Basic rules of debate

Observance of the basic rules of debate in any committee will enhance its effectiveness through ensuring that discussion is orderly, that every member has the opportunity to speak and that the wishes of the majority prevail.

In general, the larger and more senior the committee the greater the need for formality in its procedures. Those who work with large committees, such as the Senate, the Academic Board/Council and (full) school meetings will find it useful to read a good book on formal committee procedures, such as:

Horsley's Meetings Procedure, Law and Practice (1998, 4th edition, Butterworths). There is a copy of this book in the Organisational and Staff Development Services' Resource Library.

For the vast majority of committees at UWA, which operate fairly informally, the following basic rules will be enough. While most committees will find these rules helpful, neither the Chair (nor the meeting) is absolutely bound by them. (For example, in some meetings the Chair may allow members to speak more than twice on particular motions, if he sees this as being of value.)

  1. Motions
  2. Amendments to motions
  3. Foreshadowed motion
  4. Members' speaking rights
  5. Point of order
  6. Point of information
  7. Voting
  8. Use of common sense


Meaning of "motion"

  • A motion is a suggestion or proposal put forward for discussion and decision.

Sources of motions

  • A motion may be included in Part 1 of an agenda (for example, The Chair suggests that the proposed co-option of Dr X to the Admissions Committee be endorsed.)

  • A motion may come to a committee from another committee. For example a school may have resolved to recommend to the Academic Council that a new degree course be introduced in the following year. In this case, the school's resolution will appear in the agenda item.

  • A motion related to the matter under discussion may be moved by a member at any stage during a debate, as clear views emerge on the matter under discussion.

Form of motions

  • A motion put forward at a meeting must be addressed to the Chair, along the following lines: 
    "Chair, I move that."

Need for a seconder

  • It's standard practice at UWA for chairs to require that motions are seconded (though technically it is not essential) It's a useful means of ensuring that there's sufficient support for a motion to justify further discussion. If a seconder is sought but not found, the motion lapses.

Procedure following seconding of a motion

  • Once a motion has been seconded, the Chair invites the mover to speak in support of it. The Chair then initiates discussion on the motion, by asking "Does anyone wish to speak against the motion? " If no-one speaks against the motion, voting can proceed immediately. If there is a speaker against the motion, debate proceeds, with members able to make points for or against the motion. The seconder would normally be expected to speak in support of the mover (though this is not obligatory) especially if there is substantial opposition to the motion. At the end of the debate, the original mover has the right of reply to points made against the motion.

Voting on the motion

  • When the Chair puts the motion to the vote, he/she should ensure that all members know the exact wording of motion (which may have been amended during the debate). Any member who is uncertain of the exact wording should ask for clarification.

Outcomes of a vote

  • If a motion is passed it becomes a resolution. If it's lost, it lapses.

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Amendments to motions

Rationale for proposing an amendment to a motion

  • It's fairly common for committee members to agree with the thrust of a motion, but to disagree with a detail or details within it. For example, a member might agree that the cost of staff parking permits should be increased for the following year, but think that the specific increase proposed is too great, and wish to propose a smaller rise.

Fundamental principle applying to amendments of motion

  • The fundamental principle applying to any amendment to a motion is that the proposed amendment cannot negate or significantly distort the intent of the original motion. An amendment to a motion can add details or change details but cannot change the main thrust of the motion. For example, an attempt to amend a motion "that staff parking fees be raised by $5.00" by inserting the word "not" between "fees" and "be" would be unacceptable (negating the motion) as would an attempt to change the words "raised by $5.00" to "reduced by $5. 00 (changing the intent of the motion which was to raise fees)

  • The Chair is the final judge on whether a proposed amendment is acceptable (though any member can raise a point of order if it appears that the Chair has not realised that a proposed amendment is unacceptable.)

Procedure once an amendment has been proposed

  • If a member moves an amendment to a motion, the Chair calls for a seconder. The proposal is then treated similarly to an original motion -that is, the proposer speaks in favour of the amendment, the Chair asks if there is any opposition, and following discussion (if required) a vote is taken on the proposed amendment. The only difference is that the mover of a motion to amend a motion has no right of reply to arguments against it.

Outcomes of a vote on an amendment

  • If the vote is carried, the amended motion replaces the original motion and discussion on it then proceeds in the normal way. If the motion to amend is lost, discussion proceeds on the original motion.

Serial amendments

  • It sometimes happens that a motion is amended, and then as a result of the ensuing discussion, another amendment is proposed. The procedure in this case is exactly the same as that applied to the first amendment.

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Foreshadowed motion

  • When a member strongly disagrees with a motion, he/she can of course speak and vote against it. However, in some instances the member may wish to signal to other members that if the motion is lost, an alternative motion will follow. In such an instance the member can foreshadow a motion. ("Chair, I wish to foreshadow a motion in the event that the current motion is lost..that...") The foreshadowed motion gives members the option of voting against the first motion in order to vote for the foreshadowed motion when it is put.

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Members' speaking rights

Speaking through the Chair

  • All members who wish to speak do so through the Chair - that is, they catch the chair's eye (such as through raising their arm) and wait to be invited to speak. This enables the chair to ensure that only one person speaks at a time, to the benefit of both speakers and listeners.

Mover of a motion

  • The mover of a motion (or an amendment to a motion) has the right to speak in favour of it immediately after moving it. The mover of a motion also has the right of "reply" at the end of the debate to any points made against the motion, but the mover of an amendment to a motion does not have this right.

The seconder

  • The seconder is not obliged, but would normally be expected, to speak in favour of the motion in the course of debate, particularly if there are speakers against the motion.


  • Normally, members (other than the mover) may speak only once on one motion or amendment. For this purpose, points of order and information are not classified as speaking.

This "rule" is frequently set aside, but can be very useful in limiting debate and making members think carefully about the points they wish to make. (that is, in improving efficiency) The Chair can of course set it aside if there are good reasons in particular cases.

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Point of order

  • If a member believes that there is a problem with a procedural matter during the meeting, he/she can interrupt the debate with a call of "Point of order" to the Chair. The Chair then invites the member to identify the problem and, after hearing the point, makes a ruling. 

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Point of information

  • If a member needs some information to clarify for him/her something relating to the debate, he/she can interrupt the debate with a call of "Point of information" to the Chair. The Chair then invites the member to outline what he/she needs to know, and either supplies or asks others to supply the answer to the question.

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  • Voting is usually carried out by a show of hands. The Chair will normally decide whether the voting numbers are counted and recorded, but any member can ask that this be done.

Recording dissent from a motion

  • In addition to voting against a motion, any member who strongly opposes the motion may ask that their dissent be recorded in the minutes. This will then be recorded in the minutes along the lines of this example: "Dr X asked that her dissent be recorded."

Chair's casting vote

  • Provided that the committee's constitution provides for it, the Chair can exercise a casting (extra) vote in the event of a tie in voting numbers. Traditionally (but not necessarily) in cases where the vote is between the status quo and an alternative, the Chair votes in favour of the status quo.

Use of common sense

  • There may be occasions when a meeting gets bogged down and the basic rules do not appear to help. On such occasions, the Chair may either propose a commonsense solution, or even ask members to suggest how the meeting should proceed. With common sense and good will, most problems arising at meetings can be fairly quickly resolved.

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