Procedures to speed the passage of bills

There is no set period of time for the length of debate on any stage of a bill during its passage through the House. The length of time for debate on each stage of a bill’s passage may be influenced by such factors as:

  • its subject matter—whether the bill is of a controversial nature, whether it has the general agreement of the House, or whether it is of a ‘machinery’ kind;
  • the nature of the Government’s legislative program;
  • the urgency connected with the passage of the bill;
  • agreement reached between Government and Opposition; and
  • the number of Members from each side who wish to speak on the bill.

When time for government business is under pressure, negotiations behind the scenes between the Leader of the House and Manager of Opposition Business or party whips and other Members may result in agreements regarding the number of speakers on particular bills or the length of Members’ speeches. Such arrangements are not uncommon, although they are officially unknown to the Chair and cannot be enforced.

Cognate debate of related bills can be considered to be routine, and the granting of leave to avoid the usual delay between stages is very common. The other ways of speeding the passage of legislation outlined below involve the Government using its majority to limit debate or to impose a timetable.

Cognate second reading debate

When there are related bills before the House, it frequently suits the convenience of the House, by means of the cognate debate procedure, to have a general second reading debate on the bills as a group rather than a series of separate debates on the individual bills. A proposal for a cognate debate is usually put to the House by the Chair when the first bill of the group is called on.[353] If there is no objection[354] the debate on the second reading of the first bill is then permitted to cover the other related bills, and no debate (usually) occurs when the questions on the second reading of the subsequent bills are put. Apart from this, normal procedures apply—the bills are taken in turn with separate questions put as required at each stage of each bill. If a Member wishes to move a second reading amendment to a bill encompassed by a cognate debate, other than to the first bill, the amendment may only be moved when the relevant order of the day for the later bill is called on.[355] Cognate debate is confined to the second reading stage. A separate detail stage, if required, occurs for each bill.

The House has allowed the subject matter of 16 bills to be debated on the motion for the second reading of one of those bills.[356] A group of bills relating to different subjects, but all Budget measures, has been debated cognately.[357] In 2004 and subsequent years the main appropriation bills were debated cognately in the Budget debate with additional appropriation bills (Nos 5 and 6) of the previous financial year.[358] Between 1994 and 1996 standing orders provided formal procedures for the cognate debate of related bills.[359] The traditional informal arrangements were resumed after the new provisions were found to be unduly prescriptive.

The normal cognate debate procedure operates, in effect, by leave. However, from time to time the House has ordered a cognate debate to occur. In the case of bills this has been done in recent years by means of ‘debate management motions’ following suspension of standing orders, as outlined at page 392. The Selection Committee has provided for cognate debate of private Members’ bills.[360]

Bills considered together

On occasion, to meet the convenience of the House, standing orders are suspended to enable closely related bills to be considered together. A motion for the suspension of the standing orders may, depending on the particular circumstances, provide as follows:

  • For:
    1. a number of bills to be presented and read a first time together;
    2. one motion being moved without delay and one question being put in regard to, respectively, the second readings, the detail stage, and the third readings, of all the bills together; and (if appropriate)
    3. messages from the Governor-General recommending appropriations for some of the bills to be announced together.[361]

This procedure facilitates consideration by the House of, for example, related taxation bills such as the Wool Tax (Nos 1 to 5) Amendment Bills,[362] where, because of the constitutional requirement that laws imposing taxation shall deal with one subject of taxation only,[363] a number of separate but related bills are presented. Such a motion to suspend standing orders used to be moved each session in relation to sales tax bills.[364]

  • For the calling on together of several orders of the day for the resumption of debate on the motion for the second reading of a number of bills, with provision that they may be taken through their remaining stages together.
  • For the calling on together of several orders of the day for resumption of debate on the motion for the second reading of a number of bills, with provision for:
    1. a motion being moved ‘That the bills be now passed’; and
    2. messages from the Governor-General recommending appropriations in respect of some of the bills being then announced together.[365]

In such a case as the group of 32 bills dealing with decimal currency[366] and in other cases where the passing of a number of related bills is a formal matter, this form of procedure is of great advantage in saving the time of the House.

A suspension of standing orders to enable related bills to be guillotined in the one motion has also included provisions to allow groups of the bills to be taken together.[367]

In 2011 the motion to suspend standing orders to provide for a package of 19 Clean Energy bills to be taken together also set time limits for the completion of the second reading and consideration in detail stages (see ‘Debate management motions’ at page 392). While the 19 bills were to be debated concurrently, the motion provided for a single question to be put at each stage in relation to 18 of the bills together, and questions on the remaining bill to be put separately.[368] On another occasion in respect of a package of 11 Minerals Resource Rent Tax bills, the motion to suspend standing orders allowed the resumption of debate on the second readings of the bills to be called on together and the second readings to be debated together—providing in effect a cognate debate (see page 388) after which separate questions were put on the second readings[369] (and later stages) of each bill.

All stages without delay

On occasions, the House may consider it expedient to pass a bill through all its stages without delay, either by granting leave to continue consideration at each stage when consideration would normally be adjourned until the next sitting day, or by suspension of the standing orders to enable its immediate passage.

By leave at each stage

When it is felt necessary or desirable to proceed immediately with a bill which would normally require introduction on notice, a Minister (or Parliamentary Secretary) may ask leave of the House to present it. If there is no dissentient voice, the Minister presents the bill. If copies of the bill are available, the second reading may then be moved.[370] If copies of the bill are not available, the Minister must obtain the leave of the House to move the second reading immediately.[371] The second reading debate may then ensue, by leave. Where a bill has not required notice, or has been introduced on notice but it is desired for it to proceed immediately, leave may also be given for debate to ensue.[372]

At the conclusion of the debate and any proceedings immediately following the second reading, the House may grant leave for the third reading to be moved immediately.[373] Alternatively, after the detail stage has been completed, the remaining stages may proceed immediately, with the leave of the House.[374] A recent example of a bill passing each stage by leave was the Migration Amendment (Regional Processing Arrangements) Bill 2015.[375]

Following suspension of standing orders

When it is wished to proceed with a bill as a matter of urgency, but it is not considered desirable or expedient to seek leave at the appropriate stages, or leave has been sought and refused,[376] the standing orders may be suspended with the concurrence of an absolute majority if the suspension is moved without notice, or a simple majority if moved on notice, to enable the introduction and passage of a bill through all its stages without delay, or for a bill already before the House to proceed through its remaining stages without delay. Once the standing orders have been suspended, leave is not necessary to proceed to the various stages of the bill.[377]

Contingent notices

It is usual for a set of contingent notices for the suspension of standing orders to be on the Notice Paper, to avoid the need for an absolute majority in the circumstances above.

Several contingent notices for the purpose of facilitating the progress of legislation are normally given in the first week of each session. In the 45th Parliament these were:

Contingent on the motion for the second reading of any bill being moved: Minister to move—That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the resumption of debate on the motion that the bill be read a second time being made an order of the day for a later hour.[378]

This contingent notice enables a motion to be moved to bypass the standing order requirement that, at the conclusion of the Minister’s second reading speech, debate on the question for the second reading must be adjourned to a future sitting.

Contingent on any report relating to a bill being received from the Federation Chamber: Minister to move—That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the remaining stages being passed without delay.[379]

This contingent notice covers the situation where a bill is reported from the Federation Chamber with amendments or unresolved questions and copies of the amendments or unresolved questions are not available for circulation to Members. In such circumstances the standing orders provide that a future time shall be set for considering the report.

Contingent on any bill being agreed to at the conclusion of the consideration in detail stage: Minister to move—That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the motion for the third reading being moved without delay.[380]
Contingent on the second reading of a bill being agreed to and the Speaker having announced any message from the Governor-General under standing order 147: Minister to move—That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the motion for the third reading being moved without delay.[381]

These contingent notices are intended to overcome the situation where leave is not granted to move a motion for the third reading to be moved immediately after the consideration in detail stage, or after the second reading when no consideration in detail has occurred.

Contingent on any message being received from the Senate transmitting any bill for concurrence: Minister to move—That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the bill being passed through all its stages without delay.[382]

This contingent notice facilitates the speedy passage of a Senate bill without any of the normal delays between stages provided by the standing orders.

Any Minister or Parliamentary Secretary and the Chief Government Whip may move a motion pursuant to one of these contingent notices; it is not necessary for the motion to be moved by the Minister who lodged the notice.

Debate management motions

Standing orders may be suspended to enable the introduction and passage of a bill through all stages without delay by a specified time,[383] to limit the duration of particular stages,[384] or to limit the number of speakers.[385] A motion to suspend standing orders for this purpose is, in effect, a kind of guillotine.

In recent Parliaments the Leader of the House has tended to use such motions (on notice) in preference to the less flexible formal guillotine procedure outlined below, which requires two or three separate motions to achieve the same end—that is, suspension of standing orders (if more than one bill), declaration of urgency and allotment of time.

In March 2014 motions for the ‘suspension of standing or other orders on notice relating to the programming of government business’ (quickly becoming referred to by the Government as ‘debate management motions’), were for the first time recognised in the standing orders. Specific time limits are provided: whole debate 25 minutes, mover 15 minutes, Member next speaking 10 minutes, any other Member 5 minutes.[386]

As well as limiting time, motions of this nature have imposed other procedural variations in order to streamline proceedings—for example, to provide for bills to be debated cognately,[387] or to be taken together (see page 389).[388] Another variation has been to provide for bills to be taken cognately and, at the conclusion of the second reading debate on the first bill, for questions on the remaining stages (of each bill) to be put without delay and without amendment or debate.[389] Such motions commonly include a provision that any variations to the arrangements outlined are to be made only by a motion moved by a Minister.[390]

Bills declared urgent (guillotine)

Before the routine use of debate management motions the Government was able to resort to the use of the procedure for the limitation of debate (commonly described as the ‘guillotine’), prescribed in detail by standing orders 82–85. A guillotine was usually put in place prior to the commencement of the debate it proposed to limit. However, if applied to one bill only, it could be applied during consideration of the bill.

The guillotine procedure was introduced to the House in 1918.[391] Statistics for the number of bills declared urgent each year since 1918 are given at Appendix 17. It can be seen that this figure increased considerably, to a record of 132 bills in 1992. The increase was attributed by Governments to the imposition from 1986 of Senate deadlines for the receipt of legislation from the House.[392]

The use of the guillotine declined significantly after the provision of increased debating time with the establishment of the Main Committee (later Federation Chamber).[393] Another contributing factor to the decline in the 37th Parliament was that, with the introduction of three sitting periods each year instead of two, the Government could introduce bills during one period with the expectation that they would not pass until the next. As noted above, in more recent Parliaments the formal guillotine procedure provided by standing orders 82–85 of declaring bills urgent and allotting time has been largely superseded by debate management motions, which in effect impose a guillotine by other means (see page 392).[394]

The preparation of the documentation necessary for use in the Chamber for the process of declaring bills urgent and allotting time and their subsequent passage required great care and could be very time-consuming. Also, because of the desirability of giving Members reasonable notice of government intentions in such matters, it was imperative that detailed advice of such intentions be given well in advance.

The guillotine may not be moved in the Federation Chamber, but, having been agreed to in the House, may be applied to bills considered in the Federation Chamber. However, because of the delay involved in moving business to and from the Federation Chamber, it is likely that in normal circumstances bills needing urgent consideration would be taken in the House.

In 2016 the Procedure Committee recognised that now that debate management motions had become established practice, it seemed unlikely that the existing guillotine procedures in the standing orders would be used again. The committee suggested that rather than omitting the whole section in the standing orders ‘Debate of urgent matters’, or allowing it to remain but in effect be redundant, it might be preferable to amend the section to recognise the use of debate management motions.[395]

Details of the process for setting in place a guillotine procedure are described in previous editions.