Chapter 12 - Legislation

Limitation of debate — urgent bills

The time which the Senate may spend considering a bill is potentially unlimited. The opportunity for debate on the second and third readings must eventually be exhausted, even having regard to the ability of senators to move amendments and of senators who have already spoken to speak again to the amendments (see Chapter 10, Debate, under Right to speak). In the committee of the whole stage, however, senators may speak any number of times and move any number of amendments. It is therefore possible for a determined minority to prevent the passage of a bill indefinitely. The procedure for closure of debate (see Chapter 10, Debate, under Closure of debate) is not a remedy for determined obstruction of a bill by a minority, because the question for the closure has to be put on each question before the chair, and in committee of the whole it is possible for the number of questions to be multiplied indefinitely.

The procedures of the Senate therefore provide a means whereby a majority may ensure that debate on a bill eventually comes to a conclusion and the questions necessary for the passage of the bill are put to a vote. This is the limitation of debate on urgent bills provided by standing order 142, commonly known as the “guillotine”. This procedure is in practice limited to government bills, because only ministers may move the necessary motions to bring the procedure into operation.

At any stage during the consideration of a bill, a minister may declare that the bill is an urgent bill, and move that the bill be considered an urgent bill. That question must be put forthwith without debate or amendment. If that question is passed, a minister may at any time, but not so as to interrupt a senator who is speaking, move a motion or motions specifying the time to be allotted to all or any stages of the bill. That motion may not be debated for more than one hour, and each senator may speak for not more than 10 minutes. At the expiration of the hour the question on the motion and on any amendment must be put. When the time allotted for the consideration of the bill is concluded, the chair must put any question then before the Senate or the committee of the whole, including any amendment already moved, and any other questions necessary to bring proceedings on the bill to a conclusion. There is also provision for any amendments which have been circulated in the Senate at least two hours before the expiration of the allotted time to be put and determined.

The closure may not be moved during consideration of a bill for which time has been allotted under this procedure (SO 142(5)), but may be moved on the motion for the allotment of time.

A motion to declare a bill an urgent bill may be moved before or after an order of the day relating to a bill is called on, and in spite of a senator normally having a right to the call to speak on the resumption of a debate (rulings of President Cormack, 14/9/1972, J.1106-7; of President Laucke, 16/5/1980, J.1351).

Motions under this procedure may apply to a number of bills (rulings of President Cormack, SD, 6/6/1973, pp 2401-13, 2531-2, 2547-8; 29/11/1973, J.538; 13/12/1973, J.623; of President Laucke, 20/5/1980, J.1361-2).

A limitation of time continues to operate in relation to a bill in spite of the expiration of the allotted time because of, for example, time taken in divisions (ruling of President Laucke, 25/2/1977, J.599).

Motions to declare a bill urgent and to allot time for its consideration may be moved in committee of the whole on the bill, but are not effective in the Senate until the Senate has adopted the report of the committee and thereby agreed to the committee’s action (ruling of President McMullin, 11/11/1954, J.103).

A bill once declared urgent remains an urgent bill until it is disposed of; thus, if a bill declared urgent in the Senate is returned from the House of Representatives, a minister may move a motion to allot time for its further consideration.

There are two methods of allotting time for consideration of a bill under this procedure. A time may be specified for concluding the proceedings on a bill. In that circumstance, if the Senate is not considering the bill at the time specified, the business before the Senate is interrupted and the questions necessary for the passage of the bill are put forthwith. When a concluding time has been specified for a bill in this way, this is regarded as overriding any requirement that proceedings on the bill be interrupted under any other procedure or that the question for the adjournment of the Senate be put at a specified time. The other method is for a quantity of time to be allotted for the consideration of a bill, in which case, when that amount of time has been expended in considering the bill, the necessary questions are put by the chair. This is the method now normally used. It has the advantage of not disrupting other business. It is also possible to specify a time for commencement of consideration of a bill, in which case the business before the Senate at that time is interrupted and the Senate proceeds to consider the bill. An allotment of time may employ a combination of these methods.

Because the standing order allows a minister to move a motion or motions to allot time for a bill at any time after a bill is declared urgent by the Senate, a minister may at any time move a motion to extend the allotted time. Debate on a motion for that purpose is subject to the time limits already determined (ruling of President Cormack, 6/6/1973, J.264).

Since 1986 senators have placed on the Notice Paper contingent notices of motion to allow them to move for the suspension of standing orders to allow debate to take place on the motion to have a bill declared an urgent bill, to remove or modify the limitation of debate on the motion to allot time to an urgent bill, and to extend the time available for a bill when the allotted time has expired (4/6/1986, J.1060; 29/5/1987, J.1915, 1916; 3/6/1987, J.1952; 2/6/1988, J.823; see Chapter 8, Conduct of Business, under Suspension of standing orders). These notices of motion provide a means whereby the Senate can be asked to modify significantly the operation of the urgent bills procedure, and they also provide a minority with a means whereby an attempt by the majority to impose a limitation on debate may be considerably disrupted. It has been ruled that these contingent notices may be employed only once at each occurrence of the contingency to which they refer (rulings of President Sibraa, 3/12/1991, J.1826-7; 5/12/1991, J.1870-2; 9/12/1991, J.1886, 1893; a complete treatment of these rulings is in Chapter 8, Conduct of Proceedings, under Suspension of standing orders).

Prior to an amendment of standing order 142 in 1999, only government amendments were put and determined at the expiration of allotted time; the amendment provided for all duly circulated amendments to be dealt with, subject to the control of the chair as to how amendments are put (see also Chapter 10, Debate, under Dividing the question). Before the amendment of the standing order it had become the accepted practice for non-government amendments to be put and determined, by leave or by a suspension of the standing order, when the time for consideration of an urgent bill had expired.

In normal proceedings on bills a senator is not obliged to move an amendment which he or she has circulated, but when duly circulated amendments are put at the expiration of a time limitation, it is not open to a senator to withdraw a circulated amendment; to allow this could deprive senators who wished to vote for such an amendment of that opportunity (SD, 14/9/2005, p.137).

On occasions the Senate has adopted a “civilised guillotine”, that is, time limits for the consideration of legislation set by agreement between the various parties. On one such occasion the motion to set the time limits was moved by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (12/12/1996, J.1288-9). Special orders may be made prescribing time limits for the consideration of bills (8/2/2006, J.1839; 12/10/2006, J.2799; 7/12/2006, J.3299). (See Supplement)

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