Most of the bills debated in the Parliament are proposed by the government; however, any member of parliament can introduce a bill. In the Senate these are called private senators' bills and in the House of Representatives they are known as private members' bills.
Over the last 20 years, on average 12 private bills have been introduced in the House each year and 21 in the Senate. These bills can address any issue, but only government bills can impose a tax or appropriate (collect and spend) money.
Between 1901 and 2015, the Parliament passed over 10 000 laws, but only 22 of these were private senators' or members' bills. In part, this is because most private bills are put forward by non-government members or senators who can find it difficult to get enough time to debate and gain support for their bill. This is particularly so in the House of Representatives, where the government usually has the majority of members and can use its numbers to defeat a non-government bill.
A record number of five private bills were passed during the 43rd Parliament under a minority government that formed with the support of some Independent members and the Greens. As part of an agreement with these crossbench members, the government set aside more time in the House of Representatives to consider private members' bills. The minority government often relied on the votes of crossbench members and senators to pass government bills, and in turn may have been more willing to support private bills.
By introducing a private member's or senator's bill, a member of parliament can highlight and encourage debate on an issue or problem they believe should be addressed by the Parliament. Sometimes this prompts the government to take action on the issue or even introduce and pass a similar bill.
For example, in 1957 a private member introduced the Matrimonial Bill to make divorce laws in Australia uniform across the nation. At the time, even though the Australian Constitution gave the federal Parliament the power to make laws about marriage and divorce, each state had their own, often different, laws that set out the grounds for divorce. The bill was not passed; however, two years later the Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act 1959, a government bill which included many of the measures in the 1957 bill.
Similarly, in 1995 the Parliament passed the Sydney Airport Curfew Bill, which restricted the times planes could take off and land at the airport. This was based on a related private member's bill.
Tackling social issues
Members of parliament have also introduced private bills in response to a pressing or controversial social issue. For example, in 2012 the Parliament passed a private senator's bill to combat petrol sniffing in regional and remote Indigenous communities. The Low Aromatic Fuel Act 2012 allows the government, after consulting the local community, to ban the sale of regular unleaded (sniffable) fuel in areas where petrol sniffing is a problem.
The bill was introduced by Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert in response to a Senate inquiry which found that in some communities petrol station owners refused to sell non-sniffable fuel. In areas where petrol stations switched to low-aromatic, non-sniffable fuel there was 'a 94 per cent drop in petrol sniffing,' Senator Siewart told the Senate. The bill was passed by the Parliament with the support of the government.
Private members' and senators' bills have addressed issues about which people have strong moral, religious or personal beliefs. These issues are sometimes referred to as 'matters of conscience'. In some instances, when deciding on these bills, members of parliament were given a free, or conscience, vote. This means they did not have to follow a party line but rather voted according to their own beliefs.
This was the case when the Parliament passed the Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996. The bill overturned the Northern Territory's Rights of Terminally Ill Act 1995 which made euthanasia legal in the territory. Similarly, in September 2012, Mr Stephen Jones MP, who was a member of the then government, introduced a private member's bill in the House of Representatives to allow same-sex marriage. Members of the government were given a free vote, and the opposition voted against it. The Marriage Amendment Bill 2012 was defeated by 98 to 42 votes.
Passing private bills
Once a private member's bill passes the House of Representatives, it is then sponsored, or introduced, in the Senate by a private senator or a minister in the Senate. Likewise, if a private senator's bill is passed by the Senate, it is sponsored by a private member or minister in the House. If passed by both houses, a bill must be signed by the Governor-General (Royal Assent) to become a law.
The Life Assurance Act 1905 was the first private member's bill to become law. It was introduced by Mr Littleton Groom MP, and limited the amount for which children could be insured. At the time, child mortality rates were very high and many working-class parents took out this insurance to cover funeral costs if their child died at a young age.
Speaking in the House of Representatives, Mr Groom said he was concerned that, 'if persons could assure the lives of children for unlimited amounts, assurances might be taken out for improper purposes'. Although Mr Groom acknowledged there was no evidence of this happening, he believed the law would remove 'any motive for the destruction of child life'.
The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1924 was the third private bill to become a law. It amended, or changed, the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1902 to make voting compulsory in all federal elections. The bill also introduced fines for people who failed to vote.
The Smoking and Tobacco Products Advertisements (Prohibition) Act 1989 banned tobacco advertising in print media. It was introduced by the leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator Janet Powell, and was the first private senator's bill proposed by a woman to become law. Tobacco advertising on radio and television had already been banned in 1976.
The Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Act 2006 removed the power of the Minister for Health to approve the abortion drug RU486. Instead, as with other drugs, the Therapeutic Goods Administration became responsible for approving its use.
The bill was co-sponsored by four female senators – Fiona Nash from the Nationals, Claire Moore from the Australian Labor Party, Judith Troeth from the Liberal Party and Lyn Allison from the Australian Democrats. Speaking in the Senate, Senator Nash observed, 'this is the first time in the history of this place that four members of different parties have co-sponsored a private senator's bill'. It was also the first time a bill with cross-party sponsors was given a conscience vote. In both the Senate and House of Representatives over 80 per cent of women voted in favour.
The Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (Fair Protection for Firefighters) Act 2011 makes it easier for firefighters, who develop cancer due to inhaling carcinogens while at work, to be paid compensation. The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Greens member Mr Adam Bandt MP and co-sponsored by Ms Maria Vamvakinou MP, a member of the then government, and Mr Russell Broadbent MP, a member of the then opposition. Speaking on the bill, Senator Penny Wright described it as 'a credit to collaboration and multi-partisanship in the interests of what is right and fair'.
The Territories Self-Government Legislation Amendment (Disallowance and Amendment of Laws) Act 2011 amended, or changed, the ACT and Northern Territory self-government Acts to remove the power of the Governor-General to overturn or recommend amendments to territory laws. Under this Act, territory laws can now only be disallowed or changed through a vote of federal Parliament, as defined in section 122 of the Constitution. This means individual ministers and the Cabinet can no longer ask the Governor-General to override territory laws.
The Evidence Amendment (Journalists' Privilege) Act 2011 amended the Evidence Act 1995 to strengthen protection provided to journalists and their sources. Under the Act, a journalist does not have to reveal the identity of their source, unless it is proven to be in the public interest. The bill was introduced by Independent, Mr Andrew Wilkie MP. He told the House that it was 'intended to foster freedom of the press and better access to information for the Australian public'. It was passed by the Parliament with the support of both the opposition and government.