Budget day is one of the busiest and most important sitting days of the parliamentary year and receives close public and media attention. Budget day traditionally occurs in August but in recent years has sometimes been in May.
The Budget is the occasion of the Government's annual financial report and policy statement to the Parliament and the nation. In addition to the Treasurer's speech, the Budget includes the main appropriation bills, other legislation to give effect to the financial proposals announced in the Budget speech, and the Budget papers—documents presented to Parliament containing information on government finances and related matters.
In the House of Representatives there is no special Budget procedure as such: the Budget depends upon the passage of the main appropriation bill for the year, which in its essentials follows the same stages as any other bill.
Proceedings in recent years have started at 7.30 p.m., with the Speaker announcing a message from the Governor-General recommending that an appropriation of revenue be made for the purposes of Appropriation Bill (No. 1). The Treasurer then presents the bill to the House. The Clerk of the House formally reads the bill a first time by reading out its long (or full) title as follows 'A Bill for an Act to appropriate certain sums out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund for the service of the year ending on 30 June 1997, and for related purposes'. The Treasurer then moves 'That the bill be now read a second time' and delivers the second reading speech on the bill. This is the Budget speech.
In the Budget speech the Treasurer compares the estimates of the previous financial year with actual expenditure, reviews the economic condition of the nation, and states the anticipated income and expenditure for the current financial year, including the taxation measures proposed to meet the expenditure. In making the Budget speech, the Treasurer may speak without limitation of time and at the conclusion of the speech debate is adjourned on the motion moved by (or on behalf of) the Leader of the Opposition, who thus has the right to speak first when the debate is resumed. The Budget speech is televised, as is the Leader of the Opposition's speech in reply on a subsequent day.
After debate on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) has been adjourned, the Treasurer presents the Budget Papers. The Appropriation Bill (No. 2) and the Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill are then introduced. Other business may include the introduction of Budget-related bills, the presentation of various Budget-associated documents, ministerial statements by the responsible Minister explaining Budget decisions in detail, and the moving of customs and excise tariff proposals connected with the Budget.
The debate on the second reading of Appropriation Bill (No. 1) is known as the 'Budget debate' and normally continues over a period of several weeks. The scope of discussion in the Budget debate is almost unlimited as the standing order which applies the rule of relevancy makes debate on the main Appropriation Bill one of the exceptions from its provisions.
After the second reading has been agreed to, the bill is considered in detail. Before considering the clauses of the bill the House considers Schedule 2, which contains the proposed expenditure for the various government departments listed alphabetically. The expenditure of a department may be considered on its own or grouped with that of other departments, whichever best meets the convenience of both the Opposition and the Government.
The Parliament has the ultimate control over government finances. This control is two-fold. First, taxes are imposed and loans to the Government are authorised by legislation which must be agreed to by the Parliament. Secondly, and more importantly, government expenditure must also be authorised by legislation.
Australia's Constitution states that 'no money shall be drawn from the Treasury of the Commonwealth except under appropriation made by law'. This means that however much money the Government has, whether raised by taxation or by loan or even by sale of government assets, the money cannot be spent unless the Parliament has authorised the expenditure by an Act of Parliament (an appropriation Act). Such authorisation is often known by the term 'supply', for example, when it is stated that 'the government has supply' or that 'supply has been withheld'.
Although Parliament has the ultimate control by way of veto, the Government has what is known as the 'financial initiative'. This is another way of saying that only the Government can request that an appropriation be made or increased, or propose to impose or increase taxation.
Ordinary bill procedure is described in Factsheet No. 7 — Making Laws. Financial legislation follows the same basic pattern as any other kind, that is, introduction and first reading, Minister's second reading speech, second reading debate, consideration in detail and third reading. However the Constitution imposes certain restrictions or additional requirements. The specific restraints on particular types of financial legislation are outlined below.
Taxation bills impose a tax. Examples of taxation bills are income tax bills, customs tariff bills and excise tariff bills. Bills imposing 'a charge in the nature of a tax' are also considered to be taxation bills, for example, where a charge is a revenue raising measure as distinct from a fee for a service.
Under the Constitution taxation bills cannot originate in or be amended by the Senate. Under the standing orders of the House they may be introduced without notice and must be introduced by a Minister. Additionally, amendments to a bill to increase the rate or widen the incidence of a proposed tax can only be made by a Minister (any Member may move to reduce a proposed tax).
Bills in this category lay down the administrative procedures for assessing and collecting tax. As with taxation bills they may be introduced without notice but in all other respects they are treated as ordinary bills, and may originate in and be amended by the Senate.
Customs tariffs (duties on imports and exports) and excise tariffs (duties on goods produced in Australia) are initiated by a customs tariff or excise tariff proposal, taking the form of a motion moved by a Minister without notice. Such a motion is usually treated as a formal announcement and is not voted on, and rarely debated. Successive tariff proposals are listed together on the Notice Paper as 'orders of the day', that is, theoretically, as matters on which debate will be resumed at a later date.
Periodically a customs tariff or excise tariff amendment bill is introduced. Such a bill consolidates outstanding tariff proposals and provides for their operation retrospectively to the date of their introduction as a proposal. Following the bill's enactment the 'proposals' are discharged from the Notice Paper.
Appropriation bills are all bills which contain words of appropriation (that is, authorising expenditure) and also those which would have the effect of increasing, altering the destination of, or extending the purpose of an already existing appropriation.
Under the Constitution appropriation bills cannot be initiated in the Senate, and appropriation bills for 'the ordinary annual services of the Government' cannot be amended by the Senate, that is, those providing funds for administrative services and public service salaries (e.g. Appropriation Bill (No. 1)). No appropriation bill can be passed unless the purpose of the appropriation has been recommended by a message from the Governor-General.
The annual appropriation bills are bills which are passed regularly each financial year to appropriate money from the Consolidated Revenue Fund to provide funds for government and parliamentary expenditure. (Parliament is constitutionally separate and independent from the Government and has separate funding by means of its own appropriations.) The table below outlines the annual appropriation cycle.
If the main appropriation bills do not pass before the commencement of the financial year, the Parliament may pass supply bills to provide funds in the interim. This is the usual practice when the budget is presented in August.
This type of bill appropriates funds for a specified purpose, for example, to finance a particular project or program set up by the bill (the appropriation being in most cases incidental to the bill's main intention). About two thirds of government expenditure is covered by special appropriation. Special appropriation bills are often not specific in amount or duration. Those providing funds for an indefinite period are said to give 'standing appropriation'.
House of Representatives Practice, 2nd edn. A.G.P.S., Canberra, 1989. pp 407–427.
Department of Finance. Commonwealth Financial Management Handbook. AGPS, Canberra, 1992.