Quick Answers

Quick Answers

Introduction

Quick Answers is an essential reference guide to the Parliament. Check out the Top 20 Questions below or browse the categories to the left. Click on a question to reveal the answer.

Top 20 Questions

What is Australia's system of governance?

Australia is both a representative democracy and a constitutional monarchy.

A representative democracy is a system in which the people vote for delegates to represent their interests in a parliament. In Australia, members of parliament are elected to the Senate or the House of Representatives to represent the Australian people and make laws on their behalf.

A constitutional monarchy is a system in which a king or queen is the head of state, but must act in accordance with a constitution. In Australia, the powers of the Queen have been delegated to her representative, the Governor-General.


More information: House of Representatives Infosheet 20 – The Australian system of government

What is the Australian Constitution?

The Australian Constitution is the set of rules by which Australia is governed. It came into effect on 1 January 1901, as part of an Act of the British Parliament. The Constitution includes details about:

  • the composition of the federal Parliament, which includes the Queen (represented by the Governor-General), The Senate and the House of Representatives
  • the powers of the federal Parliament
  • how law-making responsibilities are shared between the federal and state parliaments
  • the role of the executive government and the courts.

More information: Fact Sheet – Australian Constitution

What is the Australian Parliament?

The Australian Parliament consists of the Queen (represented by the Governor-General), the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Australian Parliament has four main roles:

  • making and changing federal laws
  • representing the people of Australia
  • providing a place where government is formed
  • keeping a check on the work of the government.

The Australian Parliament is located in Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory.


More information: Fact Sheet – Parliament

How is the Australian Parliament formed?

At a federal election, eligible citizens vote for people to represent them in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Each member of the House of Representatives is elected to represent one of the 150 electorates around Australia.

Each senator is elected to represent their state or territory in the Senate.

Elections for the House of Representatives are held at least every three years. Half-Senate elections are usually held at the same time, to elect half of the 72 state senators plus the four senators representing the two territories.

Once the election result is finalised, the successful candidates are announced and the writs (official election documents) are returned to the Governor-General or state governors.

Federal elections are run by the Australian Electoral Commission.


More information: Fact Sheet – Federal Elections

What is the difference between the Australian Parliament and the Australian Government?

The Australian Parliament and the Australian Government are not the same.

The Australian Parliament consists of the Queen (represented by the Governor-General), the Senate and the House of Representatives. The main roles of the Parliament are to represent the people of Australia, make and change laws, provide a place where government is formed and scrutinise the work of government.

The Australian Government is formed by the party or coalition of parties with the support of a majority of members in the House of Representatives. A Government minister must be a member of the House of Representatives or a senator. The main roles of the Government are to make important national decisions, develop policy, introduce bills (proposed laws), implement laws and manage government departments.


More information: Fact Sheet – Parliament / Fact Sheet – Government

How can the community affect decision-making in Parliament?

The Parliament's role is to make decisions on behalf of all Australians; it is interested in finding out what the community thinks about important issues. There are many ways the community can get involved with the Parliament, including:

  • creating or signing a petition to request action from the Parliament
  • writing a submission and/or giving evidence to a parliamentary committee
  • writing to members of parliament to express concerns or discuss ideas or issues.

Contact details for members of parliament can be found on the Australian Parliament House website. Most members also have their own websites and some stay in contact with people via social media, such as Twitter and Facebook.


More information: Fact Sheet – Getting Involved in Parliament

What is the Senate?

The Senate is one of the two houses of the Australian Parliament; the other is the House of Representatives. The Senate is also known as the upper house or the house of review. The Senate is made up of 76 senators: each elected to represent one of Australia's six states or two territories. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives debate and pass bills, scrutinise government and represent the people of Australia.


More information: Fact Sheet – Senate

What is the House of Representatives?

The House of Representatives is one of the two houses of the Australian Parliament; the other is the Senate. The House of Representatives is also known as the lower house or the people's house. There are 150 members elected to the House of Representatives (also referred to as MPs). Each member represents one of Australia's 150 federal electorates.  The government is formed in the House of Representatives, by the party or coalition of parties with the support of the majority of members in the House. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate debate and pass bills, scrutinise government and represent the people of Australia.


More information: Fact Sheet – House of Representatives

Why are there two houses in the Australian Parliament?

In the lead-up to federation, the people who drafted the Australian Constitution decided that the Australian Parliament should have two houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives. This is called a bicameral parliament, which means that the two houses share the power to make laws. This idea was based partly on the British Parliament and partly on the United States system of governance.

At federation, it was considered important that the smaller states not be overwhelmed by the more populous states. The Senate was established to give each state an equal voice in Parliament. The House of Representatives was created as the place in which government is formed.


More information: Fact Sheet – Senate / Fact Sheet – House of Representatives

What happens in the Senate and the House of Representatives?

When in the chambers, senators and members of the House of Representatives spend the majority of their time debating issues of national importance and making laws on behalf of all Australians. They also represent their electorate, state or territory by speaking about issues that are important to their part of Australia. Activities that take place in the chambers include:

  • debating and passing bills (proposed laws)
  • asking and answering questions, particularly during Question Time, in which members of parliament closely examine the work of the government
  • speaking on matters of public importance, in which members of parliament discuss current important issues
  • presenting and debating parliamentary committee reports
  • presenting petitions on behalf of citizens.

More information: Fact Sheet – Senate / Fact Sheet – House of Representatives

Who works in Australia's Parliament House?

Parliament House is a busy place, with 4000 to 5000 people working in the building on sitting days, including:

  • members of parliament and their staff
  • parliamentary officers and public servants who support the work of the Parliament and the government
  • the press gallery
  • employees who provide services such as broadcasting, computing, cleaning and catering.

More information: Parliament NOW – Who's who

What is a member of parliament?

Members of parliament have been elected by Australian voters to represent them in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. There are a total of 226 members of parliament: 150 in the House of Representatives (referred to as members or MPs) and 76 in the Senate (referred to as senators).


More information: Fact Sheet – Members of the House of Representatives / Fact Sheet – Senators

What is the Prime Minister's job?

The Prime Minister is the head of the Australian Government and is also a member of parliament. They lead the parliamentary party or coalition of parties with the support of the majority of members in the House of Representatives.

The Prime Minister has many tasks, including:

  • chairing meetings in which the government discusses policy and examines bills (proposed laws)
  • selecting members of the government to be ministers
  • meeting with top-level ministers in Cabinet to decide government policy
  • acting as the chief government spokesperson
  • representing the Australian Government overseas
  • advising the Governor-General about constitutional issues, as well as the appointment of ambassadors and heads of government departments.

More information: Fact Sheet – Prime Minister

What is a minister's job?

As a leading member of the government, a minister is given a specific area of responsibility, also known as a portfolio. Most ministers are in charge of a government department or assist in the administration of a department, such as the Department of Defence. Ministers work with their departments, as well as community organisations and professional associations to prepare new laws and change old laws which need updating or improving.

The most high-profile portfolios are usually given to the most experienced government members, who become Cabinet ministers.


More information: Fact Sheet – Ministers and Shadow Ministers

What parties are in the federal Parliament?

The current federal Parliament is made up of members from the Liberal Party of Australia, the Nationals, the Australian Labor Party, the Australian Greens, the Country Liberal Party, the Democratic Labor Party, Katter’s Australian Party and Palmer United Party. There are also Independent members of parliament who do not belong to any political party.


More information: Fact Sheet – Political Parties

What is a bill?

In Parliament, a bill is a proposal for a new law or a change to an existing one. Generally, bills aim to improve something or fix a problem. Most bills are introduced into the Parliament by government ministers and are then debated and voted on in both chambers.


More information: Fact Sheet – Bills and Laws

How does a bill become a law?

A bill becomes a law after it has been passed in the same form by both houses of Parliament and is signed by the Governor-General. It is then called an Act of Parliament. For a bill to be passed, it must be agreed to by a majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.  A bill may also be sent to a parliamentary committee for further investigation before being voted on by the Parliament.

If members of parliament agree on a bill, it may only take a couple of days to be passed through the Parliament. However, the process may take weeks or even months if there is a lot of debate and disagreement. An example of such a bill was the Native Title Amendment Bill 1996. It was introduced to the Parliament on 4 September 1997 and finalised on 27 July 1998, taking 10 months and 24 days to become a law.


More information: Fact Sheet – Making a Law

What are Australia's three levels of law-making?

Australia has three levels of law-making, sometimes called the three levels of government:

  • the federal Parliament
  • state and territory parliaments
  • local councils.

Each level has responsibility for making laws about different things. Australia's federal Parliament is based in the national capital, Canberra. State and territory parliaments are located in each state or territory's capital city. There are also more than 560 local councils all around Australia.


More information: Fact Sheet – Three Levels of Law-Making

How did Australian federation occur?

Before 1901, Australia consisted of six British colonies which were partly self-governing, but under the law-making power of the British Parliament. In the 1880s and 1890s, it was suggested that the colonies might be stronger and more efficient if they worked together. Several conventions were held to draft the Australian Constitution. In 1899, the draft was approved by a vote of the people in referendums. In 1900, it was agreed to by the British Parliament. On 1 January 1901, the Australian colonies united to become a nation. This is known as federation and resulted in the creation of a federal Parliament, with the colonies becoming Australia's six states. Through federation, the states transferred some of their law-making power to the federal Parliament.


More information: Fact Sheet – Federation

Why is Parliament House located in Canberra?

Section 125 of the Australian Constitution specifies that the national capital had to be located within New South Wales, at least 100 miles away from Sydney. At federation in 1901, the search began for a suitable location for the Parliament. The site for the national capital was chosen in 1908 and named Canberra in 1913.


More information: Fact Sheet – Federation