The Senate is the upper of the two houses of the Parliament of Australia. The lower house is known as the House of Representatives. Senators, popularly elected under a system of proportional representation, serve terms of six years. Significant power is conferred upon the Senate by the Australian Constitution, including the capacity to block legislation initiated by the government in the House of Representatives, making it a distinctive hybrid of British Westminster bicameralism and an American separation of powers.
The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act of 1900 established the Senate as part of the new system of dominion government in newly-federated Australia. From a comparative governmental perspective, the Australian Senate exhibits distinctive characteristics. Unlike upper houses in other Westminster system governments, the Senate is not a vestigial body with limited legislative power. Rather it was intended to play, and does play, an active role in legislation. Rather than being modelled after the House of Lords, as the Canadian Senate was, the Australian Senate was in part modelled after the United States Senate, by giving equal representation to each state. The Constitution intended to give less populous states added voice in a Federal legislature, while also providing for the revising role of an upper house in the Westminster system.
Although the Prime Minister, by convention, serves as a member of the House of Representatives, other ministers may come from either house, and the two houses have almost equal legislative power. As with most upper chambers in bicameral parliaments, the Senate cannot introduce Appropriation Bills (bills that authorise government expenditure of public revenue) or bills that impose taxation, that role being reserved for the lower house. That degree of equality between the Senate and House of Representatives is in part due to the age of the Australian constitution it was enacted before the confrontation in 1909 in Britain between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, which ultimately resulted in the restrictions placed on the powers of the House of Lords by the Parliament Act but also reflected the desire of the Constitution's authors to have the upper house act as a 'stabilising' influence on the expression of popular democracy (much as the colonial Legislative Councils functioned as at the time). The smaller states also desired strong powers for the Senate as a way of ensuring that the interests of more populous states as represented in the House of Representatives did not totally dominate the government.
In practice, however, most legislation (except for Private Member's Bills) in the Australian Parliament is initiated by the Government, which has control over the lower house. It is then passed to the Senate, which may amend the bill or refuse to pass it. In the majority of cases, voting takes place along party lines, although there are occasional conscience votes.
If the Senate repeatedly refuses to pass legislation initiated in the lower house, the government may either abandon the bill, continue to revise it, or, in certain circumstances outlined in section 57 of the Constitution, the Prime Minister can recommend the governor-general dissolve the entire parliament in a double dissolution. In such an event, the entirety of the Senate faces re-election, as does the House of Representatives, rather than only half the chamber as is normally the case. After a double dissolution election, if the bills in question are reintroduced, and if they again fail to pass the Senate, the governor-general may agree to a joint sitting of the two houses in an attempt to pass the bills. Such a sitting has only occurred once, in 1974.
On 8 October 2003, the Prime Minister John Howard initiated public discussion of whether the mechanism for the resolution of deadlocks between the houses should be reformed. High levels of support for the existing mechanism, and a very low level of public interest in that discussion, resulted in the abandonment of these proposals.
The constitutional text denies the Senate the power to originate or amend appropriation bills, in deference to the conventions of the classical Westminster system. Under a traditional Westminster system, the executive government is responsible for its use of public funds to the lower house, which has the power to bring down a government by blocking its access to Supply i.e. revenue appropriated through taxation. The arrangement as expressed in the Australian Constitution, however, still leaves the Senate with the power to reject supply bills or defer their passage undoubtedly one of the Senate's most contentious and powerful abilities.
The ability to block Supply was the origin of Australia's most significant constitutional crisis, that of 1975. The Opposition used its numbers in the Senate to defer supply bills, refusing to deal with them until an election was called for both Houses of Parliament, an election which it hoped to win. The Prime Minister of the day, Gough Whitlam, contested the legitimacy of the blocking and refused to resign. The crisis brought to a head two Westminster conventions that, under the Australian constitutional system, were in conflict firstly, that a government may continue to govern for as long as it has the support of the lower house, and secondly, that a government that no longer has access to Supply must either resign or be dismissed. The crisis was resolved in November 1975 when Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed Whitlam's government and appointed a caretaker government on condition that elections for both houses of parliament be held. This action in itself was a source of controversy and debate continues on the proper usage of the Senate's ability to block Supply and on whether such a power should even exist.
These conditions have periodically been the source of debate, and within these conditions, the composition and rules of the Senate have varied significantly since federation.
The voting system for the Senate has changed twice since it was created. The original arrangement involved a first past the post block voting mechanism. This was replaced in 1919 by preferential block voting. Block voting tended to grant landslide majorities and even "wipe-outs" very easily. In 1946, the Australian Labor Party government won 33 out of the 36 Senate seats. In 1948, partially in response to this extreme situation, proportional representation became the method for electing the Senate.
|Senate election Tasmania|
[_] Family First
| [_] Abetz E|
[_] Barnett G
[_] Parry S
| [_] Larner R|
[_] Watts A
| [_] Onsman Y|
[_] Cass S
| [_] Petrusma J|
[_] Bergman L
[_] Smith L
| [_] Mitchell D|
[_] Fracalossi M
| [_] Murphy S|| [_] Martin S|
[_] Newman J
| [_] Milne C|
[_] Cassidy K
[_] Millen T
| [_] O'Brien K|
[_] Polley H
[_] Price D
[_] Wells N
| [_] Newitt R|
[_] Gargan E
[_] Ottavi D
[_] McDonald J
Electors must either:
Because each state elects 6 senators at each half-senate election, the quota for election is only 1/7th or 14.3% (1/3rd or 33.3% for territories, where only 2 senators are elected). Once a candidate has been elected with votes reaching the quota amount, any votes they receive in addition to this may be distributed to other candidates as preferences.
Some states may have upwards of 70 candidates on their ballot papers, and the voter must individually number every single candidate for a "below the line" vote to count. As a result the "above the line" system was implemented. Over 95% of electors vote "above the line".
The ungrouped candidates in the far right column do not have a box above the line. Therefore they can only get a primary (number 1) vote from electors who vote below the line. For this reason, some independents register as a group, either with other independents or by themselves, such as groups F and G in the above example.
The size of the Senate has changed over the years. Section 24 of the Australian Constitution requires that the number of Senators be as nearly as practicable half the number of members of the House of Representatives, and it has therefore grown periodically in line with increases in the size of the lower house. The Constitution originally provided for six Senators for each state, and thus a total of 36 senators. This was increased to ten Senators per state (and a total of 60) in 1948. In 1975, the two territories, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, elected 2 Senators each for the first time, bringing the number to 64. The last expansion took place in 1984, under which the number of senators from each state increased from 10 to 12, and the entire Senate to 76. The Senators from the Northern Territory also represent constituents from Australia's Indian Ocean Territories (Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands), while the Senators from the Australian Capital Territory also represent voters from the Jervis Bay Territory.
Normally, senators and members of the House of Representatives are elected at the same time, although their terms do not coincide. Slightly more than half of the Senate is contested at each general election (half of the 72 state senators, and all four of the territory senators), along with the entire House of Representatives. State senators are normally elected for fixed terms of six years, commencing on 1 July following the election, and ceasing on 30 June six years later. The terms of the four senators from the territories are not fixed, but are defined by the dates of the general elections for the House of Representatives, the period between which can vary greatly, to a maximum of three years and three months. Members of the lower house commence their terms on election day, and their terms expire the day prior to the following general election day . As a result, the new Parliament will for some time comprise a new House of Representatives and a substantially old, lame-duck Senate.
Following a double dissolution, all 76 senators face re-election. There have been elections at which only half the Senate was up for election. The last time this occurred was on 21 November 1970.
Due to the need to obtain votes state-wide, independent candidates have difficulty getting elected. The exceptions in recent times have been the Tasmanian Brian Harradine and the South Australian Nick Xenophon.
There are also small factions in the United Kingdom (both from the right and left) who wish to the see the House of Lords take on a structure similar to that of the Australian Senate.
The senate has a regular schedule that structures its typical working week.
The usual procedure is for notice to be given by a government minister the day before the bill is introduced into the Senate. Once introduced the bill goes through several stages of consideration. It is given a first reading, which represents the bill's formal introduction into the chamber.
The first reading is followed by debate on the principle or policy of the bill (the second reading debate). Agreement to the bill in principle is indicated by a second reading , after which the detailed provisions of the bill are considered by one of a number of methods (see below). Bills may also be referred by either House to their specialised standing or select committees. Agreement to the policy and the details is confirmed by a third and final reading. These processes ensure that a bill is systematically considered before being agreed to.The Senate has detailed rules in its standing orders that govern how a bill is considered at each stage. This process of consideration can vary greatly in the amount of time taken. Consideration of some bills is completed in a single day, while complex or controversial legislation may take months to pass through all stages of Senate scrutiny.
In addition to the work of the main chamber, the Senate also has a large number of committees which deal with matters referred to them by the Senate. These committees also conduct hearings three times a year in which the government's budget and operations are examined. These are known as estimates hearings. Traditionally dominated by scrutiny of government activities by non-government senators, they provide the opportunity for all senators to ask questions of ministers and public officials. This may occasionally include government senators examining activities of independent publicly-funded bodies, or pursuing issues arising from previous governments' terms of office. There is however a convention that senators do not have access to the files and records of previous governments when there has been an election resulting in a change in the party in government.
Party discipline in Australian politics is extremely tight, so divisions almost always are decided on party lines. Nevertheless, the existence of minor parties holding the balance of power in the Senate has made divisions in that chamber more important and occasionally more dramatic than in the House of Representatives.
When a division is to be held, bells ring throughout the parliament building for four minutes, during which time Senators must go to the chamber. At the end of that period the doors are locked and a vote is taken, by identifying and counting senators according to the side of the chamber on which they sit (ayes to the right of the chair, noes to the left). The whole procedure takes around eight minutes. Senators with commitments that keep them from the chamber may make arrangements in advance to be 'paired' with a senator of the opposite political party, so that their absence does not affect the outcome of the vote.
The senate contains an even number of Senators, so a tied vote is a real prospect (which regularly occurs when the party numbers in the chamber are finely balanced). Section 23 of the Constitution requires that in the event of a tied division, the question is resolved in the negative. The system is however different for ballots for offices such as the President. If such a ballot is tied, the Clerk of the Senate decides the outcome by the drawing of lots. In reality, conventions govern most ballots, so this situation does not arise.
One feature of the government having a majority in both chambers between 1 July 2005 and the 2007 elections was the potential for an increased emphasis on internal differences between members of the government parties. This period saw the first instances of crossing the floor by Senators since the conservative government took office in 1996: Gary Humphries on civil unions in the Australian Capital Territory, and Barnaby Joyce on voluntary student unionism. A more significant potential instance of floor crossing was averted when the government withdrew its Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill, of which several government Senators had been critical, and which would have been defeated had it proceeded to the vote. The controversy that surrounded these examples demonstrated both the importance of backbenchers in party policy deliberations and the limitations to their power to influence outcomes in the Senate chamber.
In September 2008, Barnaby Joyce became leader of the Nationals in the Senate, and stated that his party in the upper house would no longer necessarily vote with their Liberal counterparts.
The election results of the most recent federal election, were as follows:
|1974-1975||60||29||29||2 (Townley, 1 LM)|
|1975-1978||64||27||35||2 (Harradine, 1 LM)|
|1984||76||34||33||7||2 (Harradine, 1 NDP)|
|1987-1990||76||32||34||7||3 (Harradine, Vallentine, 1 NDP)|
|1996-1999||76||28||37||7||2||2 (Harradine, Colston )|
|1999-2002||76||29||35||9||1||2 (Harradine, 1 One Nation)|
|2002-2005||76||29||35||8||2||2 (Harradine, 1 One Nation)|
|2005-2008||76||28||39||4||4||1 (Family First)|
|2008-2011||76||32||37||0||5||2 (Nick Xenophon, 1 Family First)|
|Party||02-08||05-11||ACT & NT||Parliament 05-08|
|Australian Labor Party||12||14||2||28|
The 2007 election resulted in changes in the composition of the Senate, which came into effect on 1 July 2008. Until that date, the ALP government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had faced a hostile Senate controlled by an absolute majority of Liberal/National Coalition Senators. This was the first time since 1975 that a government in the House of Representatives had needed to negotiate with a Senate controlled by the Opposition. In July 2008 the Opposition lost its absolute majority, and a balance of power situation resumed.