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Australian Senate

The Australian Senate is the upper of the two houses of the Parliament of Australia.

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Origins and Role

The Australian Senate was created in, and part of, the new system of dominion government in the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, 1900. From a comparative governmental perspective, the Australian Senate is almost unique in that unlike the upper house in other Westminister 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 and was intended to give small rural states added voice in a Federal legislature, while also fulfilling the revising role of an upper house in the Westminister system.

Although the Prime Minister is answerable to, and selected from the House of Representatives (the "lower house"), other ministers are drawn 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 the Australian Senate has with the House of Representatives in part is due to the age of the Australian constitution; it was enacted before the infamous clash between the British House of Commons and House of Lords in 1909, which ultimately resulted in the restrictions in the powers of the House of Lords in the Parliament Act, thus it reflected the pre-1911 Lords-Commons relationship, namely a house with theoretically wide powers that are by convention not widely used, but which in a crisis could be.

Blocking Supply

However in one area it possesses a highly sensitive power, namely the right to withdraw or block Supply, ie government control of exchequer funding. In most democracies, this power does not exist within upper houses. In the Australian case, probably due to its age and its pre-dating of the British Parliament Act, 1911, that power, once possessed by the House of Lords, is still possessed by the Australian Senate. What it means is that 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, a decision of the Prime Minister not to resign or seek a dissolution, and the eventual intervention of the Governor-General to withdraw the commission of the Australian Prime Minister (in effect dismissing him) and 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 ammend the bill or refuse to pass it. In the majority of cases, voting is 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 initated 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 was a first past the post block voting mechanism. In 1919, it was changed to preferential block voting. Block voting tended to grant landslide majorities very easily. In 1946, the Australian Labor Party government won 30 out of the 33 Senate seats. In 1948, partially in response to this extreme situation, they introduced proportional representation in the Senate.

The 'Unrepresentative' House

As expected for a body intended to provide greater representation to smaller states, the Senate like most upper chambers is 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 is much more diverse 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.


The size of the Senate has changed over the years. The Australian Constitution requires that the Senate be as near as possible to half of the size 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.

Significant events in the history of the Senate include its role in the downfall of the Whitlam Government during Australian Constitutional Crisis of 1975, and the Howard Government's controversial gaining of the support of Senator Mal Colston[?] to obtain a majority, enabling the passage of a great deal of controversial legisaltion.

Parties in the Australian Senate

Parties which currently have representation in the Senate: Australian Democrats, Australian Greens, Australian Labor Party, Liberal Party of Australia, National Party of Australia, One Nation.

Parties which have been represented in the past: Democratic Labor Party, Nuclear Disarmament Party[?]... [free traders, protectionists, early incarnations of the liberal & national parites..]

The Australian Senate is the model of some in Canada, particularly in the Western provinces, who wish to reform the Canadian Senate to take a much more active legislative role.

See also: Australian House of Representatives


John Uhr, The Senate and Proportional Representation: Public policy justifications of minority representation (http://www.anu.edu.au/pubpol/Discussion%20Papers/dp_69), Working Paper no. 69, Graduate Program in Public Policy, Australian National University, 1999.

The Senate web site: http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/general/index.htm

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