|Type Bicameral||Founded 9 May 1901|
House of Representatives|
Monarch Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia Since 6 February 1952
Governor-General His Excellency General the Hon. Sir Peter Cosgrove AK, MC Since 28 March 2014
President of the Senate Senator the Hon. Stephen Parry, Liberal Since 7 July 2014
The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, variously referred to as the Australian Parliament, the Commonwealth Parliament or the Federal Parliament, is the legislative branch of the government of Australia. It consists of three elements: the Queen of Australia, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Queen is represented by the Governor-General. The combination of two elected Houses, in which the members of the Senate represent the six States and the two self-governing Territories while the members of the House represent electoral divisions according to population, is modelled on the United States Congress. Through both Houses, however, there is a fused executive, drawn from the Westminster System.
- Old Parliament House
- New Parliament House
- Composition and electoral systems
- House of Representatives
- Both Houses
- Conflict between the Houses
- Relationship with the Government
- Role of the Senate
- Current Parliament
The lower house, the House of Representatives, currently consists of 150 members, each elected from single member constituencies, known as electoral divisions (commonly referred to as "electorates" or "seats") using full-preference Instant-runoff voting. This tends to lead to the chamber being dominated by two major parties, the Liberal/National Coalition and the Labor Party. The government of the day must achieve the confidence of this House in order to gain and remain in power.
The upper house, the Senate, consists of 76 members: twelve for each state, and two each for the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. Senators are elected using the Single transferable vote proportional representation system and as a result, the chamber features a multitude of parties vying for power. The governing party or coalition rarely has a majority in the Senate and usually needs to negotiate with other parties and Independents to get legislation passed.
Although elections can be called early, each 3 years the full House of Representatives and half of the Senate is dissolved and goes up for reelection. A deadlock breaking mechanism known as a double dissolution can be used to dissolve the full Senate as well as the House in the event that the Upper House refuses to pass a piece of legislation twice.
The two Houses meet in separate chambers of Parliament House (except in a rare joint sitting) on Capital Hill in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory.
The Commonwealth of Australia came into being on 1 January 1901 with the federation of the six Australian colonies. The inaugural election took place on 29 and 30 March and the first Australian Parliament was opened on 9 May 1901 in Melbourne by Prince George, Duke of Cornwall and York, later King George V. The only building in Melbourne that was large enough to accommodate the 14,000 guests was the western annexe of the Royal Exhibition Building. After the official opening, from 1901 to 1927, the Parliament met in Parliament House, Melbourne, which it borrowed from the Parliament of Victoria (which sat, instead, in the Royal Exhibition Building until 1927). (The western annexe was demolished in the 1960s.)
Old Parliament House
It had always been intended that the national Parliament would sit in a new national capital. This was a compromise at Federation due to the rivalry between the two largest Australian cities, Sydney and Melbourne, which both wished to become the new capital. The site of Canberra was selected for the location of the nation's capital city in 1908. A competition was announced on 30 June 1914 to design Parliament House, with prize money of £7,000. However, due to the start of World War I the next month, the competition was cancelled. It was re-announced in August 1916, but again postponed indefinitely on 24 November 1916. In the meantime, John Smith Murdoch, the Commonwealth's Chief Architect, worked on the design as part of his official duties. He had little personal enthusiasm for the project, as he felt it was a waste of money and expenditure on it could not be justified at the time. Nevertheless, he designed the building by default.
The construction of Old Parliament House was commenced on 28 August 1923 and completed in early 1927. It was built by the Commonwealth Department of Works, using tradesmen and materials from all over Australia. The final cost was about £600,000, which was more than three times the original estimate. It was designed to last for a maximum of 50 years until a permanent facility could be built but actually lasted more than 60 years.
The building was opened on 9 May 1927 by the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother). The opening ceremonies were both splendid and incongruous, given the sparsely built nature of Canberra of the time and its small population. The building was extensively decorated with British Empire and Australian flags and bunting. Temporary stands were erected bordering the lawns in front of the Parliament and these were filled with crowds. A Wiradjuri elder, Jimmy Clements, was one of only two aboriginal Australians present, having walked for about a week from Brungle Station (near Tumut) to be at the event. Dame Nellie Melba sang the National Anthem (at that time God Save the King). The Duke of York unlocked the front doors with a golden key, and led the official party into King’s Hall where he unveiled the statue of his father, King George V. The Duke then opened the first parliamentary session in the new Senate Chamber.
New Parliament House
In 1978 the Fraser government decided to proceed with a new building on Capital Hill, and the Parliament House Construction Authority was created. A two-stage competition was announced, for which the Authority consulted the Royal Australian Institute of Architects and, together with the National Capital Development Commission, made available to competitors a brief and competition documents. The design competition drew 329 entries from 29 countries.
The competition winner was the Philadelphia-based architectural firm of Mitchell/Giurgola, with the on-site work directed by the Italian-born architect Romaldo Giurgola, with a design which involved burying most of the building under Capital Hill, and capping the edifice with an enormous spire topped by a large Australian flag. The façades, however, included deliberate imitation of some of the patterns of the Old Parliament House, so that there is a slight resemblance despite the massive difference of scale. The building was also designed to "sit above" Old Parliament House when seen from a distance.
Construction began in 1981, and the House was intended to be ready by Australia Day, 26 January 1988, the 200th anniversary of European settlement in Australia. It was expected to cost A$220 million. Neither the deadline nor the budget was met. In the end it cost more than A$1.1 billion to build.
The New Parliament House was finally opened by Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia on 9 May 1988, the anniversary of the opening of both the first Federal Parliament in Melbourne on 9 May 1901, and of the Provisional Parliament House in Canberra on 9 May 1927.
Composition and electoral systems
The Constitution establishes the Commonwealth Parliament as being made of three components, the Queen of Australia, The Senate and the House of Representatives.
Most of the constitutional functions of the Crown are given to the Governor-General, whom the Monarch appoints on the advice of the Prime Minister to act as their representative in Australia. Specifically, the Constitution gives the Governor-General the power to assent to legislation, refuse to assent, or to reserve a bill for the Queen's pleasure. However, by convention, the Governor-General does not exercise these powers, other than in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister.
The upper house of the Australian Parliament is the Senate, which consists of 76 members. Like the United States Senate, on which it was partly modelled, the Australian Senate includes an equal number of Senators from each state, regardless of population. Unlike it, however, the Australian Senate has always been directly elected. (The US Senate has been directly elected only from 1913.)
The Constitution allows Parliament to determine the number of Senators by legislation, provided that the six original states are equally represented. Furthermore, the Constitution provides that each original state is entitled to at least six Senators. However, neither of these provisions applies to any newly admitted states, or to territories. Pursuant to an Act of Parliament passed in 1973, Senators are elected to represent the territories. Currently, the two Northern Territory Senators represent the residents of the Northern Territory as well as the Australian external territories of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. The two Australian Capital Territory Senators represent the Australian Capital Territory, the Jervis Bay Territory and since 1 July 2016, Norfolk Island. While only half of the State Senate seats go up for re-election each three years as they serve six year terms, all of the Territory Senators must face the voters every three years.
Until 1949, each state elected the constitutional minimum of six Senators. This number increased to ten from the 1949 election, and was increased again to twelve from the 1984 election. The system for electing Senators has changed several times since Federation. The original arrangement involved a first-past-the-post block voting or "winner takes all" system, on a state-by-state basis. This was replaced in 1919 by preferential block voting. Block voting tended to produce landslide majorities and even "wipe-outs". For instance, from 1920 to 1923 the Nationalist Party of Australia had 35 of the 36 Senators, and from 1947 to 1950, the Australian Labor Party had 33 of the 36 Senators.
In 1948, single transferable vote proportional representation on a state-by-state basis became the method for electing Senators. This change has led to the rise of a number of minor parties such as the Democratic Labor Party, Australian Democrats and Australian Greens who have taken advantage of this system to achieve parliamentary representation and the balance of power. From the 1984 election, group ticket voting was introduced in order to reduce a high rate of informal voting but in 2016, group tickets were abolished to avoid undue influence of preference deals amongst parties that were seen as distorting election results and a form of optional preferential voting was introduced.
Section 15 of the Constitution provides that a casual vacancy of a State Senator shall be filled by the State Parliament. If the previous Senator was a member of a particular political party the replacement must come from the same party, but the State Parliament may choose not to fill the vacancy, in which case Section 11 requires the Senate to proceed regardless. If the State Parliament happens to be in recess when the vacancy occurs, the Constitution provides that the State Governor can appoint someone to fill the place until fourteen days after the State Parliament resumes sitting.
House of Representatives
The lower house of the Australian Parliament, the House of Representatives is made up of single member electorates with roughly the same population. As is convention in the Westminster System, the party or coalition of parties that has the majority in this House forms the Government with the leader of that party or coalition becoming the Prime Minister. If the government loses the confidence of the House, they are expected to call a new election or resign.
Parliament may determine the number of members of the House of Representatives but the Constitution provides that this number must be "as nearly as practicable, twice the number of Senators"; this requirement is commonly called the "nexus provision". Hence, the House presently consists of 150 members. Each state is allocated seats based on its population; however, each original state, regardless of size, is guaranteed at least five seats. The Constitution does not guarantee representation for the territories. Parliament granted a seat to the Northern Territory in 1922, and to the Australian Capital Territory in 1948; these territorial representatives, however, had only limited voting rights until 1968. Federal electorates have their boundaries redrawn or redistributed whenever a state or territory has its number of seats adjusted, if electorates are not generally matched by population size or if seven years have passed since the most recent redistribution.
From 1901 to 1949, the House consisted of either 74 or 75 members (the Senate had 36). Between 1949 and 1984, it had between 121 and 127 members (the Senate had 60 until 1975, when it increased to 64). In 1977, the High Court ordered that the size of the House be reduced from 127 to 124 members to comply with the nexus provision. In 1984, both the Senate and the House were enlarged; since then the House has had between 148 and 150 members (the Senate has 76).
From the beginning of Federation until 1918, first-past-the-post voting was used in order to elect members of the House of Representatives but since the 1918 Swan by-election which Labor unexpectedly won with the largest primary vote due to vote splitting amongst the conservative parties, the Nationalist Party of Australia government, a predecessor of the modern-day Liberal Party of Australia, changed the lower house voting system to Instant-runoff voting, which in Australia is known as full preferential voting, as of the subsequent 1919 election. This system has remained in place ever since, allowing the Coalition parties to safely contest the same seats. Full-preference preferential voting re-elected the Bob Hawke government at the 1990 election, the first time in federal history that Labor had obtained a net benefit from preferential voting.
It is not possible to be simultaneously a member of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, but a number of people have been members of both Houses at different times in their parliamentary career (see List of people who have served in both Houses of the Australian Parliament).
Only Australian citizens are eligible for election to either house. They must not also hold citizenship of a "foreign power". When the Constitution was drafted, all Australians were British subjects, so the word "foreign" meant non-British. But, in the landmark case Sue v Hill (1999), the High Court of Australia ruled that, at least since the Australia Act 1986, Britain has been a "foreign power", so that British citizens are also excluded.
Compulsory voting was introduced for federal elections in 1924. The immediate justification for compulsory voting was the low voter turnout (59.38%) at the 1922 federal election, down from 71.59% at the 1919 federal election. Compulsory voting was not on the platform of either the Stanley Bruce-led Nationalist/Country party coalition government or the Matthew Charlton-led Labor opposition. The actual initiative for change was made by Herbert Payne, a backbench Tasmanian Nationalist Senator who on 16 July 1924 introduced a private member's bill in the Senate. Payne's bill was passed with little debate (the House of Representatives agreeing to it in less than an hour), and in neither house was a division required, hence no votes were recorded against the bill. The 1925 federal election was the first to be conducted under compulsory voting, which saw the turnout figure rise to 91.4%. The turnout increased to about 95% within a couple of elections and has stayed at about that level since.
Australian Federal Police officers armed with assault rifles have been situated in both chambers of the Federal Parliament since 2015. It is the first time in Australian history that a parliament has possessed armed personnel.
Each of the two Houses elects a presiding officer. The presiding officer of the Senate is called the President; that of the House of Representatives is the Speaker. Elections for these positions are by secret ballot. Both offices are conventionally filled by members of the governing party, but the presiding officers are expected to oversee debate and enforce the rules in an impartial manner.
The Constitution authorises Parliament to set the quorum for each chamber. The quorum of the Senate is one-quarter of the total membership (nineteen); that of the House of Representatives is one-fifth of the total membership (thirty). In theory, if a quorum is not present, then a House may not continue to meet. In practice, members usually agree not to notice that a quorum is not present, so that debates on routine bills can continue without other members having to be present. Sometimes the Opposition will "call a quorum" as a tactic to annoy the Government or delay proceedings, particularly when the Opposition feels it has been unfairly treated in the House. The session of the relevant House is suspended until a quorum is present. It is the responsibility of the Government whips to ensure that, when a quorum is called, enough Government members are present to make up a quorum.
Both Houses may determine motions by voice vote: the presiding officer puts the question, and, after listening to shouts of "Aye" and "No" from the members, announces the result. The announcement of the presiding officer settles the question, unless at least two members demand a "division", or a recorded vote. In that case the bells are rung throughout Parliament House summoning Senators or Members to the chamber. During a division, members who favour the motion move to the right side of the chamber, whereas those opposed move to the left. They are then counted by the "tellers" (Government and Opposition whips), and the motion is passed or defeated accordingly. In the Senate, in order not to deprive a state of a vote in what is supposed to be a states' house, the President is permitted a vote along with other Senators (however, that right is rarely exercised); in the case of a tie, the President does not have a casting vote and the motion fails. In the House of Representatives, the Speaker does not vote, except in the case of a tie (see casting vote).
Most legislation is introduced into the House of Representatives and goes through a number of stages to become a law. The first stage is a first reading, where the legislation is introduced to the chamber, then there is a second reading, where a vote is taken on the general outlines of the bill. The legislation can then be considered by a House committee, which reports back to the House on any recommendations. This is followed by a consideration in detail stage, where the House can explore the bill in detail and make any amendments. This is finally followed by a third reading, where the bill is either passed or rejected by the House. If passed, the legislation is then sent to the Senate, which has a similar structure of debate and passage except that the consideration in detail stage is replaced by a similar, Committee of the whole. Once a bill has passed by both Houses in the same form, it is then presented to the Governor-General for Royal Assent.
The principal function of the Parliament is to pass laws, or legislation. Any Senator or Member may introduce a proposed law (a bill), except for a money bill (a bill proposing an expenditure or levying a tax), which must be introduced in the House of Representatives. In practice, the great majority of bills are introduced by ministers. Bills introduced by other Members are called private members' bills. All bills must be passed by both Houses to become law. The Senate has the same legislative powers as the House, except that it may not amend money bills, only pass or reject them. The enacting formula for Acts of Parliament is simply "The Parliament of Australia enacts:".
The Commonwealth legislative power is limited to that granted in the Constitution. Powers not specified are considered "residual powers", and remain the domain of the states. Section 51 grants the Commonwealth power over areas such as taxation, external affairs, defence and marriage. Section 51 also allows State parliaments to refer matters to the Commonwealth to legislate.
Section 96 of the Australian Constitution gives the Commonwealth Parliament the power to grant money to any State, "on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit." In effect, the Commonwealth can make grants subject to States implementing particular policies in their fields of legislative responsibility. Such grants, known as "tied grants" (since they are tied to a particular purpose), have been used to give the federal parliament influence over state policy matters such as public hospitals and schools.
The Parliament performs other functions besides legislation. It can discuss urgency motions or matters of public importance: these provide a forum for debates on public policy matters. Senators and Members can move motions of censure against the government or against individual ministers. On most sitting days in both Houses there is a session called Question Time at which Senators and Members address questions to the Prime Minister and other ministers. Senators and Members can also present petitions from their constituents. Both Houses have an extensive system of committees in which draft bills are debated, evidence is taken and public servants are questioned. There are also joint committees, composed of members from both Houses.
Conflict between the Houses
In the event of conflict between the two Houses over the final form of legislation, the Constitution provides for a simultaneous dissolution of both Houses – known as a double dissolution. Section 57 of the Constitution states that, "If the House of Representatives passes any proposed law, and the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree, and if after an interval of three months the House of Representatives, in the same or the next session, again passes the proposed law with or without any amendments which have been made, suggested, or agreed to by the Senate, and the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree, the Governor-General may dissolve the Senate and the House of Representatives simultaneously."
In an election following a double dissolution, each state elects their entire 12-seat Senate delegation, while the two territories represented in the Senate each elect their two senators as they would in a regular federal election. Because all seats are contested in the same election, it is easier for smaller parties to win seats under the single transferable vote system: the quota for the election of each senator in each Australian state in a full Senate election is 7.69% of the vote, while in a normal half-Senate election the quota is 14.28%.
If the conflict continues after such an election, the Governor-General may convene a joint sitting of both Houses to consider the bill or bills, including any amendments which have been previously proposed in either House, or any new amendments. If a bill is passed by an absolute majority of the total membership of the joint sitting, it is treated as though it had been passed separately by both Houses, and is presented for royal assent. With proportional representation, and the small majorities in the Senate compared to the generally larger majorities in the House of Representatives, and the requirement that the number of members of the House be "nearly as practicable" twice that of the Senate, a joint sitting after a double dissolution is more likely than not to lead to a victory for the House over the Senate. This provision has only been invoked on one occasion, after the election following the 1974 double dissolution. However, there are other occasions when the two Houses meet as one: see Joint meetings of the Australian Parliament.
In addition to the work of the main chambers, both the Senate and the House of Representatives also have a large number of committees which deal with matters referred to them by their respective Houses. They provide the opportunity for all Members and Senators to ask questions of ministers and public officials as well as conduct inquiries, examine policy and legislation. Once a particular inquiry is completed the members of the committee can then produce a report, to be tabled in Parliament, outlining what they have discovered as well as any recommendations that they have produced for the Government to consider.
The ability of the Houses of Parliament to establish committees is referenced in Section 49 of the Constitution, which states that, "The powers, privileges, and immunities of the Senate and of the House of Representatives, and of the members and the committees of each House, shall be such as are declared by the Parliament, and until declared shall be those of the Commons House of Parliament of the United Kingdom, and of its members and committees, at the establishment of the Commonwealth."
Parliamentary committees can be given a wide range of powers. One of the most significant powers is the ability to summon people to attend hearings in order to give evidence and submit documents. Anyone who attempts to hinder the work of a Parliamentary committee may be found to be in contempt of Parliament. There are a number of ways that witnesses can be found in contempt, these include; refusing to appear before a committee when summoned, refusing to answer a question during a hearing or produce a document, or later being found to have lied to or misled a committee. Anyone who attempts to influence a witness may also be found in contempt. Other powers include, the ability to meet throughout Australia, to establish subcommittees and to take evidence in both public and private hearings.
Proceedings of committees are considered to have the same legal standing as proceedings of Parliament, they are recorded by Hansard, except for private hearings, and also operate under Parliamentary privilege. Every participant, including committee members and witnesses giving evidence, are protected from being prosecuted under any civil or criminal action for anything they may say during a hearing. Written evidence and documents received by a committee are also protected.
Types of committees include:
Standing Committees, which are established on a permanent basis and are responsible for scrutinising bills and topics referred to them by the chamber; examining the government's budget and activities (in what is called the budget estimates process); and for examining departmental annual reports and activities.
Select Committees, which are temporary committees, established in order to deal with particular issues.
Domestic Committees, which are responsible for administering aspects of the Parliament's own affairs. These include the The Selection Committees of both Houses that determine how the Parliament will deal with particular pieces of legislation and private members business and the Privileges Committees that deal with matters of Parliamentary Privilege.
Legislative Scrutiny Committees, which examine legislation and regulations to determine their impact on individual rights and accountability.
Joint Committees are also established to include both members of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Relationship with the Government
Under the Constitution, the Governor-General has the power to appoint and dismiss "Ministers of State" who administer government departments. In practice, the Governor-General chooses ministers in accordance with the traditions of the Westminster System that the Government be drawn from the party or coalition of parties that has a majority in the House of Representatives, with the leader of the largest party becoming Prime Minister.
These ministers then meet in a council known as Cabinet. Cabinet meetings are strictly private and occur once a week where vital issues are discussed and policy formulated. The Constitution does not recognise the Cabinet as a legal entity; it exists solely by convention. Its decisions do not in and of themselves have legal force. However, it serves as the practical expression of the Federal Executive Council, which is Australia's highest formal governmental body. In practice, the Federal Executive Council meets solely to endorse and give legal force to decisions already made by the Cabinet. All members of the Cabinet are members of the Executive Council. While the Governor-General is nominal presiding officer, she or he almost never attends Executive Council meetings. The Governor-General is bound by convention to follow the advice of the Executive Council on almost all occasions, giving it de facto executive power. A senior member of the Cabinet holds the office of Vice-President of the Executive Council and acts as presiding officer of the Executive Council in the absence of the Governor-General. The Federal Executive Council is the Australian equivalent of the Executive Councils and privy councils in other Commonwealth realms such as the Queen's Privy Council for Canada and the Privy Council of the United Kingdom.
A minister is not required to be a Senator or Member of the House of Representatives at the time of their appointment, but their office is forfeited if they do not become a member of either house within three months of their appointment. This provision was included in the Constitution (section 64) to enable the inaugural Ministry, led by Edmund Barton, to be appointed on 1 January 1901, even though the first federal elections were not scheduled to be held until 29 and 30 March.
After the 1949 election, Bill Spooner was appointed a Minister in the Fourth Menzies Ministry on 19 December, however his term as a Senator did not begin until 22 February 1950.
The provision was also used after the disappearance and presumed death of the Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt in December 1967. The Liberal Party elected John Gorton, then a Senator, as its new leader, and he was sworn in as Prime Minister on 10 January 1968 (following an interim ministry led by John McEwen). On 1 February, Gorton resigned from the Senate to stand for the 24 February by-election in Holt's former House of Representatives electorate of Higgins due to the convention that the Prime Minister be a member of the lower house. For 22 days (2 to 23 February inclusive) he was Prime Minister while a member of neither house of parliament.
On a number of occasions when Ministers have retired from their seats prior to an election, or stood but lost their own seats in the election, they have retained their Ministerial offices until the next government is sworn in.
Role of the Senate
The Constitution of Australia 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 solely 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.
One of the functions of the Senate, both directly and through its committees, is to scrutinise government activity. The vigour of this scrutiny has been fuelled for many years by the fact that the party in government has seldom had a majority in the Senate. Whereas in the House of Representatives the government's majority has sometimes limited that chamber's capacity to implement executive scrutiny, the opposition and minor parties have been able to use their Senate numbers as a basis for conducting inquiries into government operations.
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.
Because of the federal nature of our Constitution and because of its provisions the Senate undoubtedly has constitutional power to refuse or defer supply to the Government. Because of the principles of responsible government a Prime Minister who cannot obtain supply, including money for carrying on the ordinary services of government, must either advise a general election or resign. If he refuses to do this I have the authority and indeed the duty under the Constitution to withdraw his Commission as Prime Minister. The position in Australia is quite different from a position in the United Kingdom. Here the confidence of both Houses on supply is necessary to ensure its provision. In United Kingdom the confidence of the House of Commons alone is necessary. But both here and in the United Kingdom the duty of the Prime Minister is the same in a most important aspect – if he cannot get supply he must resign or advise an election.
The ability to block supply was the origin of the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis. 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.
The blocking of supply alone cannot force a double dissolution. There must be legislation repeatedly blocked by the Senate which the government can then choose to use as a trigger for a double dissolution.
Members of the Australian Parliament do not have legal immunity: they can be arrested and tried for any offence. They do, however, have Parliamentary privilege: they cannot be sued for anything they say in Parliament about each other or about persons outside the Parliament. This privilege extends to reporting in the media of anything a Senator or Member says in Parliament. The proceedings of parliamentary committees, wherever they meet, are also covered by privilege, and this extends to witnesses before such committees.
From the beginning of Federation until 1987, Parliamentary privilege operated under Section 49 of the Constitution, which established the privileges of both Houses and their members to be the same as the House of Commons of the United Kingdom at the time of the Constitution's enactment. The Parliament was also given the power to amend its privileges. In 1987, the Parliament passed the "Parliamentary Privileges Act", which clarified the meaning and extent of privilege as well as how the Parliament deals with breaches.
There is a legal offence called contempt of Parliament. A person who speaks or acts in a manner contemptuous of the Parliament or its members can be tried and, if convicted, imprisoned. The Parliament previously had the power to hear such cases itself, and did so in the Browne–Fitzpatrick privilege case, 1955. This power has now been delegated to the courts. There have been few convictions. In May 2007, Harriet Swift, an anti-logging activist from New South Wales was convicted and reprimanded for contempt of Parliament, after she wrote fictitious press releases and letters purporting to be Federal MP Gary Nairn as an April Fools' Day prank.
Radio broadcasts of Parliamentary proceedings began on 10 July 1946. They were originally broadcast on Radio National. Since August 1994 they have been broadcast on ABC NewsRadio, a government-owned channel set up specifically for this function. It operates 24 hours a day and broadcasts other news items when parliament is not sitting.
The first televised parliamentary event was the historic 1974 Joint Sitting. Regular free-to-air television broadcasts of Question Time began in August 1990 from the Senate and February 1991 from the House of Representatives. One chamber's Question Time is televised live, and the other chamber's Question Time is recorded and broadcast later that day. Other free-to-air televised broadcasts include: the Treasurer's Budget speech and the Leader of the Opposition's reply to the Budget two days later; the opening of Parliament by the Governor-General; the swearing-in of Governors-General; and addresses to the Parliament by visiting heads of state.
In 2009, the Pay TV company Foxtel launched A-PAC or the "Australian Public Affairs Channel". It features live broadcasts from Australia's Parliament House in Canberra (including sittings of the House of Representatives, the Senate, parliamentary Committee meetings and political press conferences), the parliaments of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland as well as sittings of the United States Congress, live broadcasts of speeches from the Australian National Press Club and a program which provides coverage of the New Zealand and British parliaments.
Access to free extensive daily proceedings of both chambers as well as committee hearings is also available live on the Internet.
The current Parliament is the 45th Australian Parliament. The most recent federal election was held on 2 July 2016 and the 45th Parliament first sat on 30 August.
The outcome of the 2016 election saw the first-term incumbent Liberal/National Coalition re-elected with 76 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, a bare one-seat majority government − the closest federal majority result since the 1961 election. The Coalition lost 14 seats. The Shorten Labor opposition won 69 seats, an increase of 14 seats. On the crossbench the Australian Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team, Katter's Australian Party, and independents Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan won a seat each.
The Senate result saw the Liberal/National Coalition with 30 seats (−3), Labor with 26 (+1), the Greens with 9 (−1), One Nation with 4 (+4) and Nick Xenophon Team with 3 (+2). Derryn Hinch won a seat, while Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, Family First's Bob Day, and Jacqui Lambie retained their seats. The number of crossbenchers increased by two to a record 20. The Liberal/National Coalition required at least nine additional votes to reach a Senate majority, an increase of three. The Liberal/National Coalition and Labor parties agreed that the first elected six of twelve Senators in each state would serve a six-year term, while the last six elected in each state would serve a three-year term, despite two previous bipartisan senate resolutions to use an alternative method to allocate long and short term seats. By doing this, Labor and the Coalition each gained one Senate seat from 2019.
Bob Day, of the Family First Party, resigned from the Senate on 1 November 2016 following the collapse of his business. His eligibility to stand in the 2016 election has been referred by the Senate to the High Court, as the Court of Disputed Returns, which must decide the matter before a replacement can be appointed.
Rodney Culleton, who had left Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party on 19 December 2016 to become an independent, had his eligibility to stand in the 2016 election challenged on two constitutional grounds. Among the grounds of ineligibility provided in Constitution section 44, a person cannot sit in either house of the Parliament if they are bankrupt or have been convicted of a criminal offence carrying a potential prison sentence of one year or more.
Culleton was declared bankrupt by the Federal Court on 23 December 2016. On 11 January 2017, after receiving an official copy of the judgment, the President of the Senate declared Culleton's seat vacant. Culleton's appeal against that judgment was dismissed by a full court of the Federal Court on 3 February 2017.
This judgment was followed later on the same day by the High Court's decision that Culleton was ineligible owing to conviction for a criminal offence carrying a potential prison sentence of one year or more. This was a decision as the Court of Disputed Returns following a reference by the Senate at the same time as with Day. It was decided that, since Culleton's liability to a two-year sentence for larceny had been in place at the time of the 2016 election, he had been ineligible for election and that this was not affected by the subsequent annulment of that conviction; the Court also held that the resulting vacancy should be filled by a recount of the ballot, in a manner to be determined by a single Justice of the Court. Following that recount, on 10 March 2017 the High Court named Culleton's brother-in-law, Peter Georgiou, as his replacement, returning One Nation to 4 seats.
On 7 February 2017, South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi resigned from the Liberal Party, to form a new party called the Australian Conservatives.
The Senate has included representatives from a range of political parties, including several parties that have seldom or never had representation in the House of Representatives, but which have consistently secured a small but significant level of electoral support, as the table shows.
Results represent the composition of the Senate after the elections. The full Senate has been contested on eight occasions; the inaugural election and seven double dissolutions. These are underlined and highlighted in puce.
House of Representatives
A two-party system has existed in the Australian House of Representatives since the two non-Labor parties merged in 1909. The 1910 election was the first to elect a majority government, with the Australian Labor Party concurrently winning the first Senate majority. Prior to 1909 a three-party system existed in the chamber. A two-party-preferred vote (2PP) has been calculated since the 1919 change from first-past-the-post to preferential voting and subsequent introduction of the Coalition. ALP = Australian Labor Party, L+NP = grouping of Liberal/National/LNP/CLP Coalition parties (and predecessors), Oth = other parties and independents.