If, as is expected, Senator Dean Smith’s private senator’s bill, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedom) Bill 2017, passes the House of Representatives, it will be only the 29th private senators’ or members’ bill to be passed into law by the federal Parliament since Federation.
As of the start of December 2017, a total of 515 private members’ bills and 855 private senators’ bills have been introduced into federal Parliament since 1901. The vast majority of these were introduced and read a second time, but were never passed (read a third time) in the chamber in which they were introduced. A smaller number were passed by one chamber and then negatived, lapsed, removed from the notice paper or withdrawn in the other chamber. Very few private members’ bills that have passed the House have been extinguished in the Senate, whereas 64 private senators’ bills have passed the Senate and expired in the House (mostly due to lapsing at the end of a Parliament). House of Representatives Practice lists a number of private members’ bills that had significant impact, including a number of government bills that were originally proposed as private members’ bills or motions.
Six private members’ bills have been introduced by the Speaker of the House, of which three were successful, and three separate bills have been introduced by the President of the Senate (all of which were successful). These six successful bills were sponsored in the other chamber by the other Presiding Officer. These Presiding Officers’ bills usually dealt with the administration of the Parliament and its accompanying departments. In some cases, as in the Parliamentary Service bills, these accompanied government bills dealing with the public service. One, the Parliamentary Service Amendment Bill 2005, created the statutory position of Parliamentary Librarian. The Presiding Officers’ bills are generally not considered as examples of private members’ and senators’ bills, although they are non-executive or non-government bills.
The history and passage of private members’ and senators’ bills is often complex, as is their relationship to the government of the day. They range from the Australian Capital Territory Evidence (Temporary Provisions) Bill 1971, which passed both chambers in two days in order to fix a senate disallowance that forced criminal trials in the ACT to be adjourned, to the Commonwealth Electoral Bill 1924 which made voting in federal elections compulsory, and is with us to this day.
Several private senators’ and members’ bills, as with Senator Smith’s bill, have been free votes, with members and senators not bound to vote as a party and able to vote according to their conscience. This includes the Parliament Bill 1974, which made provisions for a permanent Parliament House. More controversial bills that have attracted free votes include bills in the 41st Parliament relating to human cloning and the drug RU486 (the first private members’ bill to have been co-sponsored by four members of different parties), and the Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996 in the 38th Parliament.
It can be difficult in retrospect to quantify how controversial a bill was at the time, and some that attract multiple amendments or votes on their second reading will pass their third reading ‘on the voices’, without a vote. However three private members’ or senators’ bills went to a vote in the House and an additional three in the Senate at the third reading stage.
The Parliament with by far the most successful private members’ and senators’ bills, with a total of five (plus one President’s bill) was the 43rd (with the minority Labor Government). Each of these bills originated or was sponsored from the cross-bench. This was a result of the minority government agreement with two independents to allocate time for voting on private members’ bills during government business time. The Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedom) Bill 2017 is likely to be the first successful private senators’ or members’ bill since the 43rd Parliament.
While private members’ and senators’ bills are by definition not government bills, the selection of bills for consideration by the House of Representatives is controlled by the government, and (barring a suspension of the Standing Orders) only with the consent of the government can a bill be debated in the House. Therefore private members’ and senators’ bills introduced in the House must be either tacitly or explicitly endorsed by the government (including by allowing a free vote). Some private members’ and senators’ bills, such as the Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996, are particularly congruent with the Government’s position on an issue. As the government tends not to control the Senate it is easier for a private senators’ bill to be debated and passed through the Senate, but this does not guarantee it will be debated in the House of Representatives.
Of the 1,370 private senators’ and members’ bills (including Presiding Officers’ bills) introduced in the 116 years of the federal Parliament to date, the passage of 28 is a success rate of two per cent. As such, the passage of the 29th is a Parliamentary event worth recognising.
Successful private members’ and senators’ bills
Note: Bill names are linked to the bill homepage (where available) or the second reading speech of the bill.
Successful bills introduced by the Speaker of the House or the Senate President