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Opinion, Opinion

OPINION: What Is A Bill?

OPINION: What Is A Bill?
April 07
09:42 2015

Welcome back to Parliament 101. You might recall that in an earlier column, Parliament 101 showed that the constitutional definition of parliament gives it only one role – to pass laws.

This week we look at how the Parliament exercises its legislative role by answering the question “what is a bill?”

Laws begin their life as a proposal to establish some binding rule to ban, permit or regulate something. This proposal can start anywhere – in a village meeting, in a party room, in a petition to parliament, or in departmental memo.

It really does not matter where the idea starts. The proposal has to be written down and formed into legal words than can be understood by the people, enforced by the police or other government officers and interpreted by the courts.

To meet all these requirements, the wording of the law has to be carefully crafted. Have you ever tried to write a regulation for your club, school association or church group?

If you have, you will know how difficult it is to write rules that are clear and unambiguous.

Thus, whatever their beginning, most ideas for new laws will end up finding their way into a Government department for developing into a draft proposal.   Usually a special lawyer, called the Parliamentary Counsel, turns the department’s draft into the appropriate legal words.

It is what happens next that turns these drafts into a piece of proposed legislation called a “bill”.

Even the most carefully written proposal to make a new law or change an old one is not a bill until it is introduced formally into the Parliament. When the Parliament accepts a proposal for consideration that the draft becomes a bill.

The process begins when a Member informs the Secretary-General of an intention to introduce a bill. The Secretary-General publishes the notice of this in the Gazette at least two days before the bill is expected to be read a first time.

While any MP can introduce a bill, in practice, most bills are Government bills and so are introduced by Ministers. Only the Finance Minister or another Minister authorised by Cabinet can introduce a Money Bill, however.

Once a bill is introduced into the Parliament it is still only a law in waiting. The next step is for the bill to be passed by the Parliament.

This will require some explanation by the Minister responsible for the bill and some debate by the rest of the Parliament to see if it is acceptable.

Because laws are very important in terms of their possible consequences, there are special procedures to make sure the Parliament gives proper consideration to a bill.

A bill must pass three “readings” to see if the proposal has the support of the majority in the Parliament. Each reading has an individual and special purpose that contributes to a bill becoming a law.

There is an interesting historical reason why each stage in passing a bill is called a “reading”. Hundreds of years ago, few Members in the Westminster Parliament were able to read or write.   So, the Members hired clerks to do this for them.

The clerks wrote up the proposals but, of course, many Members still could not read the text of the bills.   It was necessary for the Clerk or Speaker therefore to read aloud the bills to the Members so that they would know what they were voting on.

Today, since all Members can read and write, the Secretary-General only reads the title of a bill, not the entire bill.

But, why is it necessary to read the bill three times and vote on the motion to read it three times in order to pass the bill?

There are good reasons for this convoluted process even though it may seem as unnecessary repetition.

The first reading is usually a formality since its purpose is to advise the Parliament that legislation on an issue is going to be introduced. This gives the Members a chance to think about it before moving to a debate on the bill.

Thus, the first reading occurs when a motion is moved that the foreshadowed bill be read a first time. This motion is passed without debate; the Secretary-General reads the title of the bill; and the bill is set down for a second reading at a later date.

Then the bill is printed and circulated to all Members before the next reading.

Compared with the simplicity of the first, the second reading is complex and intricate.

The motion that the bill “be now read a second time” raises the opportunity to debate the content and merits of the bill and to make any amendments that the Parliament believes to be necessary.

It is possible for the bill to be defeated at this stage by amending the motion to defer it to a later date. Normally, this will only happen if the Government is not going to support the bill. Otherwise the motion is passed and the Secretary-General reads the title of the bill a second time.

Before any further debate, the Speaker refers the bill to the appropriate standing committee or to a special committee (if the Parliament prefers) to consider the bill in detail, normally for up to 30 days.

When the committee reports the bill, with any suggested amendments, back to the chamber for consideration, the Parliament resolves itself into a Committee of the Whole Parliament to consider the bill all over again. This time it is clause by clause.

Once this process is completed, the Parliament resumes its sitting and the Secretary-General formally reports the Committee of the Whole’s decisions including any amendments.

You can see that the second reading stage is the critical one for thoroughly considering the bill to make sure the bill will make a good law.

The third reading may take place immediately or some time later but its purpose is to pass the bill in the form agreed at the end of the second reading process. To make sure that the Parliament is approving the final version of the bill, the content of the bill cannot be amended at this stage.

If the Parliament passes the bill after the third reading, the Speaker presents the bill, to the President for his assent.

The bill finally becomes a law with the President’s assent or after seven days if the President has failed to assent to the bill.

This is the general description of the life of a Government bill. It is scarcely the full story for all bills – not even all Government bills. There are special provisions for Money Bills and bills to amend the Constitution.

Also there are special provisions for Private Bills as well as ways of treating bills to limit their consideration. The “guillotine”, for example, can shortcut this process of a careful consideration of bills before they become laws.

Parliament 101 will address some of these added complexities in passing bills including the guillotine, money bills and constitutional amendments in a later column.

 

Feedback:newsroom@fijisun.com.fj

 

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