Chapter 12 - Legislation

Proposed laws

The powers of the two Houses of the Parliament in relation to proposed laws are set out in section 53 of the Constitution. The Senate and the House of Representatives have equal powers in respect of all proposed laws, subject only to certain limitations imposed on the Senate. Those limitations are:

  1. proposed laws appropriating money or imposing taxation may not originate in the Senate

  2. the Senate may not amend proposed laws imposing taxation or appropriating money for the ordinary annual services of the government and

  3. the Senate may not amend any proposed law so as to increase any charge or burden on the people.

Where the Senate may not amend a proposed law, it may request the House of Representatives to make specified amendments, and may withhold its agreement to the proposed law if the House of Representatives does not agree to its requests.

The rationale of these provisions is to reserve to the executive government the initiative in proposing appropriations and impositions of taxation, without affecting the substantive powers of the Senate.

Because proposed laws imposing taxation and appropriating money are the subject of special constitutional provisions, and are treated somewhat differently by the procedures of the Senate, they are dealt with separately in Chapter 13, Financial Legislation. This chapter analyses the procedures whereby the Senate deals with non-financial legislation and those of the general procedures which also apply to financial legislation.

In parliamentary terms a proposed law is referred to as a bill. It appears with the title “A Bill for an Act to .....”. This is known as the long title. Each bill also has a short title, which is the title by which it may be cited. Thus a bill with the long title “A Bill for an Act to amend the Social Security Act 1991” may have the short title “Social Security (Amendment) Bill 2008”.

The Constitution does not make any provision for the manner in which bills are to be initiated, except the provision in section 53 relating to the origination of bills imposing taxation and appropriating money, and the provision in section 56 that a bill for the appropriation of money may not be passed unless the appropriation has been recommended by the Governor-General. These two provisions are designed to ensure that the executive government takes the initiative in relation to bills for levying taxes and appropriating money. Apart from those limitations, bills may constitutionally be initiated by either House in accordance with the procedures of that House.

The procedures of the Senate, principally contained in the standing orders, embody the principle that a bill may be introduced by any senator, and bills introduced by senators who are not ministers are not distinguished in the procedures for their passage from bills introduced by ministers on behalf of the ministry (the only exception to this principle is in relation to the limitation on debate on urgent bills; see under Limitation of debate, below).

The Senate may give precedence to bills introduced by senators other than ministers, and may defer government bills until other bills are dealt with (for precedents, see below, under Control of bills).

In practice, however, most bills passed by the Senate are government bills introduced by ministers. Most of those bills originate in the House of Representatives and are forwarded to the Senate for its concurrence, because most ministers are in the House of Representatives.

Bills introduced by senators who are not ministers are known as private senators’ bills. Procedurally they are treated in the same way as government bills, but because the Senate devotes most of its time to government business (see Chapter 8, Conduct of Proceedings, under Government and general business), few private senators’ bills are passed by the Senate and even fewer are passed by both Houses, because in order to be passed by the House of Representatives they must secure the agreement of the ministry which effectively controls proceedings in that House. (see Supplement) Lists of private senators’ bills which have passed into law and have been passed by the Senate since 1901 appear in appendix 5.

Private bills, that is, bills for the benefit of particular individuals or organisations, which are a feature of some legislatures and are subject to special procedures, are unknown in the Commonwealth Parliament.

Bills originating in one House of the Parliament are forwarded to the other House for concurrence. If they are amended by the other House, they are returned to the originating House with a request for agreement to the amendments. If there is disagreement over amendments, bills may be moved between the two Houses a number of times until the Houses finally agree to them in the same form or they are abandoned. Bills which have been agreed to by both Houses are forwarded by the originating House to the Governor-General for assent.

When finally passed by both Houses and assented to by the Governor-General, a bill becomes an act of the Commonwealth Parliament and takes effect as a law in accordance with statutory provisions relating to the commencement of legislation.

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