Today marks ninety years of frontbench Members delivering speeches from the despatch boxes which rest on the Table of the House of Representatives.
On 9 May 1927, the Australian Parliament met for the first time at provisional Parliament House in Canberra. To mark the opening of the building and the inauguration of sittings in the national capital, the House of Representatives was presented with two ornately decorated despatch boxes as a personal gift from His Majesty King George V.
The boxes were presented to the Speaker, Sir Littleton Groom, on behalf of the King by the Duke of York (later King George VI), on 26 April 1927, at Parliament House in Melbourne.
“Visitors to Parliament House and observers of House proceedings often ask about the significance of the despatch boxes, as well as enquiring as to what is inside them,” said Speaker of the House, Tony Smith.
The despatch boxes are made of rosewood and under the lid of each is an illuminated inscription signed by the King. They contain religious texts for use by Members when making their oath of allegiance following their election to the House.
“What is perhaps not so widely known is that the despatch boxes on the Table today are exact replicas of those which lay on the Table of the United Kingdom House of Commons for many years prior to their loss when the Commons Chamber was destroyed in an air raid during the Second World War, on 10 May 1941.”
“For its reopening in 1950, the Commons received replacement despatch boxes as gifts from New Zealand with a design based on the boxes in Australia’s House of Representatives, completing a circle of Westminster democratic tradition.”
“Twenty-two Australian Prime Ministers and twenty-seven Leaders of the Opposition have addressed the House of Representatives from these despatch boxes.” said Speaker Smith.
“But while those who use them as a lectern come and go, and we have developed our own traditions in the Parliament and the House of Representatives, the despatch boxes endure to serve as a reminder of the ongoing link between the House of Representatives and the House of Commons (the “Mother of Parliaments”) from which we inherited many of our parliamentary rules and conventions.”