Australian Senate

Senate
45th Parliament
Coat of arms or logo
Type
Type
Leadership
Structure
Seats76
Australian Senate (current composition).svg
Political groups
Government (31)

Coalition
     Liberal (25)[a]
     National (6)[b]

Opposition (26)
     Labor (26)

Crossbench (19)
     Greens (9)
     Centre Alliance (2)
     One Nation (2)
     Hinch's Justice (1)
     Liberal Democrat (1)
     Conservatives (1)
     United Australia (1)[2]
     Independent (2)[c]


Elections
Single transferable vote
Last election
2 July 2016
Next election
On or before 18 May 2019
Meeting place
Australian Senate - Parliament of Australia.jpg
Senate chamber
Parliament House
Canberra, Senate
Coat of Arms of Australia.svg
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The Senate is the upper house of the bicameral Parliament of Australia, the lower house being the House of Representatives. The composition and powers of the Senate are established in Chapter I of the Constitution of Australia. There are a total of 76 Senators: 12 are elected from each of the six states regardless of population and 2 from each of the two autonomous internal territories (the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory). Senators are popularly elected under the single transferable vote system of proportional representation.

Unlike upper houses in other Westminster-style parliamentary systems, the Senate is vested with significant powers, including the capacity to reject all bills, including budget and appropriation bills, initiated by the government in the House of Representatives, making it a distinctive hybrid of British Westminster bicameralism and United States-style bicameralism. As a result of proportional representation, the chamber features a multitude of parties vying for power. The governing party or coalition, which has to maintain the confidence of the lower house, has not held a majority in the Senate since 2005–2008 (and before that since 1981) and usually needs to negotiate with other parties and Independents to get legislation passed.[3]

Origins and role

The Australian Senate in 1923

The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (Imp.) 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 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 and equal powers.[4] 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 and Treasurer, by convention, are members of the House of Representatives (after John Gorton was appointed prime minister in 1968, he resigned from the Senate and was elected to the House), other members of the Cabinet may come from either house,[5] and the two Houses have almost equal legislative power.[4] As with most upper chambers in bicameral parliaments, the Senate cannot introduce or amend appropriation bills (bills that authorise government expenditure of public revenue) or bills that impose taxation, that role being reserved for the lower house; it can only approve, reject or defer them. That degree of equality between the Senate and House of Representatives reflects the desire of the Constitution's authors to address smaller states' desire for 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. This situation was also partly 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, which ultimately resulted in the restrictions placed on the powers of the House of Lords by the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949.

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 has the opportunity to amend the bill, pass or reject it. In the majority of cases, voting takes place along party lines, although there are occasional conscience votes.

The Senate chamber at Old Parliament House, Canberra, where the Parliament met between 1927 and 1988.