In order to make sense of the rest of Australian politics, it is important to know how legislation is passed here.
Members of Parliament sit in the House of Representatives, or the lower house, and represent one of the 150 Australian electorates (geographical divisions making up theoretically one 150th of Australia’s population.)
Senators sit in the Senate, or the upper house, as representatives of their respective state or territory. Each state at any one time is represented by 12 Senators (six elected at each election for six year terms), and each Territory is represented by two.
In 2014, the government is made up of a group of parties, or a coalition. The Coalition is made up of members from the Liberal Party of Australia, and the National Party of Australia.
Political parties usually decide on how they will vote on bills and issues at a party-room meeting each week. Each party has its own rules for ensuring that its members vote together. When a party allows each of its members to decide on how they will vote themselves, this is called a conscience vote.
In the case of the Coalition, each party meets separately first, and then will meet as a whole.
In order to pass new legislation, a bill will be put forward by a member (usually a Government Minister if the bill requires budgetary consideration, but theoretically a bill can be submitted by any member).
First, the title of the bill will be read in the house by the Clerk. This is called the first reading.
Next, the mover of the bill (normally a Minister) will move to have the bill be read a second time. The minister who put forward the bill will talk about the bill and explain what it is.
At that point the bill will be deferred for later consideration (and so that everybody else has a chance to read it).
When the bill comes before the chamber again, Members of the Parliament may debate it (the second reading debate).
At any time during the second reading debate, the House may refer the bill to an existing committee made up of a smaller number of Members.
The committee then presents a report of its findings back to the House to assist them in their deliberations. (Sometimes this process is purely political).
During the debate, the bill can be amended and is then voted on by the house once it is at a state where the majority of the house agrees on the text. The bill is then read a second time.
The bill may then be considered in detail. This may involve smaller changes to the wording of the text, but not to its substance.
The bill is then read a third time, and sent to the Senate.
The Senate processes the bill in the same way, with three readings, committee hearings, and scrutiny. If the bill is amended at all by the Senate, it is passed back to the House of Representatives for affirmation. The bill can theoretically be passed back and forth between the houses until both houses agree on the same text.
The Senate can also reject a bill outright. It is uncommon for a government to hold an outright majority in the Senate. Therefore the government often needs to negotiate with Senators from other parties and independents in order to pass legislation through the Senate.
If the same text has been approved by both houses, it is then sent to the Governor-General of Australia, who is the Queen’s representative in Australia.
The Governor-General gives assent to the bill, making it an Act of Parliament (or law).
This system of government allows many opportunities for participation and engagement by citizens. In future blog posts, we will explore how you can get involved.
Follow the link to read the next political Decipher blog post, Decipher: Who is Your Member of Parliament?