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Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), 19 July 1930, p. 1, National Library of Australia, NX 245

In 1929 the Australian Labor Party government, under Prime Minister James Scullin, won a landslide election in the House of Representatives but held only seven of the 36 seats in the Senate.

The Central Reserve Bank Bill, introduced in the Senate in 1930, sought to establish a Reserve Bank and strengthen Australia’s banking system during the Great Depression. On 10 July, the Senate referred the bill to an eight-member select committee, only three of whom were government senators. The government senators subsequently withdrew from the inquiry. The committee concluded the bill was ‘not suitable to the needs of Australia’, and the bill was defeated early in 1931.

This bill, and two others referred to select committees in the early 1950s, helped create a perception that using committees to examine proposed legislation was politically motivated rather than a legitimate and proper function of the Senate in the consideration of bills.

Harold Barry Armstrong, ‘The Thing!’, Argus (Melbourne), 30 Apr 1951, p. 1.

A bill to a committee dissolves the Parliament

In 1951, the referral of the Commonwealth Bank Bill 1950 [No. 2] to a select committee led to the 1951 double dissolution. Under the Constitution, if the Senate ‘fails to pass’ a bill it can be grounds for dissolving and re-electing both houses of parliament (a double dissolution). Today, referring bills to committees is a routine procedure of the Senate and the notion of ‘failure to pass’ remains open to interpretation.

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Papers on Parliament, no. 53, June 2010