The Senate and the House of Representatives
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.
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.
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.
What does the Senate look like?
The furnishings and carpet in the Senate are red. This reflects our historical ties with the British Parliament where the House of Lords is red. To add an Australian flavour, soft shades of red ochre are used in the Senate. These represent Australian native plants such as eucalypts and the colours of the land.
The seats in the Senate are arranged in rows that form a U-shape, with the President sitting at the open end of the U-shape. Government senators sit to the right of the President, opposition senators sit to the left. Minor party and Independent senators sit in the central curved part of the U-shape.
What does the House of Representatives look like?
The furnishings and carpet in the House of Representatives are green. This reflects our historical ties with the British Parliament where the House of Commons is green. To add an Australian flavour, soft shades of grey-green are used in the House of Representatives. These represent the leaves of Australian native plants such as eucalypts.
The seats in the House of Representatives are arranged in rows that form a U-shape, with the Speaker sitting at the open end of the U-shape. Government members sit to the right of the Speaker and opposition members sit to the left. Minor party and Independent members sit in the central curved part of the U-shape.
What is the role of the Speaker and the President?
The Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate are the Presiding Officers. The Presiding Officer runs the meetings in the chamber and makes sure the standing orders (rules of the House of Representatives and the Senate) are followed.
The Speaker does not usually vote in the House of Representatives, but has a casting vote in the event of a tied vote. In contrast, the President of the Senate votes just like any other senator, but does not have a casting vote. This means that a tied vote in the Senate is defeated.
How are the Presiding Officers selected?
The Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate are the Presiding Officers.
Following a federal election, the Speaker of the House of Representatives must be elected before the work of the House can begin. In the Senate, the President is elected on 1 July following the federal election. Each chamber votes to select one of its members to take on the role of Presiding Officer.
Where did the titles Speaker and President come from?
The people who drafted the Australian Constitution looked to other countries when shaping Australia's system of government. Many features of Australia's Parliament came from Britain and several from the United States (US).
The title of the Speaker of the House of Representatives represents a link with the House of Commons in the British Parliament. Historically, the Speaker acted as the House of Commons spokesperson to the monarch (king or queen).
The name and some features of the Senate came from the US Congress (legislature), including the title of the President of the Senate.
What are the rules in the chambers?
The rules used to manage the Senate and the House of Representatives are called the standing orders. Each chamber has its own standing orders which, although similar, are not the same.
Standing orders include rules such as how long people may speak, how votes are conducted and how members of parliament must behave in the chamber.
The President in the Senate and the Speaker in the House of Representatives ensure the standing orders are followed. They may seek advice from the Clerks about the standing orders.
More information: Fact Sheet – Standing Orders
Who is allowed to enter the parliamentary chambers?
Few people other than members of parliament are allowed into the Senate or the House of Representatives. Parliamentary officers such as the Clerks, the Serjeant-at-Arms, the Usher of the Black Rod, Hansard editors and attendants work in the chambers. Public servants and advisors are sometimes present to give information to members of parliament, and ministers in particular. Important guests such as international dignitaries can also be invited into the chambers.
What is Question Time?
During Question Time, members of parliament ask the Prime Minister and ministers questions about their decisions and actions. This is one of the ways in which the Parliament checks on the work of the government. Question Time takes place in both the Senate and the House of Representatives at 2pm on sitting days.
More information: Fact Sheet – Question Time
What is a division?
A division is a formal vote in the Parliament. During a division, members of parliament move to either side of their chamber to show which way they are voting – to the right if they vote 'yes' and to the left if they vote 'no'. This allows the vote to be counted accurately and the names of those voting to be recorded.
More information: Fact Sheet – Voting in the Chambers
What is crossing the floor?
Members of parliament who belong to a parliamentary party nearly always vote with their party on bills and other issues in the chambers. Crossing the floor refers to a member of parliament walking across the chamber floor during a division, to vote against their party.
More information: Fact Sheet – Crossing the Floor
What is the Black Rod?
The Black Rod is the official symbol of the office of the Usher of the Black Rod in the Senate. It is about 1.3 metres long and made of ebony wood with a silver crown on the end.
The Usher of the Black Rod carries the Black Rod while conducting Senate business. When the Senate is in session and the Black Rod is not being carried, it stands upright beside the Usher of the Black Rod's chair on the government side of the chamber.
More information: Fact Sheet – Black Rod
What is the Mace?
The Mace is the symbol of the authority of the House of Representatives and the Speaker. It is made of silver coated in gold and weighs about eight kilograms.
At the start of each sitting day, the Mace is carried into the House of Representatives and placed on the central table by the Serjeant-at-Arms. It rests on the table as long as the Speaker or Deputy Speaker is in the chair and running a meeting in the chamber. The crown of the Mace always points toward the government members who sit to the Speaker's right and the Coat of Arms faces up.
What are the Despatch Boxes?
The Despatch Boxes are the two wooden chests on the central table in the House of Representatives, next to the Prime Minister's chair and the Leader of the Opposition's chair. Ministers and shadow ministers speak at the Despatch Boxes. The boxes were given to the Australian Parliament by King George V in 1927 and symbolise the link between the British House of Commons and the Australian House of Representatives.
More information: Fact Sheet – Despatch Boxes
What is Hansard?
Hansard is a written record of the words spoken in the Senate, the House of Representatives and in public hearings of parliamentary committees. It is available to the public, so that people can find out what members of parliament and committee witnesses have told the Parliament. Hansard is an important way of keeping Parliament open to the people.
More information: Fact Sheet – Records of the Parliament
What is the Federation Chamber?
The Federation Chamber is the second chamber of the House of Representatives. It was set up in 1994 as the Main Committee, and renamed the Federation Chamber in February 2012. It allows the busy schedule of the House of Representatives to be managed more efficiently and to give members of the House more opportunity to contribute to debate. Despite its original name, the Federation Chamber does not conduct parliamentary committees. Instead, it is used for conducting non-controversial House of Representatives business, such as debating bills (proposed laws) that have bipartisan (majority) support.
The room has a similar layout to the House of Representatives chamber, with seats for members arranged in a U-shape, as well as areas for the media, public and advisors.
More information: Fact Sheet – House of Representatives