Parliament of Australia
Parliament of Australia 43rd Parliament Type Type Bicameral Houses House of Representatives
Leadership Speaker of the House of Representatives Harry Jenkins, Labor
since 12 February 2008
President of the Senate John Hogg, Labor
since 21 August 2010
Structure Members 150 HoR members,
House of Representatives Political groups
- Labor (72)
Senate Political groups
- Labor (31)
Elections House of Representatives Last election 21 August 2010 Senate Last election 21 August 2010 Meeting place Parliament House, Canberra, ACT, Australia Website www.aph.gov.au
The Parliament of Australia, also known as the Commonwealth Parliament or Federal Parliament, is the legislative branch of the government of Australia. It is bicameral, largely modelled in the Westminster tradition, but with some influences from the United States Congress. Under Section 1 of the Constitution of Australia, Parliament consists of three components: the Queen, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. The Queen is usually represented by the Governor-General. The Australian Parliament is the world's sixth oldest continuous democracy.
The upper house, the Senate, consists of 76 members: twelve for each state, and two for each mainland territory. Senators are elected using a form of proportional voting. The lower house, the House of Representatives, currently consists of 150 members, who represent districts known as electoral divisions (commonly referred to as "electorates" or "seats"). The number of members is not fixed, but can vary with boundary changes resulting from electoral redistributions, which are required on a regular basis. The most recent overall increase in the size of the House, which came into effect at the 1984 election, increased the number of members from 125 to 148. It reduced to 147 at the 1993 election, returned to 148 at the 1996 election, and has been 150 since the 2001 election. Each division elects one member using compulsory preferential voting. The two Houses meet in separate chambers of Parliament House on Capital Hill in Canberra.
The present Parliament, as elected at the 2010 election, is the 43rd Federal Parliament since Federation. It is the first hung parliament in the House of Representatives since the 1940 election, with Labor and the Coalition winning 72 seats each of 150 total. Six crossbenchers hold the balance of power: Greens MP Adam Bandt and independent MPs Andrew Wilkie, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor declared their support for Labor on confidence and supply, independent MP Bob Katter and National Party of Western Australia MP Tony Crook declared their support for the Coalition on confidence and supply. The resulting 76–74 margin entitled Labor to form a minority government. In the 76-seat Senate, where no party tends to have a majority of seats, the Greens gained the sole balance of power with a total of nine seats, previously holding a shared balance of power with the Family First Party and independent Nick Xenophon. Labor holding 31 seats, they require an additional eight non-Labor votes to pass legislation. The Coalition holds 34 seats, while the two remaining seats are occupied by Xenophon and Democratic Labor Party Senator John Madigan.
The Commonwealth Parliament was opened on 9 May 1901 in Melbourne by The Prince George, Duke of Cornwall and York, later King George V. The only building in Melbourne large enough to house the 14,000 guests was the Royal Exhibition Building. Thereafter, from 1901 to 1927, the Parliament met in Parliament House, Melbourne, which it borrowed from the Parliament of Victoria (which sat in the Royal Exhibition Building). On 9 May 1927 Parliament moved to the new national capital at Canberra, where it met in what is now called Old Parliament House. Intended to be temporary, this building in fact housed the Parliament for more than 60 years. The new and permanent Parliament House was opened on 9 May 1988 by Queen Elizabeth II.
Under Section 1 of the Constitution, the Queen of Australia is one of the components of Parliament. The constitutional functions of the Crown are given to the Governor-General, whom the Monarch appoints on the advice of the Prime Minister. Specifically, the Constitution gives the Governor-General the power to assent to legislation, refuse to assent, or to reserve a bill for the Queen's judgement. However, by convention, the Governor-General does not exercise these powers other than in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister.
The upper house of the Australian Parliament is the Senate, which consists of 76 members. Like the United States Senate, on which it was modelled, the Australian Senate includes an equal number of Senators from each state, regardless of population. Unlike it however the Australian Senate was directly elected from the start when the new Australian Constitution was assented to in 9th of July 1900. The Australian Senate was thus the first upper chamber in the world to be directly elected in a time when upper houses were either indirectly elected or unelected. The U.S. Senate was directly elected from 1914 following the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The Constitution allows Parliament to determine the number of Senators by legislation, provided that the six original states are equally represented. Furthermore, the Constitution provides that each original state is entitled to at least six senators. However, neither of these provisions applies to any newly admitted states, or to territories. Pursuant to an Act of Parliament passed in 1973, senators are elected to represent the territories (excluding Norfolk Island). Currently, the two Northern Territory Senators represent the residents of the Northern Territory as well as the Australian external territories of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. The two Australian Capital Territory Senators represent the Australian Capital Territory and the Jervis Bay Territory.
Until 1949, each state elected the constitutional minimum of six Senators. This number increased to ten from the 1949 election, and was increased again to twelve (the present number) from the 1984 election.
Parliament may determine the number of members of the House of Representatives. However the Constitution provides that this number must be "as nearly as practicable, twice the number of Senators"; this requirement is commonly called the "nexus provision." Hence, the House presently consists of 150 members. Each state is allocated seats based on its population; however, each original state, regardless of size, is guaranteed at least five seats. The Constitution does not guarantee representation for the territories. Parliament granted a seat to the Northern Territory in 1922, and to the Australian Capital Territory in 1948; these territorial representatives, however, had only limited voting rights until 1968.
From 1901 to 1949, the House consisted of either 74 or 75 members (the Senate had 36). Between 1949 and 1984, it had between 121 and 127 members (the Senate had 60 until 1975, when it increased to 64). In 1977, the High Court ordered that the size of the House be reduced from 127 to 124 members in order to comply with the nexus provision. In 1984, both the Senate and the House were enlarged; since then the House has had between 148 and 150 members (the Senate has 76).
A number of people have been members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives at different times in their parliamentary career (see People who have served in both Houses of the Australian Parliament for details.)
Individuals with foreign citizenship are prohibited from sitting in either house of the parliament by Section 44 of the Constitution of Australia. In the landmark case Sue v Hill the High Court of Australia ruled that the United Kingdom is a foreign power for purposes of this section despite the fact that at the time of the drafting of the Constitution all Australians were British subjects.
Each of the two Houses elects a presiding officer. The presiding officer of the Senate is called the President; that of the House is the Speaker. Elections for these positions are by secret ballot. Both offices are conventionally filled by members of the governing party, but the presiding officers are expected to oversee debate and enforce the rules in an impartial manner.
The Constitution authorises Parliament to set the quorum for each chamber. The quorum of the Senate is one-quarter of the total membership (nineteen); that of the House of Representatives is one-fifth of the total membership (thirty). In theory, if a quorum is not present, then a House may not continue to meet. In practice, members usually agree not to notice that a quorum is not present, so that debates on routine bills can continue without other members having to be present. Sometimes the Opposition will "call a quorum" as a tactic to annoy the Government or delay proceedings, particularly when the Opposition feels it has been unfairly treated in the House. It is the responsibility of the Government whips to ensure that when a quorum is called, enough Government members are present to make up a quorum.
Both Houses may determine motions by voice vote: the presiding officer puts the question, and, after listening to shouts of "Aye" and "No" from the members, announces the result. The announcement of the presiding officer settles the question, unless at least two members demand a "division," or a recorded vote. In that case the bells are rung throughout Parliament House summoning Senators or Members to the chamber. During a division, members who favour the motion move to the right side of the chamber, whereas those opposed move to the left. They are then counted by the "tellers" (Government and Opposition whips), and the motion is passed or defeated accordingly. In the Senate, in order not to deprive a state of a vote in what is supposed to be a states' house, the President is permitted a vote along with other Senators (however, that right is rarely exercised); in the case of a tie, the President does not have a casting vote and the motion fails. In the House of Representatives, the Speaker does not vote, except in the case of a tie (see casting vote).
In the event of conflict between the two Houses over the final form of legislation, the Constitution provides for a simultaneous dissolution of both Houses – known as a double dissolution. If the conflict continues after such an election, the governor-general may convene a joint sitting of both Houses to consider the disputed legislation. This has occurred only once, after the election following the 1974 double dissolution. However, there are other occasions when the two houses meet as one: see Joint meetings of the Australian Parliament.
The principal function of the Parliament is to pass laws, or legislation. Any Senator or Member may introduce a proposed law (a bill), except for a money bill (a bill proposing an expenditure or levying a tax), which must be introduced in the House of Representatives. In practice, the great majority of bills are introduced by ministers. Bills introduced by other Members are called private members' bills. All bills must be passed by both Houses to become law. The Senate has the same legislative powers as the House, except that it may not amend money bills, only pass or reject them. The enacting formula for Acts of Parliament is simply "The Parliament of Australia enacts:".
The Parliament performs other functions besides legislation. It can discuss urgency motions or matters of public importance: these provide a forum for debates on public policy matters. Senators and Members can move motions of censure against the government or against individual ministers. On most sitting days in both Houses there is a session called Question Time at which Senators and Members address questions to the Prime Minister and other ministers. Senators and Members can also present petitions from their constituents. Both Houses have an extensive system of committees in which draft bills are debated, evidence is taken and public servants are questioned. There are also joint committees, composed of members from both Houses.
Relationship with the Government
A minister is not required to be a Senator or Member of the House of Representatives at the time of their appointment, but their office is forfeited if they do not become a member of either house within three months of their appointment.
This provision was included in the Constitution (section 64) to enable the inaugural Ministry, led by Edmund Barton, to be appointed on 1 January 1901, even though the first federal elections were not scheduled to be held until 29 and 30 March.
The provision also came into effect after the disappearance and presumed death of the Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt in December 1967. The Liberal Party elected John Gorton, then a Senator, as its new leader, and he was sworn in as Prime Minister on 10 January 1968 (following an interim ministry led by John McEwen). On 1 February, Gorton resigned from the Senate to stand for the by-election in Holt's former House of Representatives electorate of Higgins. For 24 days (1 to 24 February) he was Prime Minister while a member of neither house of parliament.
On a number of occasions when Ministers have retired from their seats prior to an election, or stood but lost their own seats in the election, they have retained their Ministerial offices until the next government is sworn in.
Members of the Australian Parliament do not have legal immunity: they can be arrested and tried for any offence. They do, however, have Parliamentary privilege: they cannot be sued for anything they say in Parliament about each other or about persons outside the Parliament. This privilege extends to reporting in the media of anything a Senator or Member says in Parliament. The proceedings of parliamentary committees, wherever they meet, are also covered by privilege, and this extends to witnesses before such committees.
There is a legal offence called contempt of Parliament. A person who speaks or acts in a manner contemptuous of the Parliament or its members can be tried and, if convicted, imprisoned. The Parliament used to have the power to hear such cases itself, and did so in the Browne–Fitzpatrick privilege case, 1955. This power has now been delegated to the courts. There have been few convictions. In May 2007, Harriet Swift, an anti-logging activist from New South Wales was convicted and reprimanded for contempt of Parliament, after she wrote fictitious press releases and letters purporting to be Federal MP Gary Nairn as an April Fools' Day prank.
Radio broadcasts of Parliamentary proceedings began on 10 July 1946. They were originally broadcast on ABC Radio. Since August 1994 they have been broadcast on ABC NewsRadio, a government-owned channel set up specifically for this function. It operates 24 hours a day and broadcasts other news items when parliament is not sitting.
The first televised parliamentary event was the historic 1974 Joint Sitting. Regular free-to-air television broadcasts of Question Time began in August 1990 from the Senate and February 1991 from the House of Representatives. One chamber's Question Time is televised live, and the other chamber's Question Time is recorded and broadcast later that day. Other free-to-air televised broadcasts include: the Treasurer's Budget speech and the Leader of the Opposition's reply to the Budget two days later; the opening of Parliament by the Queen; the swearing-in of Governors-General; and addresses to the Parliament by visiting heads of state.
- Chronology of Australian federal parliaments
- Father of the Australian House of Representatives
- Father of the Australian Parliament
- Father of the Australian Senate
- Joint meetings of the Australian Parliament
- List of official openings by Elizabeth II in Australia
- Members of the Australian House of Representatives, 2010–2013
- Members of the Australian Senate, 2008–2011
- Members of the Parliament of Australia who have served for at least 30 years
- ^ "Making a Nation", Discovering Democracy: A Guide to Government and Law in Australia
- ^ Section 125 of the Australian Constitution provides: "The seat of Government of the Commonwealth shall be determined by the Parliament, and shall be within territory which shall have been granted to or acquired by the Commonwealth, and shall be vested in and belong to the Commonwealth, and shall be in the State of New South Wales, and be distant not less than one hundred miles from Sydney. Such territory shall contain an area of not less than one hundred square miles, and such portion thereof as shall consist of Crown lands shall be granted to the Commonwealth without any payment therefor. The Parliament shall sit at Melbourne until it meet at the seat of Government."
- ^ Sydney Morning Herald, "Activist contempt over April Fools stunt", 31 May 2007. Accessed 1 June 2007.
- ^ Parliamentary Library: Australian Political Records (Research Note 42 1997–98)
- ^ Live Broadcasting: Parliament of Australia
- Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament: A narrative history of Australia's federal legislature (1988)
- The Parliament of Australia's website
- The Australian Constitution at ComLaw
- Australian Parliament – live broadcasting
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