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Parliament at work

Debates in the Parliament

The time it takes to debate and pass a bill, or proposed law, in Parliament varies. It can depend on factors such as the complexity of the bill, how many members of parliament wish to speak on the bill, whether it has cross-party support and if there is an urgent need to pass the bill.

Each time the Parliament sits, or meets, it usually has a number of bills to consider and allocates time to debate these various bills. Given Parliament sits for about 20 weeks across the year, this means it may take weeks or even months for a bill to be debated and passed. However, if a bill is urgent and needs to be passed quickly, the Parliament can agree to limit the time for debate on that particular bill.

Time limits on speeches

House of Representatives

Most government bills are introduced in the House of Representatives. At different stages in the debate on a bill, there are time limits on speeches. The minister responsible for the bill moves, or requests, the bill be read a second time. This signals the second reading debate has begun. The minister then makes a speech explaining why the bill is needed, its purpose and the impact of the bill. This speech can be up to 30 minutes long.

At the end of the speech, the debate is adjourned, or put aside, for discussion at a later date. This gives members time to study the bill before speaking and voting on it, and provides an opportunity for public discussion. If Parliament stops sitting, debate on the bill will not continue until it meets again at a later time.

When the second reading debate resumes, an opposition member usually, the shadow minister, is also given 30 minutes in which to outline the opposition's position on the bill. After that, any of the remaining members of the House can speak once, for up to 15 minutes. Government and non-government members usually speak in turn. At the conclusion of the second reading debate, the minister can again speak for 15 minutes to 'sum up' the debate.

During the second reading debate, members of parliament discuss the main idea of the bill. This discussion may include why the bill should be supported or opposed, as well as alternative ways of dealing with the issues the bill is trying to address or of achieving the same outcome as the bill. It is often the most substantial discussion of the bill and there is no time limit on the total time of the debate.

If the bill passes the second reading stage, or in other words the House agrees to keep working on the bill, the debate may move into a stage known as consideration in detail. This discussion is less formal. During this stage, members of parliament can ask the minister questions about the bill to better understand its purpose and how it will work. They can also suggest amendments, or changes, to the detail of the bill.  Members can speak for up to five minutes an unlimited number of times on each proposed amendment. Amendments can be debated together if the House agrees.

Senate

In the Senate, there are also time limits on speeches. During the second reading debate, all senators can speak for 20 minutes. If the Senate agrees to read the bill a second time, it too may examine the different parts of the bill, including any amendments, in more detail. In the Senate, this stage is called committee of the whole. During this stage, senators can speak twice and for up to 15 minutes on each question.

If the Senate amends a bill which began in the House, it must be returned to the House for it to consider the changes. This process can happen several times until the two houses reach agreement or debate on the bill is postponed, or the bill is not passed. Similarly if the House amends a bill which began in the Senate, it must be returned to the Senate so it can consider the amendments.

Referring the bill to a committee

Sometimes a bill will be referred to a committee for further investigation. The committee inquiry may take weeks or months, during which time the bill is not debated in that chamber. Before the debate resumes, the committee will present a report of its findings to the Parliament.

The Senate can refer the text of a bill to a Senate committee while it is still being debated in the House. This provides senators with information about the bill that can assist the debate in the Senate.

Cutting debate short

At any stage when considering a bill, in both the Senate and the House, the minister may declare the bill urgent and set times for each stage of the debate to be completed.  This can only happen if the House or Senate agrees. Alternatively, times can be set without declaring the bill urgent. The minister can also cut short debate by moving 'That the question be now put'. If the House or Senate agrees, the question that is before that chamber — for example 'That the bill be read a third time' — is immediately put to a vote without further debate.

Longest debates in the Senate

The longest debate on an issue in the Senate was on native title. It took 105 hours and 56 minutes to debate the Native Title Amendment Bill 1997 and the Native Title Amendment Bill 1997 [No. 2]. These bills made it possible for Indigenous Australians, who can show a continuing connection to the land, to claim native title.

More recently, debate on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016, which changed the way elections for the Senate are conducted, lasted 39 hours and 4 minutes. A large part of this debate took place as the Senate sat nonstop for nearly 29 hours, thought to be the longest continuous sitting of the Senate. A list of bills debated in the Senate for longer than 20 hours from 1990-2016 can be found here.

Sometimes the Parliament will agree to pass a bill quickly if it needs to address an urgent problem. For example, in 2011 the Parliament passed the Tax Laws Amendment (Temporary Flood and Cyclone Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011. It was in response to a series of floods and cyclones that hit Australia, particularly Queensland, in 2010 and early 2011. Under the bill, taxpayers were charged a small levy to go into a fund to help rebuild communities affected by these natural disasters. The Senate spent 13 hours and 1 minute considering the bill.

Similarly, the Senate spent 8 hours and 46 minutes debating the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014. The bill aimed to make it easier to detain and charge Australians suspected of joining extremist fighters in overseas conflicts. As the bill had widespread support in the Senate, there was less need for a lengthy debate.

The House of Representatives does not generally keep records of the length of debates on the bills it considers.

The usual path of a bill

House of Representatives

  1. 1st reading
  2. 2nd reading
  3. House committee*
  4. Consideration in detail*
  5. 3rd reading
  6. Bill is passed
  • 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*—public inquiry into the bill and reporting back to the House.
  • Consideration in detail*—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).

Senate

  1. 1st reading
  2. 2nd reading
  3. Senate committee*
  4. Committee of the whole*
  5. 3rd reading
  6. Bill is passed
  • 1st reading—the bill is introduced to the Senate.
  • 2nd reading—senators debate and vote on the main idea of the bill.
  • Senate committee*—public inquiry into the bill and reporting back to the Senate.
  • Committee of the whole*—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.
 
 

Governor-General

  1. Royal Assent by the Governor-General
  2. Bill becomes an act of parliament
  • Royal Assent—The Governor-General signs the bill.
  • Bill becomes an Act of Parliament—a law for Australia.

*optional stage