Australian Senate

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Senate,_Parliament_House,_Canberra.JPG
Australian Senate chamber
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Senate_Doorway.jpg
Entrance to the Senate

The Australian Senate is the upper of the two houses of the Parliament of Australia. The other one is the House of Representatives.

See List of members of the Australian Senate, List of longest-serving members of the Australian Senate

Contents

Origins and role

The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act of 1900 set up the Australian Senate as part of the new system of dominion government in newly-federated Australia. From a comparative governmental perspective, the Australian Senate exhibits almost unique characteristics, in that unlike upper houses in other Westminster system governments, the Senate is not a vestigal body with limited legislative power but rather plays and is intended to play an active role in legislation. Rather than being modelled after the House of Lords the Australian Senate was in part modelled after the United States Senate. The Constitution intended to give small rural 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 answers to, and must serve as a member of the House of Representatives (the "lower house"), other ministers may come from either house and the two houses have almost equal legislative power. As with most upper chambers in bicameral parliaments, it cannot introduce Appropriation Bills or impose taxation, that role being reserved for the universally elected lower chamber. That degree of equality between the Australian 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 over estate taxes, which ultimately resulted in the restrictions placed on the powers of the House of Lords by the Parliament Act. The Senate thus reflected the pre-1911 Lords-Commons relationship, namely a house with theoretically wide powers that by convention it does not often use, but which it can deploy in a crisis.

Blocking supply

In one particular area the Australian Senate possesses a highly sensitive power, namely the right to withdraw or block Supply, i.e. government control of exchequer funding. In most democracies, upper houses do not have this power. Consequently, in strict constitutional terms, the Government is also answerable to the Australian Senate, given that the loss of Supply in parliamentary democracies automatically requires the resignation of a government or ministry, or alternatively the calling of a general election, because without access to exchequer funding a government cannot function and would face bankruptcy. However, as in the United Kingdom prior to the 1909 clash over David Lloyd George's budget between the House of Commons and House of Lords, a general convention built up in which the upper house would not use its power to block exchequer funding, leaving that responsibility to the democratically representative lower house. Indeed, to break convention in this area is sometimes described as a parliamentary nuclear option because of its political, financial and governmental impact. In 1975, in a dispute strikingly similar to Britain's 1909 clash (an upper House breaking convention by withdrawing Supply on the basis that it was reacting to a breach of another fundamental convention by the government - which the government denied) the Senate did refuse to pass a required financial measure, producing a 'nuclear'-style crisis which resulted in a stand-off and a decision by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam not to resign or seek a dissolution. This led to the eventual intervention by the Governor-General to withdraw the commission of the Australian Prime Minister (in effect dismissing him), the appointment of a minority government from the Opposition in the House of Representatives and the calling of a general election.

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 (see also: conscience vote).

Where both Houses disagree

There are detailed conventions and rules regarding situations in which the Senate and the House disagree. 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 call a double dissolution (election for both houses of Parliament) and attempt to pass the bill at a subsequent joint sitting of the two houses.

Voting system

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. In 1919 preferential block voting came in. Block voting tended to grant landslide majorities and even "wipeouts" very easily. In 1946, the Australian Labor Party government won 33 out of the 36 Senate seats (check). In 1948, partially in response to this extreme situation, proportional representation became the method for electing the Senate.

Senate Ballot Paper

The Australian Senate voting paper under STV resembles this example, which shows the candidates for Tasmanian senate representation in the 2004 federal election.

Senate election - Tasmania
A
[_] Liberal
B
[_] CEC
C
[_] Democrats
D
[_] Family First
E
[_] CDP
F
[_] Ind.
G
[_]
H
[_] Greens
I
[_] ALP

Ungrouped
[_] 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:

  • Vote for an individual party by writing the number "1" in a single box above the line - this means the elector wants their preferences distributed according to a party's or group's officially registered ticket.
  • Vote for all candidates by writing the numbers 1, 2, 3, through to the last number (in this example, 26) in all the individual boxes below the line.

Because each state elects 6 senators at each half-senate election, and the quota for election is only 14.7%, some states 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".

Note that 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.

See another sample Senate ballot paper (http://www.curriculum.edu.au/democracy/images/people_rule3.gif).

The "unrepresentative" house

As a body intended to provide greater representation to smaller states, the Senate (like many upper houses) is necessarily relatively unrepresentative; Tasmania, with a population of 450,000, elects the same number of Senators as New South Wales, which has a population of 6 million. Paul Keating called it an "unrepresentative swill". But the proportional election system within each state ensures that Senate incorporates much more political diversity than the lower house, which is basically a two party body. Because of this the Senate frequently functions as a revising chamber, intended not to match party political strength in the lower chamber but to bring in different people, in terms of geography, age and interests, who can contribute in a less politicised manner to the process of legislative enactment.

Size

The size of the Senate has changed over the years. The Australian Constitution requires that the number of Senators approximate as nearly as possible to half of the number of members of the House of Representatives, and it has therefore grown periodically. Currently, each of the six States of Australia has 12 Senators, while the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory have two each. Normally, half of the Senate is contested at each election, for terms of up to six years, but during a double dissolution, every seat faces re-election. Senators from the two territories only serve half-terms, and must stand for re-election every three years. Unlike the House of Representatives, Senators serve fixed terms which expire on the 30th of June every three years. Thus, while the voters elect Senators at the same time as lower house members, such Senators' term of office does not begin until the 1st of July following their election. As a result, the new Parliament will often sit for some time with the old, lame-duck Senate.

Significant moments

Significant events in the history of the Senate include its role in the downfall of the Whitlam Government during the Australian Constitutional Crisis of 1975, and the Howard Government's controversial acquisition of the support of Senator Mal Colston, thus obtaining a majority and enabling the passage of a great deal of contentious legislation.

Parties in the Australian Senate

Parties which currently have representation in the Senate:

Parties which have held Senate seats in the past: Democratic Labor Party, Nuclear Disarmament Party, ... [free traders, protectionists, early incarnations of the liberal and national parties...]

The Australian Senate serves as a model for some Canadians, particularly in the Western provinces, who wish to reform the Canadian Senate to take a more active legislative role.

See also: Australian House of Representatives, List of longest-serving members of the Australian Senate

Party composition

The 2004 election saw a significant change in the composition of the Senate. The new Senate takes office until 1 July 2005. The exceptions are the four Senators representing the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, who only serve for one House of Representatives term, rather than a six-year fixed term, as the other 72 Senators do, and take their seats at the same time as the House of Representatives begins sitting. At the last election, however, there was no change amongst the Territory Senators, thus this has no impact on the changeover of the Senate.

Party 99-05 02-08 05-11 ACT & NT Outgoing Incoming
Liberal Party of Australia 14 16 16 1 31 33
The Nationals 1 2 3 0 3 5
Country Liberal Party 0 0 0 1 1 1
Labor 14 12 14 2 28 28
Australian Democrats 3 4 0 0 7 4
Greens 0 2 2 0 2 4
One Nation 1 0 0 0 1 0
Australian Progressive Alliance 1 0 0 0 1 0
Family First 0 0 1 0 0 1
Independents 2 0 0 0 2 0
Total 36 36 36 4 76 76

References

External links


Template:Politics of Australia

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