The first Parliament

Closer Look – A Short History of Parliament [PDF 3.40Mb, 13 pages]

Members of the first federal ministry

Members of the first federal ministry, photographed after the appointment of Lord Tennyson as the second Governor-General of Australia in 1902
Back row: Senator James Drake, Senator Richard O'Connor, Sir Philip Oakley Fysh, Charles Kingston, Sir John Forrest
Seated: Sir William Lyne, Edmund Barton, Lord Tennyson, Alfred Deakin, Sir George Turner

National Archives of Austraila: A1200, LI3365

The first federal elections for the new Parliament, which consisted of 36 senators and 75 members of the House of Representatives, were held on 29 and 30 March 1901. The Protectionist Party, who won 32 seats in the House of Representatives, formed a minority government with the support of other members in the House. Their leader, Edmund Barton, became the first Prime Minister. The Protectionist Party wanted to protect, or support, local industries by charging tariffs (taxes) on imported goods.

As well as laws about trade and revenue (taxes and government charges), some of the first laws made by the new Parliament excluded Pacific Islanders, Asian people and others from Australia in order to make the new nation a 'White Australia'. Both the Pacific Island Labourers Bill and the Immigration Restriction Bill were passed shortly before Parliament rose for the first Christmas recess.

A home for Australia's Parliament

From 1901 to 1927 the Australian Parliament met in the Victorian Parliament House, although this was never intended to be the permanent home for the Parliament. Section 125 of the Constitution states the seat of federal government '… shall be in the State of New South Wales, and be distant not less than one hundred miles from Sydney.' In 1908 the Australian Parliament decided the new federal capital would be located at Canberra in southern New South Wales.

Provisional (Old) Parliament House in Canberra was opened in 1927. Parliament met here until 1988, when it moved into its permanent building on Capital Hill. The openings of the first Commonwealth Parliament in Melbourne 1901, the first Parliament House in Canberra 1927, and the second in 1988, have all taken place on 9 May. To learn more about Australia's Parliament House visit Australia's Parliament House.

A home for Australia's Parliament

Left: Australia's first Parliament House, Melbourne
Middle: Provisional Parliament House, Canberra
Right: Australian Parliament House, today

State Library of Victoria: a 02945, National Library of Australia: an 23548162, Auspic

Developments in the Parliament of Australia

Members of the Senate and House of Representatives

Members of the Senate and House of Representatives

Bills debated each year

Bills debated each year

One of the most obvious changes in the Australian Parliament during the last hundred years has been in the size of the Parliament, reflecting the growth of the Australian population. In 1901 the first Parliament had 75 members in the House of Representatives and 36 senators in the Senate. As Australia's population has increased so has the number of members of parliament. By 2001 the federal Parliament was comprised of 150 members and 76 senators.

Other changes have affected the voting system. In 1924 compulsory voting was introduced for federal elections. At the same time preferential voting began, in which voters were required to number their preferences for all candidates on the ballot paper. In 1948 the Parliament changed the way senators are elected. Under the new voting method, known as proportional representation, seats in the Senate were to be awarded in proportion to the parties' share of the vote.

The Australian Parliament has consistently tried to make its work accessible to the public. In 1946 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation began broadcasting parliamentary proceedings on radio and in 1990 the houses allowed their proceedings to be televised.

Parliament has become much busier as the chambers debate many more bills. Between 1901 and 1906 Parliament considered between 20 and 35 bills each year. Today around 200 bills are considered by the Parliament.

In 1994 the House of Representatives established a second chamber, called the Main Committee, to expand the opportunity to debate non-controversial business. The second chamber, which was renamed the Federation Chamber in 2012, is an extension of the House of Representatives and operates in parallel to the main chamber. It allows for two streams of business to be debated concurrently and for non-contentious bills (proposed laws) to proceed quickly through the House.