Parliament of Australia

Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia
45th Parliament
Coat of arms or logo
Houses Senate
House of Representatives
Founded 9 May 1901
Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia
Since 6 February 1952
The Hon. Tony Smith MP, Liberal
Since 10 August 2015
Seats 226 (150 MPs, 76 Senators)
House of Representatives political groups

Government (76)
     Liberal (45)
     LNP (21) [Note 1]
     National (10)
Opposition (69)
     Labor (69)
Crossbench (5)
     Greens (1)
     Katter (1)
     Xenophon Team (1)

     Independent (2) [Note 2]
Senate political groups

Government (30)
     Liberal (21)
     LNP (5) [Note 3]
     National (3)
     CLP (1) [Note 4]

Opposition (26)
     Labor (26)

Crossbench (20)
     Greens (9)
     One Nation (4)
     Xenophon Team (3)
     Family First (1)
     Liberal Democrat (1)
     Lambie (1)
     Hinch (1)

  1. 16 LNP MPs sit in the Liberal party room and 6 in the National party room
  2. Current independent MPs: Andrew Wilkie (Denison) and Cathy McGowan (Indi).
  3. 3 LNP Senators sit in the Liberal party room and 2 in the National party room
  4. Sits in National party room
2 July 2016
Senate last election
2 July 2016 (full)
Meeting place
Parliament House
Canberra, ACT, Australia

The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, variously referred to as the Australian Parliament, the Commonwealth Parliament or the Federal Parliament, is the legislative branch of the government of Australia. It consists of three elements: the Queen of Australia, the Senate and the House of Representatives.[1] The Queen is represented by the Governor-General.[2] The combination of two elected houses, in which the members of the Senate represent the six States and the two major self-governing Territories while the members of the House represent electoral divisions according to population, is modelled on the United States Congress. Through both houses, however, there is a fused executive, drawn from the Westminster System.[3]

The upper house, the Senate, consists of 76 members: twelve for each state, and two each for the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. Since the voting reforms of March 2016, Senators are elected using the Single Transferable Vote proportional representation system with optional preferences. The lower house, the House of Representatives, currently consists of 150 members, each elected from single member constituencies, known as electoral divisions (commonly referred to as "electorates" or "seats") using compulsory preferential voting.

The two Houses meet in separate chambers of Parliament House (except in the rare joint sitting) on Capital Hill in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory.

Current Parliament

The current Parliament is the 45th Australian Parliament. The most recent federal election was held on 2 July 2016 and the 45th Parliament first sat on 30 August.

The outcome of the 2016 election saw the first-term incumbent Liberal/National Coalition re-elected with 76 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, a bare one-seat majority government − the closest federal majority result since the 1961 election. The Coalition lost 14 seats. The Shorten Labor opposition won 69 seats, an increase of 14 seats. On the crossbench the Australian Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team, Katter's Australian Party, and independents Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan won a seat each.[4][5]

The Senate result, announced on 4 August, saw the Liberal/National Coalition with 30 seats (−3), Labor with 26 (+1), the Greens with 9 (−1), One Nation with 4 (+4) and Nick Xenophon Team with 3 (+2). Derryn Hinch won a seat, while Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, Family First's Bob Day, and Jacqui Lambie retained their seats. The number of crossbenchers increased by two to a record 20. The Liberal/National Coalition will require at least nine additional votes to reach a Senate majority, an increase of three.[6][7][8] The Opposition agreed with the government that the first elected six of twelve Senators in each state would serve a six-year term, while the last six elected in each state would serve a three-year term. This was reported as being 'consistent with convention'.[9][10][11][12][13] However, an alternative method was available that had been supported by both Labor and the Coalition in two separate, identical, bipartisan senate resolutions, passed in 1998 and 2010. By not adhering to their previous resolutions, Labor and the Coalition each gained one senate seat from 2019. [14] [15] [16]


The Big Picture, opening of the Parliament of Australia, 9 May 1901, by Tom Roberts

The Commonwealth of Australia came into being on 1 January 1901. The inaugural election took place on 29 and 30 March and the first Australian Parliament was opened on 9 May 1901 in Melbourne by Prince George, Duke of Cornwall and York, later King George V. The only building in Melbourne that was large enough to accommodate the 14,000 guests was the western annexe of the Royal Exhibition Building. After the official opening, from 1901 to 1927, the Parliament met in Parliament House, Melbourne, which it borrowed from the Parliament of Victoria (which sat, instead, in the Royal Exhibition Building until 1927). (The western annexe was demolished in the 1960s.)

It had always been intended that the national Parliament would sit in a new national capital.[17]

On 9 May 1927, Parliament was moved to the new national capital of Canberra, where it met in what is now called Old Parliament House. This building was to house the Parliament for more than 60 years. A new Parliament House was opened on 9 May 1988 by Queen Elizabeth II.


Canberra from Mount Ainslie: across the lake is Old Parliament House and then the new Parliament House

Under Section 1 of the Constitution, the Queen of Australia is one of the components of Parliament. Most of 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 pleasure. 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 partly modelled, the Australian Senate includes an equal number of Senators from each state, regardless of population. Unlike it, however, the Australian Senate has always been directly elected. (The US Senate has been directly elected only from 1913.)

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. 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, the Jervis Bay Territory and since 1 July 2016, Norfolk Island.[18]

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 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 to comply with the nexus provision.[19] 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).

It is not possible to be simultaneously a member of both the Senate and the House of Representatives,[20] but a number of people have been members of both houses at different times in their parliamentary career (see List of people who have served in both Houses of the Australian Parliament).

Only Australian citizens are eligible for election to either house.[21] They must not also hold citizenship of a "foreign power".[22] When the Constitution was drafted, all Australians were British subjects, so that "foreign" meant non-British. But, in the landmark case Sue v Hill (1999), the High Court of Australia ruled that, at least since the Australia Act 1986, Britain has been a "foreign power", so that British citizens are also excluded.[23]

Assault rifle-armed Australian Federal Police officers are situated in both chambers of the Federal Parliament as of 2015. It is the first time in Australian history that parliament possesses armed personnel.[24]


The Australian Senate chamber

Each of the two Houses elects a presiding officer. The presiding officer of the Senate is called the President; that of the House of Representatives 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. The session of the relevant house is suspended until a quorum is present. 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 on only one occasion, 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 main foyer in Parliament House
Interior of Parliament House

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.[25] 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.

After the 1949 election, Bill Spooner was appointed a Minister in the Fourth Menzies Ministry on 19 December, however his term as a Senator did not begin until 22 February 1950.

The provision was also used 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 24 February by-election in Holt's former House of Representatives electorate of Higgins. For 22 days (2 to 23 February inclusive) 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.[26]


Radio broadcasts of Parliamentary proceedings began on 10 July 1946.[27] They were originally broadcast on Radio National. 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 Governor-General; the swearing-in of Governors-General; and addresses to the Parliament by visiting heads of state.

Access to free extensive daily proceedings is now available live on the Internet.[28]

Lower house primary, two-party and seat results since 1910

A two-party system has existed in the Australian House of Representatives since the two non-Labor parties merged in 1909. The 1910 election was the first to elect a majority government, with the Australian Labor Party concurrently winning the first Senate majority. A two-party-preferred vote (2PP) has been calculated since the 1919 change from first-past-the-post to preferential voting and subsequent introduction of the Coalition. ALP = Australian Labor Party, L+NP = grouping of Liberal/National/LNP/CLP Coalition parties (and predecessors), Oth = other parties and independents.

House of Representatives results and polling
Primary vote 2PP vote Seats
ALP L+NP Oth. ALP L+NP ALP L+NP Oth. Total
2 July 2016 election 34.7% 42.0% 23.3% 49.6% 50.4% 69 76 5 150
28 Jun – 1 Jul 2016 Newspoll 35% 42% 23% 49.5% 50.5%
7 September 2013 election 33.4% 45.6% 21.0% 46.5% 53.5% 55 90 5 150
3–5 Sep 2013 Newspoll 33% 46% 21% 46% 54%
21 August 2010 election 38.0% 43.3% 18.7% 50.1% 49.9% 72 72 6 150
17–19 Aug 2010 Newspoll 36.2% 43.4% 20.4% 50.2% 49.8%
24 November 2007 election 43.4% 42.1% 14.5% 52.7% 47.3% 83 65 2 150
20–22 Nov 2007 Newspoll 44% 43% 13% 52% 48%
9 October 2004 election 37.6% 46.7% 15.7% 47.3% 52.7% 60 87 3 150
6–7 Oct 2004 Newspoll 39% 45% 16% 50% 50%
10 November 2001 election 37.8% 43.0% 19.2% 49.0% 51.0% 65 82 3 150
7–8 Nov 2001 Newspoll 38.5% 46% 15.5% 47% 53%
3 October 1998 election 40.1% 39.5% 20.4% 51.0% 49.0% 67 80 1 148
30 Sep – 1 Oct 1998 Newspoll 44% 40% 16% 53% 47%
2 March 1996 election 38.7% 47.3% 14.0% 46.4% 53.6% 49 94 5 148
28–29 Feb 1996 Newspoll 40.5% 48% 11.5% 46.5% 53.5%
13 March 1993 election 44.9% 44.3% 10.7% 51.4% 48.6% 80 65 2 147
11 Mar 1993 Newspoll 44% 45% 11% 49.5% 50.5%
24 March 1990 election 39.4% 43.5% 17.1% 49.9% 50.1% 78 69 1 148
11 July 1987 election 45.8% 46.1% 8.1% 50.8% 49.2% 86 62 0 148
1 December 1984 election 47.6% 45.0% 7.4% 51.8% 48.2% 82 66 0 148
5 March 1983 election 49.5% 43.6% 6.9% 53.2% 46.8% 75 50 0 125
18 October 1980 election 45.2% 46.3% 8.5% 49.6% 50.4% 51 74 0 125
10 December 1977 election 39.7% 48.1% 12.2% 45.4% 54.6% 38 86 0 124
13 December 1975 election 42.8% 53.1% 4.1% 44.3% 55.7% 36 91 0 127
18 May 1974 election 49.3% 44.9% 5.8% 51.7% 48.3% 66 61 0 127
2 December 1972 election 49.6% 41.5% 8.9% 52.7% 47.3% 67 58 0 125
25 October 1969 election 47.0% 43.3% 9.7% 50.2% 49.8% 59 66 0 125
26 November 1966 election 40.0% 50.0% 10.0% 43.1% 56.9% 41 82 1 124
30 November 1963 election 45.5% 46.0% 8.5% 47.4% 52.6% 50 72 0 122
9 December 1961 election 47.9% 42.1% 10.0% 50.5% 49.5% 60 62 0 122
22 November 1958 election 42.8% 46.6% 10.6% 45.9% 54.1% 45 77 0 122
10 December 1955 election 44.6% 47.6% 7.8% 45.8% 54.2% 47 75 0 122
29 May 1954 election 50.0% 46.8% 3.2% 50.7% 49.3% 57 64 0 121
28 April 1951 election 47.6% 50.3% 2.1% 49.3% 50.7% 52 69 0 121
10 December 1949 election 46.0% 50.3% 3.7% 49.0% 51.0% 47 74 0 121
28 September 1946 election 49.7% 39.3% 11.0% 54.1% 45.9% 43 26 5 74
21 August 1943 election 49.9% 23.0% 27.1% 58.2% 41.8% 49 19 6 74
21 September 1940 election 40.2% 43.9% 15.9% 50.3% 49.7% 32 36 6 74
23 October 1937 election 43.2% 49.3% 7.5% 49.4% 50.6% 29 44 2 74
15 September 1934 election 26.8% 45.6% 27.6% 46.5% 53.5% 18 42 14 74
19 December 1931 election 27.1% 48.4% 24.5% 41.5% 58.5% 14 50 11 75
12 October 1929 election 48.8% 44.2% 7.0% 56.7% 43.3% 46 24 5 75
17 November 1928 election 44.6% 49.6% 5.8% 48.4% 51.6% 31 42 2 75
14 November 1925 election 45.0% 53.2% 1.8% 46.2% 53.8% 23 50 2 75
16 December 1922 election 42.3% 47.8% 9.9% 48.8% 51.2% 29 40 6 75
13 December 1919 election 42.5% 54.3% 3.2% 45.9% 54.1% 25 38 2 75
5 May 1917 election 43.9% 54.2% 1.9% 22 53 0 75
5 September 1914 election 50.9% 47.2% 1.9% 42 32 1 75
31 May 1913 election 48.5% 48.9% 2.6% 37 38 0 75
13 April 1910 election 50.0% 45.1% 4.9% 42 31 2 75
Polling conducted by Newspoll and published in The Australian. Three percent margin of error.

See also


  1. Constitution of Australia, section 1.
  2. Constitution of Australia, section 2.
  3. Williams, George; Brennan, Sean; Lynch, Andrew (2014). Blackshield and Williams Australian Constitutional Law and Theory: Commentary and Materials (6 ed.). Leichhardt, NSW: Federation P. p. 2. ISBN 9781862879188..
  4. Labor takes seat of Herbert, leaving Malcolm Turnbull with majority of just one seat: SMH 31 July 2016
  5. House of Reps 2016 election results: AEC
  6. AEC: Twitter
  7. "Federal Election 2016: Senate Results". Australia Votes. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 3 July 2016. Retrieved 4 July 2016.
  8. "Senate photo finishes". 2016-07-12. Retrieved 2016-07-30.
  9. Senate terms: Derryn Hinch and Greens' Lee Rhiannon given three years - The Guardian 12 August 2016
  10. ALP-LNP deal to force senators back to poll in three years: The Australian 13 August 2016
  11. Coalition and Labor team up to clear out crossbench senators in 2019: SMH 12 August 2016
  12. Coalition flags first elected Senate plan: Sky News 12 August 2016
  13. Cormann raises ‘first elected’ plan to halve Senate terms for crossbenchers: The Australian 12 December 2016
  14. Constitution of Australia, section 125: "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."
  15. "Norfolk Island Electors". Australian Electoral Commission. 2016. Retrieved 13 August 2016.
  16. Attorney-General (NSW); Ex Rel McKellar v Commonwealth [1977] HCA 1; (1977) 139 CLR 527 (1 February 1977)
  17. Constitution of Australia, section 43.
  18. Constitution of Australia, section 34(ii); Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth), section 163(1)(b), following the establishment of an Australian citizenship from 1949.
  19. Constitution of Australia, section 44(i).
  20. Section 44(i) extends beyond actual citizenship, but in Sue v Hill only the status of British Citizen was in question.
  21. Armed guards now stationed to protect Australian MPs and senators in both chambers of Federal Parliament: SMH 9 February 2015
  22. "COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA CONSTITUTION ACT – SECT 53 Powers of the Houses in respect of legislation". Retrieved 2016-03-06.
  23. Sydney Morning Herald, "Activist contempt over April Fools stunt", 31 May 2007. Accessed 1 June 2007.
  24. "Parliamentary Library: Australian Political Records (Research Note 42 1997–98)". Archived from the original on 3 February 1999. Retrieved 12 September 2008.
  25. "Live Broadcasting: Parliament of Australia". Retrieved 8 September 2013.

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