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The Senate: a short description

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The Senate is one of the two houses of the Australian Federal Parliament. It consists of 76 senators, twelve from each of the six states and two from each of the mainland territories. It shares the power to make laws with the other House of the Parliament, the House of Representatives.

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Federalism and the Constitution

Although Australia is one nation it has nine parliaments-the Federal Parliament in Canberra and one in each of the six states and the two mainland territories. This is because Australia is a federation, joining together several political entities.

During the nineteenth century the six Australian colonies were each separately granted parliamentary self-government.

In 1901 the six colonies joined together under a Constitution which had been approved by a majority of voters in each colony, to form a federation called the Commonwealth of Australia. Under the Constitution each state retained its own parliament and some of its original powers and a new Federal Parliament was established with exclusive power to make laws on national matters such as defence, trade and immigration. On some matters, such as taxation and social welfare, both the Federal Parliament and the states could make laws, but if there were to be a conflict between the laws the federal law would prevail.

A federal system of government is especially suited to geographically large countries such as Australia. As well as enabling the citizens of each state to retain a large degree of control over matters of local concern, the division of powers between regional and national governments provides an additional safeguard against misuse of government powers.


 The role, powers and composition of the Senate

The powers of the two houses of the Commonwealth Parliament, the Senate and the House of Representatives, are defined by the Australian Constitution. All proposed laws (bills) must be passed by both houses. The Senate's law-making powers are equal to those of the House of Representatives except that it cannot introduce or amend proposed laws that authorise expenditure for the ordinary annual services of the government or that impose taxation. The Senate can, however, request that the House of Representatives make amendments to financial legislation and it can refuse to pass any bill.

Under the Constitution, each state of the Australian federation, regardless of its population, has an equal number of senators. This weighting of parliamentary representation in favour of less populous states was designed to ensure that their views were not neglected.

The Senate currently consists of 76 senators, twelve from each of the six states and two from each of the mainland territories, elected by a system of proportional representation for a period of six years. A system of rotation, however, ensures that half the Senate retires every three years. The four senators who represent the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory are elected concurrently with members of the House of Representatives and the duration of their terms of office coincide with those for that House (a maximum of three years).

The proportional system of voting used to elect senators ensures that the composition of the Senate more accurately reflects the votes of the electors than the method used to elect members of the House of Representatives. Proportional representation also makes it easier for independents and the candidates of the smaller parties to be elected. In recent decades this has meant that the government party usually does not have a majority of votes in the Senate and the non-government senators are able to use their combined voting power to reject or amend government legislation. The Senate's large and active committee system also enables senators to inquire into policy issues in depth and to scrutinise the way laws and policies are administered by ministers and public servants. The Senate is thus a house of review and a powerful check on the government of the day. Detailed analysis of election results makes it clear that many Australians deliberately cast their votes in Senate elections with this review role in mind.

Resolving deadlocks between the Houses

The Constitution provides a method for resolving deadlocks which might arise in the event of a disagreement between the houses. If the Senate twice fails to pass a bill from the House of Representatives, under certain specified conditions, the Governor-General may simultaneously dissolve both houses, in which case elections are held for all seats in both houses. This double dissolution procedure is the only exception to the rule of fixed terms for senators. If the deadlock persists after the elections the Governor-General may convene a joint sitting of the two houses to resolve the matter.


A Senator's work extends far beyond the Chamber

The Senate Chamber is the principal focus of a senator's work. It is here that he or she debates and votes on matters that are before Parliament. However, the activities that a senator undertakes in the Senate Chamber are only the tip of a very large iceberg of work.

Keeping informed and in touch with community views

Senators play a vital role in the communication chain which links individual citizens, community and industry groups, political parties, parliament and government.

To participate fully in the process of making new laws and debating public policy, senators need to be well informed. And in order to be effective representatives, senators must understand the opinions, needs and problems of the people of their state or territory. The task of keeping themselves informed and in touch with the community takes up much of a senator's time, and includes:

  • participating in the investigative work of parliamentary committees

  • attending to letters from individuals and organisations who are seeking information or putting a point of view

  • meeting with delegations, visiting community groups and receiving petitions

  • examining proposed new laws and regulations

  • studying parliamentary and government reports

  • keeping in touch with public opinion by reading a variety of newspapers and journals

  • monitoring current affairs programs on radio and television.

Debating ideas and policies

Senators contribute to public debate by putting forward their own ideas, by advocating the policies of their party and by representing the views of community groups. In addition to speeches and questions in the Senate Chamber, senators make use of a variety of occasions to contribute to the discussion of public issues by:

  • speaking at public meetings, conferences and party meetings

  • participating in current affairs programs on radio and television and preparing statements for the media

  • participating in the work of parliamentary and party committees

  • writing letters and submissions to Ministers, government agencies and interest groups

  • publishing articles and letters in newspapers, magazines and newsletters.


The Senate Chamber

Senate Chamber seating

1. The President more info pic
After each Senate election the senators elect one of their number to preside over their proceedings.

2. Deputy President and Chairman of Committees
When a bill (a proposed law) is being considered in detail the Senate resolves itself into a committee of the whole. At this point the President leaves the chair and the Chairman of Committees, who is also the Deputy President, presides over the Chamber from the chair between the two Clerks at the Table. The Deputy President also presides over the Chamber from the President's chair in the absence of the President.

3. Leader of the Government in the Senate

4. Leader of the Opposition in the Senate

5. Party Whips
Each party has its own Whip who is responsible for arranging for members of their party to take part in debates and for ensuring their attendance in the Chamber when a vote is to be taken. The Whips meet together regularly to arrange the order of business in the Senate.

6. The Clerks
The Clerks at the Table are senior officers of the Department of the Senate trained in parliamentary procedure. They record the proceedings of the Senate and advise the President and senators on procedure.

7. Hansard reporters
Debates in the Senate are recorded by Hansard reporters who use either Pitman's shorthand or a stenotype machine. The proceedings are also recorded on audio and video tape.

8. Advisers' benches
These seats are for Senators' staff and advisers to ministers.

 Furniture and fittings
The Chamber is furnished in shades of red as is traditional in upper houses of parliaments. The wood used in the seating and desks is Australian jarrah. Behind the President's chair, a gift from the Canadian Parliament, is a tall chair used by the Governor-General at formal openings of Parliament. This chair is a gift from the British House of Commons. The smaller chair is for the use of distinguished visitors and is a gift from the New Zealand Parliament.

Seating Arrangements
To the President's right sit the senators who belong to the government party (or coalition of parties) and to the left sit the senators who form the official opposition. Minority parties and independent senators sit on the 'cross benches' between the government and opposition.

The Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate sit at the table in the centre of the Chamber. On the front benches behind their respective leaders are the government ministers and the opposition spokespersons or shadow ministers.

Voting and divisions
When the debate upon a motion (a proposal for a decision by the Senate) has concluded, the President or Chairman puts the question on the motion and declares whether, in his or her opinion, the majority of voices is for the 'Ayes' or for the 'Noes'. If more than one senator challenges this opinion the question is decided by division: the bells are rung for four minutes to enable absent senators to return to the Chamber and then the doors are locked and the vote is taken. Those in favour of the motion sit to the right of the chair and those against to the left. The names of those voting are recorded by the Whips or Deputy-Whips, assisted by the Clerks.

Broadcasting of proceedings
The microphones on each senator's desk and the television cameras on the walls enable the proceedings to be relayed throughout Parliament House. Debates are also broadcast regularly on radio and television.

Not all senators are required to be in the Chamber when the Senate is sitting. The quorum is nineteen and debate frequently proceeds with fewer senators present. There are many demands on senators' time and from their offices they can follow the proceedings in the Chamber on radio and television. When senators are required in the Chamber they are summoned by the ringing of the bells.


 Senate Committees more info pic

Like many organisations, the Senate finds it useful to delegate responsibility for certain tasks to committees. The Senate's role as a house of review and as a watchdog of the executive branch of government has led to the development of a comprehensive range of standing committees which may investigate matters of public policy and scrutinise proposed legislation and the details of government expenditure and administration. Most Senators are actively involved in the work of three or four of these committees.

Senate committees have several purposes. They examine important or controversial issues of the day. They advise the Senate in its task of making and amending laws and they monitor the way in which the government administers those laws. As the executive branch of government (the ministry and the public service) is ultimately accountable to the Parliament, Senate committees keep a watchful eye on government decision-making. They also provide an opportunity for organisations and individuals to make representations to Parliament and to have their views placed on the public record.

These committees do not have powers of their own. They possess only the authority conferred on them by the Senate itself. But because of their relatively small size, their ability to hear members of the public directly and their flexibility of movement, the committees are able to examine a wide variety of subjects in closer detail than is possible on the floor of the Senate. Committee work takes up a large proportion of most senators' time. In recent years committees have met, in total, for twice as many hours as the Senate itself.

Senate committees fall into two categories - Select and Standing.

    - A Select Committee is one appointed by the Senate to inquire into some specific matter and to report back to the Senate within a set time. The first select committee was formed in 1901, the first year of the Commonwealth of Australia. Since then select committees have submitted over 100 reports to the Senate on a diversity of subjects. Once a select committee has submitted its final report to the Senate its work is done and it ceases to exist.

    - A Standing Committee is a permanent committee of the Senate. It stands - or remains - for the life of the whole of any one Parliament, its members being appointed at the commencement of each Parliament.

There are three groups of standing committees.

Domestic committees

There are eight of these committees dealing with matters relating to the internal operations of the Senate, including publications, appropriations and staffing, procedure, library services, the provision of facilities in Parliament House and senators' pecuniary and other interests. The Privileges Committee, which inquires into matters relating to the power and immunities of the Senate, including the protection of witnesses before Senate committees, is regarded as one of this group.

The Selection of Bills Committee is also classified as a domestic committee. It considers bills introduced into the Senate or received from the House of Representatives and recommends to the Senate which bills should be referred to a Legislative and General Purpose Committee for detailed examination.

Legislative scrutiny committees

Much legislation enacted by the Parliament delegates to the relevant minister the power to make rules, ordinances or regulations which may be needed to give effect to the legislation. The Regulations and Ordinances Committee, established in 1932, seeks to ensure that the government's power to make such delegated legislation is not in any way misused. While all delegated legislation is made under the authority of an act of Parliament and has the full force of law, none of it is actually debated in Parliament unless a motion is brought forward for its disallowance. By examining all delegated legislation to check that it does not impinge on civil liberties, or exceed the terms of the act under which it is made, the Regulations and Ordinances Committee operates as an important parliamentary check on executive power.

The Scrutiny of Bills Committee, formed in 1981, examines all bills before they are debated by the Senate to ensure that personal liberties and civil rights are not infringed. The committee then issues a report drawing the attention of the Senate to any defective provisions it may have found in a bill. The committee's reports, issued each week when the Senate is sitting, frequently result in legislation being amended to remedy such defects.

Legislative and general purpose standing committees

The Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees look at bills and aspects of government policy or administration. They were first established in 1970 and were restructured in 1994. They comprise a pair of committees - a References Committee and a Legislation Committee - in each of eight subject areas as follows:

Each pair of committees has substantially overlapping membership and a shared secretariat. Legislation Committees are chaired by government senators and References Committees are chaired by non-government senators. The committees encourage and enable senators to develop special interests and expertise in particular aspects of public policy.

Legislation Committees examine any bills or draft bills referred to them and also carry out the work, previously performed by Senate Estimates Committees, of inquiring into and reporting on the twice-yearly estimates of proposed government expenditure (see below for details of the estimates process). In addition, Legislation Committees have a specific mandate to monitor the performance of departments and agencies. The annual reports of all government departments and agencies are referred to the appropriate committees for examination. The committees are required to determine whether each annual report is satisfactory and to investigate any matter requiring closer scrutiny.

References Committees inquire into and report upon any other matters referred to them by the Senate, usually particular aspects of public policy.

The inquiry process

Senate committees take Parliament to the people. Members of the public may attend public hearings at Parliament House or at any one of the many towns and cities throughout Australia where committees meet, and they may submit written submissions, and if invited, give oral evidence, to particular committees. In this way, members of the public have the opportunity to take their ideas, information and grievances directly to their senators.

Committee reports are available on this web site, in major libraries and are sold in Australian Government bookshops.

After the Senate has referred a matter to a committee for consideration, the committee advertises and seeks submissions from interested parties. Witnesses are then invited to give evidence before the committee. Such evidence is generally given during public hearings but may also be given in private if the material is of a sensitive nature. (Legislation Committees when considering estimates must hold their hearings in public.) Most committees have the power to summon witnesses. Hearings are protected by parliamentary privilege, which means that senators and witnesses alike may speak freely without fear of legal action or adverse treatment.

Once information has been gathered and considered, the committee draws up a report which presents its findings and recommendations. Committee members and senators who have participated in the hearings but who disagree with the recommendations may attach dissenting reports, or additional conclusions and recommendations, to the report. The report is then tabled in the Senate and its recommendations debated. Governments give consideration to reports and frequently act on committee recommendations. Since 1978, successive governments have undertaken to inform the Senate of their response to committee reports within a specified time-currently three months.

Senate committee reports frequently lead to improvements in the law and to the operations of government, as well as contributing to public debate on important issues.

The consideration of estimates of expenditure

Twice each year, usually in May and November, the estimates of proposed annual expenditure of government departments and authorities are referred by the Senate to the relevant legislation committees for examination and report. At the estimates hearings senators may directly question ministers and public officials not only about the details of proposed expenditure but also about the objectives, operations and efficiency of the programs for which they are responsible. All evidence is taken in public. In the Australian system of government, ministers and public servants are accountable to the Parliament for the use of the public resources with which they have been entrusted. The detailed scrutiny of estimates by the Senate's legislation committees is one of the Parliament's most effective avenues of accountability. During the past three decades this process has 'opened the books of government' and contributed significantly to the improvement of management in the public sector.


 Visiting the Senate

With the exception of Christmas Day, Parliament House is open to the public every day of the year between 9.00 am and 5.00 pm and at all other times when Parliament is sitting. Visitors may attend any sessions of the Senate and watch proceedings from the public galleries. Free guided tours of the building are provided.


Further information

Further information on publications, lectures and seminar programs which explain the work of the Senate may be obtained by telephoning 02 6277 3057 or by writing to:

    The Director of Research
    Department of the Senate
    Parliament House
    Australian Capital Territory 2600

or e-mail:

Most Senate publications including the Notice Paper, Journals of the Senate, the daily Order of Business (PDF format 22kb) , the sitting schedule, information about committees and current inquiries, a list of senators' addresses and the Senate Briefs listed below are available on this site.