Australian Senate


Australian Senate

Infobox Legislature
name = Australian Senate
coa_pic =
coa-pic =
session_room = Senate, Parliament House, Canberra.jpg
house_type = Upper house
leader1_type = President
leader1 = John Hogg
party1 = Labor
election1 = (26 August 2008)
leader2_type =
leader2 =
party2 =
election2 =
members = 76
p_groups = Labor (32)
Liberal (32)
Green (5)
National (4)
Country Liberal (1)
Family First (1)
Independent (1)
election3 = 24 November 2007
meeting_place = Parliament House, Canberra, ACT
website = [http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/index.htm Senate]

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. [Apart from the four Senators representing the Territories. See the main body of the article.] 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.

Origins and role

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 constitutionndash 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 Actndash 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.

Where the houses 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, 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. [Consultative Group on Constitutional Change, "Resolving Deadlocks: The Public Response", March 2004 http://www.dpmc.gov.au/conschange/report/docs/report.pdf]

Blocking Supply

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 Supplyndash 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 passagendash 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 conflictndash 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 membership of the Senate

Under sections seven and eight of the Australian Constitution [ [http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/pubs/odgers/chap0402.htm Chapter 4, Odgers' Australian Senate Practice] ] , the Senate must:
*comprise an equal number of Senators from each original state;
*have at least six Senators per state; and
*ensure any laws governing the election of Senators is non-discriminatory among states.

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.

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. 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.

enate Ballot Paper

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

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.

ee also

*President of the Australian Senate
*Women in the Australian Senate
*Members of the Australian Senate, 2005-2008
*List of longest-serving members of the Australian Senate
*Clerk of the Australian Senate
*Canberra Press Gallery
*Candidates of the Australian legislative election, 2007

References

Further reading

* Stanley Bach, "Platypus and Parliament: The Australian Senate in Theory and Practice", Department of the Senate, 2003.
* Harry Evans, " [http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/pubs/odgers/index.htm Odgers' Australian Senate Practice] ", A detailed reference work on all aspects of the Senate's powers, procedures and practices.
* John Halligan, Robin Miller and John Power, "Parliament in the Twenty-first Century: Institutional Reform and Emerging Roles", Melbourne University Pulishing, 2007.
* Wilfried Swenden, "Federalism and Second Chambers: Regional Representation in Parliamentary Federations: the Australian Senate and German Bundesrat Compared", P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2004.
* John Uhr, " [http://eprints.anu.edu.au/archive/00001198/01/dp_69.html The Senate and Proportional Representation: Public policy justifications of minority representation] ", Working Paper no. 69, Graduate Program in Public Policy, Australian National University, 1999.

External links

* [http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/general/index.htm Official website of the Australian Senate]
* [http://webcast.aph.gov.au/livebroadcasting/ Australian Parliamentndash live broadcasting]
* [http://www.themonthly.com.au/tm/node/951 Video - Clerk of the Senate Harry Evans interviewed by Professor Robert Manne]


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