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Law-Making in Australia

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This entry deals with Federal law-making in Australia, known as 'statute law'. The process takes place in Parliament House, Canberra, Australia and involves both Houses of Parliament (the House of Representatives and the Senate). You may find it difficult to follow without a basic understanding of the Australian Parliamentary System, A Guide to Australian Politics may help.

In the Beginning

Every law starts out as a bill. A bill is a document stating a proposal for a new law or a change in existing law. The idea for a bill most commonly comes from government departments or from party policy (often announced during election campaigns), but may also come from an MP or community group, or arise from a recent court case. Any Member of Parliament can propose a bill: when the proposer is a Minister acting on behalf of the Government, it is a 'Government Bill', when the proposer is acting as an individual, it is a 'Private Member's Bill'. A bill becomes a Law - an Act of Parliament - only after it has been passed by both Houses of Parliament and approved by the Governor-General1.

A bill may be introduced in either House of Parliament but must be assessed by each house in turn. While a bill is being passed through the House (its 'passage'), proposals can be made for changes. These proposals are debated, with speeches being made for and against the bill, followed by a vote. Generally Members of Parliament have to vote with their party on the side they are told to. This usually means that the Government, which has a majority, wins the votes. However, when a 'conscience vote' is called, Members may vote whichever way they choose, regardless of what the rest of their party is voting for.

Giving Notice and the First Reading

The passage of a bill begins with the Member who wishes to introduce it 'giving notice'. The member gives advance warning to the Clerk of the House, who lists the bill on the House's agenda for business (the 'Notice Paper'). The notice uses the bill's 'long title2', but each bill also has a short title3.

Presenting a bill is called the first reading. When the House is dealing with government business, the Clerk reads the notice using the Bill's short title. The relevant Minister/Member stands and says 'I present the ... bill 2003', giving a signed copy of the bill to the Clerk, who stands and reads the long title of the bill. After this first reading, the bill is now public, with copies handed out to Members and made available to the public.

Usually in the same sitting, the proposing Member asks for it to be read a second time, then makes a speech - called the second reading speech - about the bill, explaining its motives, principles and desired effect. At the end of this speech, the Member summarises the bill's provisions and reasons. Debate on the bill is then adjourned, to give other Members a chance to study it.

The Second Reading

There next follows the second reading debate, when Government members give speeches on the bill, outlining its good and bad points and its intended effects. Alternative ways of achieving the same objectives are discussed. For a Government Bill the Shadow Minister to the Minister who proposed the bill gives a speech outlining the Opposition's opinion. A debate ensues, after which a vote is taken to decide the House's view - and whether the bill should be 'read a second time'. If this is agreed, the Clerk reads out the long title of the bill - the second reading.

After the second reading, a bill is considered clause by clause, usually by the whole House but sometimes by the Main Committee. This is more informal, with no limit on how many times a Member can speak. Amendments-usually substitution, addition or deletion of words-may be made to any clause, and each clause can be passed or rejected individually, although often the bill is passed as a whole.

The Third Reading and Royal Assent

The Member who proposed the bill then reads out the long title of the bill again - the third reading. Debate at this stage is rare. When the motion has been agreed, the Clerk signs a certificate to present the bill to the other House, where the bill again goes through the process of three readings (sometimes with consideration by a Senate Committee) and a vote. If the second House requires amendments, these have to be agreed (or in some cases, made) by the other House.

If the two Houses cannot agree after two attempts to pass the bil, the bill may either be 'laid aside' (the usual case) or exceptionally the constitutional circumstances may lead to a double dissolution4 (as happened in 1975).

When the bill has passed both houses it is presented to the Governor-General for assent - if in agreement with the bill, they will assent to the act in the name of the monarch (referred to as 'the royal assent'). At this point the bill becomes an Act of Parliament, and will come into effect the 28th day after it receives assent, unless another preferred date is specified.

1The Queen's official representative in Australia.2For example, 'A bill for an Act to amend the Prices Surveillance Act 1983 and for related purposes'.3In this case, 'Prices Surveillance Amendment Bill 2003', with the year being the year of introduction.4Resulting in an election in which the whole House of Representatives and the whole Senate has to be re-elected.

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