The structure of Federal parliament

federal parliament
Parliament House, Canberra

Australia has one Federal or Commonwealth parliament, located in Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory. It is the heart of our national government, the highest law-making body in the land and the institution that most Australians think of as ‘the government’. The Federal Parliament was formed by the Constitution, which came into effect in January 1901. The first Federal Parliament met in the Exhibition Building, Melbourne (then Australia’s largest city) in May 1901. For its first 26 years, the Commonwealth Parliament met in Melbourne’s parliament building on Spring Street, assembling when the Victorian parliament was not in session. In 1927 the Federal Parliament moved to a new building in the Australian Capital Territory (now Old Parliament House, see the white building in the foreground of the picture, right). In 1988, the bicentennial year of European settlement, the new Parliament House was opened.

The Federal Parliament, like other Australian parliaments, is very much a model of the British parliament – but is also contains some elements of the United States Congress. Our Federal Parliament is bicameral – it is comprised of two separate houses or chambers. These are the House of Representatives (also called the ‘lower house’ or the ‘people’s house) and the Senate (also called the ‘upper house’ or the ‘states’ house’). The political party that enjoys a majority in the House of Representatives is considered to be the ‘government of the day’ and that party’s leader becomes the Prime Minister. The House of Representatives and the Senate are both involved in making and passing legislation; no bill can become law unless it is passed by both. Despite this, there are some fundamental differences between both houses of parliament:

The House of Representatives

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The distinctive green interior of the Federal House of Representatives

The lower house is considered the ‘people’s house’ because it is made up of electorates (also called ‘seats’ or ‘divisions’) that are formed purely on the basis of population. Each electorate contains around 80,000 registered voters, who participate in regular elections to choose their Member of the House of Representatives (MHR). Because electorates are formed on the basis of population, the more populous states like New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland have more MHRs than the less populous states. Electoral boundaries are regularly checked and redrawn to take population changes into account. The current House of Representatives contains 150 electorates, however, this number will undoubtedly grow as Australia’s population increases.

The House of Representatives has a maximum term of three years, after which the House is ‘dissolved’ and an election is called. The Prime Minister also has the option of calling an election before the three-year term has expired, which most do in order to take advantage of public opinion and the changing political climate. Regular elections of the Federal Parliament is one of the key features of a liberal democracy – it enables the public to decide who will represent them in the legislature.

The Senate

The upper house contains an equal number of representatives (called senators) from each state, regardless of its population. The original purpose of the Senate was to protect the smaller states from the voting power of the larger states – by giving the smaller states a ‘house of review’ where they would have equal voting power. Currently, each state has 12 senators sitting in the Senate, while the territories (the Northern Territory and the ACT) have two senators each – making a total of 76 senators. The ‘Founding Fathers’ who adopted this model ‘borrowed’ it from the United States Senate, which contains two senators from each state regardless of their geographical size, population or wealth.

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The red interior of the Federal Senate

Like the House of Representatives, the Senate is also elected, though the process is significantly different. Unlike Members of the House of Representatives, Senators are usually elected for six-year and not three-year terms. When a Federal election is called, in most cases only half the Senate seats are up for election. The Senate also uses a different electoral system, called proportional voting, which allows minor parties and independents a better opportunity for election. This means that the Senate often contains a wider range of views than the House of Representatives – and the government with the majority in the House of Representatives often does not have a majority in the Senate.

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