick and Mr Frank Browne, having been judged by the House to be guilty of a serious breach of privilege, were ordered to attend at the bar. On 10 June 1955, each addressed the House separately from the bar 'in extenuation of his offence'. Later that day each appeared again to receive their sentences of three months imprisonment. You can search more information about this case, and read the Hansard transcript of their appearance at the bar.
Although the Bar of the House tradition is still observed by Westminster parliaments all over the world, there is no standard form for the bar:
- In the UK House of Commons, the Bar of the House is a white line across the width of the floor of the House. In the House of Lords, it is a railing.
- In the Canadian House of Commons, the bar is a brass rod extending across the floor of the Chamber inside its southern entrance.
- In the Australian House of Representatives, it is a cylindrical bronze rail that can be lowered across the entrance.
- In New Zealand, the bar is made of two brass rods which can be folded back when not in use.