Chapter 13 - Financial legislation

Pressing of requests

In spite of the procedures of the Senate expressly providing for the pressing of requests, and the fact that the House of Representatives has dealt with and acceded to pressed requests, the right of the Senate to press requests has been questioned. Governments in the House of Representatives have not expressly conceded the Senate’s right to press requests, and when dealing with pressed requests have usually passed a resolution to the effect that the House refrains from determining its constitutional rights in relation to the question.

The essence of the argument that the Senate may not press a request is that there must be some difference between an amendment and a request, and that is the difference. This argument disappears if it is concluded, as has been suggested in this chapter, that the difference between an amendment and a request is procedural only. The Constitution prescribes a number of matters of procedure, and to say that the difference is one of procedure is not to deny its importance. The distinction between an amendment and a request, according to this view, is closely related to another matter of procedure prescribed by section 53 of the Constitution, the exclusive right of the House of Representatives to initiate bills for appropriating money or imposing taxation. The provision relating to requests preserves that initiative without affecting the substantive powers of the Senate.

The following considerations support this thesis, and the right of the Senate to press its requests for amendments.

(1) There is nothing to prevent the Senate pressing its requests. If the constitution-makers had intended that the Senate be prohibited from pressing a request they would have provided some mechanism for enforcing the prohibition. To the contrary, section 53 of the Constitution provides that the two Houses have equal powers except as provided in the section.

(2) Not only was such a prohibition on the Senate not adopted, it was explicitly rejected. At the Constitutional Convention of 1898 an amendment to insert the word “once” in the relevant paragraph of section 53, to prevent the Senate repeating a request, was defeated. (Debates of the Convention, pp 1996-9.)

(3) Delegates to the Constitutional Conventions, including Edmund Barton, indicated that the difference between an amendment and a request would be one of procedure only, the rationale of the difference being to preserve the right of the House of Representatives actually to alter the text of a bill by amendments involving additional appropriations or taxation. (Adelaide Convention, 1897, Debates p. 557.)

(4) The relevant paragraph of section 53 provides that the Senate may “at any stage” return a bill to the House of Representatives with requests. Even if “at any stage” is interpreted as meaning at any stage in the Senate’s initial consideration of the bill, as has been suggested as an argument against the pressing of requests, the Senate could press a request many times by reiterating it at each stage of the consideration of a bill, and could provide in its own procedures that non-amendable bills pass through 100 stages.

(5) Even if the Senate could not press the same request, it could easily circumvent such a restriction, for example, by slightly modifying a request on each occasion on which it was repeated. It cannot be supposed that the constitution-makers intended to impose a prohibition which could so easily be circumvented.

(6) The Senate has successfully pressed requests on many occasions since 1901.

A practical argument in support of the right to press requests is that it provides a means of allowing further consideration of a matter in dispute between the Houses before the matter reaches the stage of final disagreement, for example, by the rejection by the Senate of the bill, which can then be settled only by the provisions of section 57 of the Constitution.

On the basis of these considerations the right of the Senate to press requests has been supported by many eminent and learned authorities, including Senator Josiah Symon, Senator, later Mr Justice, R.E. O’Connor, and Mr W.M. Hughes, MP. (Senator Josiah Symon: SD, 9/9/1902, pp 15813-28; Senator O’Connor: ibid., p. 15829; W.M. Hughes: HRD, 3/9/1902, pp 15705-6. See also remarks by Senator Gareth Evans, SD, 20/10/1981, pp 1395-8.)

As has been expounded in this chapter, the provisions of section 53, because they refer to the internal proceedings of the two Houses on proposed laws, as distinct from enactments of the Parliament, are not justiciable, and depend for observation and compliance upon agreement being reached between the two Houses. Thus if the Senate were to pass a bill imposing taxation or an amendment directly increasing expenditure, the only remedy would be for the House of Representatives to decline to consider the bill or the amendment. Similarly, the Senate may decline to pass a bill until its amendments or requests are agreed to by the House. To say that the provisions of section 53 are not justiciable and rely for enforcement upon the dealings of each House with the other is another way of saying that those provisions are procedural only. A real limitation on legislative power requires a means of legal enforcement. In that respect, section 53 is to be contrasted with section 55, as has been indicated earlier in this chapter.

Section 53 being thus a procedural section, prescribing procedural rules for the Houses to observe, it is for the Houses, in their transactions with each other, to interpret those rules by application. It is suggested that, in their dealings with Senate requests over the years, the Houses have supplied the required interpretation so far as the pressing of requests is concerned, and that interpretation is that requests may be pressed.

A list of occasions on which the Senate has made requests, showing the outcome of the requests, is contained in appendix 6.

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