Detail shot of Parliament House, Canberra Photo: Polly Armstrong/OxfamAUS

The low-down on law-making

How Bills get to parliament and how they become law

All new laws begin as ‘Bills’. A Bill is simply a proposed law which is brought to parliament to be debated. Usually Bills are written and introduced into parliament by the government. However, an MP or a Senator from any party can write a Bill. Bills that are written by an individual MP or Senator are called ‘Private Members’ Bills’.

There are a number of stages which a Bill must go through before it can be voted on and become a law. The first stage is called the ‘first reading’. This is when the Bill is introduced to parliament and its title is read out by a clerk.

The MP or Senator who introduced the Bill (if it is a government Bill, this will be a Minister) then proposes that the Bill be read a second time. This begins the second reading stage. At this point, consideration of the Bill is usually adjourned for a number of weeks to give MPs and Senators the opportunity to go away and have a look at it in detail. When the second reading stage resumes, MPs or Senators have the opportunity to express their views on the Bill, and whether or not it should be passed, by making a second reading speech. At the end of the second reading stage, the title of the Bill is read once again by a clerk.

The next stage is called the committee stage and is more informal. It is during this stage that MPs and Senators will work through the details of the Bill and debate any amendments to particular provisions. This stage closes with a vote on whether the Bill, as amended, is agreed to.

Finally, there will be a vote on whether the Bill should be read a third time. This is arguably the most important vote as it is essentially a vote on whether the Bill should become a law. Sometimes, there will be further speeches at this stage. The Minister responsible for the Bill may provide a closing summary and thank those involved in the debate on the Bill. In the case of controversial Bills, MPs and Senators may choose to re-state their opposition to a bill at the third reading stage. It the third reading vote is passed, the title of the Bill is read once again by a clerk and the Bill is officially passed.

However, for a Bill to become a law, it must pass both the House of Representatives and in the Senate in the same format. This means that if, for example, the House passes a Bill, which is later amended by the Senate, the amended Bill must be passed in the House once more.

After a Bill has passed through both houses of parliament, it is referred to as an Act of Parliament. It is then sent to the Governor General, the Queen’s representative in Australia, for his or her assent. It is now law, and details are published in the Government Gazette.

For more information about this process, see the Parliamentary Education Office fact sheet on passing a Bill.

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