Making a law in the Australian Parliament

This fact sheet explains the law-making process in the Australian Parliament. It also describes where ideas for laws come from and the history of law-making in the Parliament.

Laws are formal rules which society uses to define how people and organisations are expected to behave. Section 51 of the Australian Constitution gives the Australian Parliament the power to make laws in relation to certain matters. In Parliament, a bill is a proposal for a new law or a change to an existing one. Bills often seek to address an important issue facing the Australian community.

Path of a bill

A bill can only become a law if it is passed by a majority vote in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The bill must be agreed to in identical form by both chambers, and given Royal Assent by the Governor-General. It is then known as an Act of Parliament. An Act specifies the date on which the new law will commence. Often this is the day after it receives Royal Assent.

Most bills are introduced into the House of Representatives and then sent to the Senate. Bills may start in the Senate, except for money and taxation bills. Most bills are introduced by government ministers; however, other members of parliament can introduce their own bills, known as private members' or private senators' bills.

It may take months or even years for a bill to pass through Parliament. However, an urgent bill can be passed in a matter of hours or days. Well over 100 bills are introduced into Parliament each year and about 90 per cent of government bills are passed into law.

Origins of bills

Bills can start in different ways:

  • A government department may advise its minister about a specific problem that exists. The minister may then arrange for a bill to be drafted to fix the problem.
  • Community groups, businesses or lobby groups may be interested in changing or improving a specific area of Australian law. They can approach members of parliament with suggestions for bills.
  • Political parties have their own ideas about how Australia should be governed. In Parliament, parties introduce bills which aim to put their ideas into action.
  • The Parliament can set up a parliamentary committee to examine a current issue. If the issue requires action, the committee may suggest that a bill be introduced.

History

The law-making process used in the Australian Parliament comes from the practices of the British Parliament, developed over many centuries. The word ‘bill’ probably comes from the Latin word bulla, meaning ‘seal’. In medieval times, seals were put on documents written by a king or person in authority. During the 16th century in England, the word ‘bill’ came to mean a draft for an Act of Parliament.

The practice of the Clerk reading the bill aloud 3 times dates back to the early British Parliament, before printing was invented and many people could read. The Clerk had to read the bill aloud so that members of parliament knew what the bill was about. Today bills still go through 3 ‘readings’ but the Clerk only reads the title of the bill.

The usual path of a bill.

Bills must be debated and passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate before the Governor-General signs it into law.

Parliamentary Education Office (peo.gov.au)

Description

This diagram illustrates the usual path of a bill through the federal Parliament to become Australian law.

In the House of Representatives a bill goes through the following stages:

  • 1st reading—the bill is introduced to the House of Representatives.
  • 2nd reading—members debate and vote on the main idea of the bill.
  • House committee (optional stage)—public inquiry into the bill and reporting back to the House.
  • Consideration in detail (optional stage)—members discuss the bill in detail, including any changes to the bill.
  • 3rd reading—members vote on the bill in its final form.

The bill is passed in the House of Representatives and sent to the Senate.

Senate referral—the Senate may refer the text of the bill to a Senate committee for inquiry (this can happen while the bill is in the House).

In the Senate a bill goes through the following stages:

  • 1st reading—the bill is introduced to the Senate.
  • 2nd reading—senators debate and vote on the main idea of the bill.
  • Senate committee (optional stage)—public inquiry into the bill and reporting back to the Senate.
  • Committee of the whole (optional stage)—senators discuss the bill in detail, including any changes to the bill.
  • 3rd reading—senators vote on the bill in its final form.
  • The bill is passed in the Senate.

The bill is given Royal Assent—The Governor-General signs the bill.

The bill becomes an Act of Parliament—a law for Australia.

Parts of a bill.

This image shows excerpts from a bill introduced into the Australian Parliament.

Parliamentary Education Office (peo.gov.au)

Description

This image shows the different sections of a bill. The top third shows the bill title and year. The middle third shows an excerpt from bill clauses and sub-clauses. The bottom third shows excerpts from bill definitions.