Section 57 of the Constitution
If a proposed law passed by the House is rejected by the Senate or passed with amendments to which the House will not agree, or the Senate fails to pass the bill, then the constitutional means for resolving the disagreement between the Houses commences, with a ‘double dissolution’ provided for by section 57 of the Constitution, whereby both Houses are dissolved simultaneously. The process for the settlement of deadlocks is only applicable to bills which have been initiated and passed by the House of Representatives. There is no similar procedure in the Constitution to resolve any deadlock on legislation initiated in the Senate.
A fundamental purpose of section 57 is expressed by Quick and Garran, which states that in the exclusive powers of the House of Representatives with regard to the initiation and amendment of money bills there is a predominating national element; and this is still further emphasised in the ‘deadlock clause’, which is designed to ensure that a decisive and determined majority in the national chamber shall be able to overcome the resistance of a majority in the ‘provincial chamber’ (the Senate).
Section 57 provides several distinct and successive stages in the procedure by which a disagreement may be determined and reads as follows:
If the House of Representatives passes any proposed law, and the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree, and if after an interval of three months the House of Representatives, in the same or the next session, again passes the proposed law with or without any amendments which have been made, suggested, or agreed to by the Senate, and the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree, the Governor-General may dissolve the Senate and the House of Representatives simultaneously. But such dissolution shall not take place within six months before the date of the expiry of the House of Representatives by effluxion of time.
If after such dissolution the House of Representatives again passes the proposed law, with or without any amendments which have been made, suggested, or agreed to by the Senate, and the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree, the Governor-General may convene a joint sitting of the members of the Senate and of the House of Representatives.
The members present at the joint sitting may deliberate and shall vote together upon the proposed law as last proposed by the House of Representatives, and upon amendments, if any, which have been made therein by one House and not agreed to by the other, and any such amendments which are affirmed by an absolute majority of the total number of the members of the Senate and House of Representatives shall be taken to have been carried, and if the proposed law, with the amendments, if any, so carried is affirmed by an absolute majority of the total number of the members of the Senate and House of Representatives, it shall be taken to have been duly passed by both Houses of the Parliament, and shall be presented to the Governor-General for the Queen’s assent.
As with other prerogative powers, the Governor-General dissolves both Houses on the advice of Ministers who have the confidence of the House of Representatives—in practice, the Prime Minister. However, it has been recognised that the Governor-General must be satisfied personally as to the existence of the conditions of fact set out in section 57—for example, whether there was a failure to pass the proposed law. The Governor-General may seek additional information from the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister’s advice has been accepted in all instances to date. In 1975 Mr Whitlam, who had been Prime Minister until the day of the double dissolution, did not advise a double dissolution and the Governor-General dissolved both Houses acting on the advice of newly-commissioned Prime Minister Fraser who did not have majority support in the House.
A double dissolution cannot take place within six months before the date the House is due to expire by effluxion of time. According to Quick and Garran the purpose of this restriction is that the House of Representatives may not be permitted to court a deadlock and to force a dissolution of the Senate, when the House is on the point of expiry.
In considering whether to grant a double dissolution, the Governor-General may be expected to satisfy himself or herself that there is in reality a deadlock and that the requirements of section 57 have in fact been fulfilled. In addition regard has been had to the importance of the bill or bills in question and the workability of Parliament.
There must be an interval of three months between the first rejection, failure to pass or passage with unacceptable amendments by the Senate and the passage of the bill a second time by the House. That interval gives time for consideration and conciliation, and permits the development and manifestation of public opinion throughout the Commonwealth. The interval may be composed of time wholly within the same session of Parliament as that in which the bill was proposed and lost, or it may be composed of time partly in that session and partly in a recess, or in the next session. The interval may be longer than three months, but it cannot extend beyond the next session of the Parliament.
The bill which is again passed by the House and sent to the Senate after the three month interval must be the original bill modified only by amendments made, suggested or agreed to by the Senate.
Interpretations of the phrases ‘interval of three months’ and ‘fails to pass’, contained in section 57, have been the subject of considerable examination. Interpretations of the significance and meaning of these words are dealt with in the case studies which follow.
Once the conditions set by section 57 have occurred, whether and when to advise a double dissolution is a matter for the Prime Minister. There is no constitutional necessity to do so, or to do so within any period of time. Following a double dissolution there is no constitutional necessity to reintroduce a bill that was a cause of the deadlock.
In 2003 the Prime Minister presented a discussion paper on options for change in respect of the provisions concerning deadlocks. The options were to allow the Governor-General to convene a joint sitting of both Houses to consider a deadlocked bill without the need for an election, or alternatively, to allow the Governor-General to convene such a joint sitting after an ordinary general election. However, after a period of public consultation the Government later indicated that it would not put proposals for constitutional change forward.