Here's why Australia's parliament uses sandglasses when there's a division in the House

Hour glasses inside the House of Representatives.

Australia’s parliamentary traditions and conventions change over time. For example, when a vote (or “division”) is called, senators have four minutes to get to the chamber.

Back in 1975 that increased from two minutes to three, when a new extension to Old Parliament House made the journey from committee rooms to the chamber a little longer. The current four-minute limit was introduced in 1988, when Australian democracy moved up the hill to to the much bigger, current Parliament House.

The time given to MPs is necessary, but the way the gap is timed – with a sandglass – doesn’t seem necessary at all. And it turns out the sandglasses are not just ornamental. They’re really used for timekeeping (but with a catch). The parliament’s website explains:

Until 1989, it [the Annotated Standing Orders] contained references to a sand-glass kept on the Table for the purpose of timing divisions. The Clerk was responsible for turning the sand-glass and the time was taken to have elapsed when the sand-glass so indicated. References to this antique but reliable technology were removed in the course of the 1989 revision to free the principle from reliance on any particular technology.

Although sand-glasses continue to be used as the primary means of timing the division or quorum bells, they are now used in conjunction with the digital speech timer. An advantage of the latter is that it enables a time signal to be broadcast on the House Monitoring Service which shows senators how much time remains for them to reach the chamber. In practice, the Chair takes whichever methodology expires last as a signal to call for the doors to be locked.

Note “antique but reliable”, but also references to using it were removed in 1989 “to free the principle from reliance on any particular technology”.

Justin Baker, assistant director of the Chamber Research Office in the Department of the House of Representatives, explained to Business Insider why they continue to use what looks like a giant egg timer.

Hansard records reveal a reference to a sandglass being used for divisions back in 1901 “so they have likely been a feature of the parliament since Federation”.

When the Central Table for the new Parliament House was commissioned, a pair of sandglasses was included in the brief by the Parliament amongst other items, such as bronze brackets to support the Mace, pigeon hole book stands, digital clocks, call bells and microphones.

“A stand with a wooden base and green felt underneath for the sandglasses was purpose built for the Clerk’s desk within the Chamber,” Baker said. “In 1998, a new stand and glasses were designed and manufactured to accommodate an additional sandglass.”

That’s right – they bought another one.

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