Parliament of Australia
Section 1 of the Constitution of Australia provides that: "The legislative power of the Commonwealth shall be vested in a Federal Parliament, which shall consist of the Queen, a Senate, and a House of Representatives, and which is herein-after called 'The Parliament,' or 'The Parliament of the Commonwealth'."
Table of contents
The Commonwealth Parliament was opened on 9 May 1901 in the Royal Exhibition Building. Thereafter, from 1901 to 1927 it met in Parliament House, Melbourne, which it borrowed from the parliament of the state of Victoria (which sat in the Exhibition Building). On May 9, 1927 the Parliament moved to the new national capital at Canberra, where it met in what is now called Old Parliament House. Intended to be temporary, this building in fact housed the Parliament for more than 60 years. The permanent Parliament House, Canberra was opened in May 9, 1988.
From 1901 to 1949, the House of Representatives had either 74 or 75 members, while the Senate had 36 members, six from each state. In 1949 the House was enlarged to 121 members and the Senate to 60 (ten from each state). The Senate grew to 64 members in 1975 when the two mainland territories (the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory) were allowed to elect two Senators each. In 1984 the House was enlarged to 148 members and the Senate to 76 (twelve from each state and two from each territory).
The Queen's constitutional functions are delegated to the Governor-General. The Governor-General's assent is required before any piece of legislation becomes law. Various other function are assigned to the Governor-General in the Constitution and by legislation. But the powers of the Governor-General are almost always exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister.
Like the United States Senate, on which it was modeled, the Australian Senate has an equal number of Senators from each state, regardless of population. Under the Constitution, Parliament may determine the number of Senators, provided that each Original State is represented by an equal number of Senators. If any new State were to admitted to the Commonwealth, however, Parliament could determine the number of Senators that State would have. Until 1949 each State elected six Senators (the minimum stipulated by the Constitution). The number increased to ten from the elections of 1949, and to the present number (twelve) from the elections of 1984. Since 1975, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory have each elected two Senators.
The Constitution requires that the House of Representatives be as near as possible twice the size of the Senate. Thus from 1901 to 1949 the House had either 74 or 75 members. Between 1949 and 1984 it had between 121 and 127 members. In 1977 the High Court ordered that the size of the House be reduced from 127 to 124 members because it was more than twice the size of the Senate. As a result, in 1984 both the Senate and the House were enlarged, and since then the House has had between 148 and 150 members.
The principal function of the Parliament is to pass laws, or legislation. Any Member or Senator 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. 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. 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 Members and Senators address questions to the Prime Minister and other ministers. Members and Senators 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.
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 Member or Senator says in Parliament.
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 of hearing such cases itself, and did so in the Browne-Fitzpatrick case of 1955. This power has now been delegated to the courts, but no-one has been prosecuted for this offence.
Conflicts between Houses
In the event of conflict between the two Houses, the Constitution provides for a simultaneous dissolution of both Houses, a "double dissolution." If the conflict continues after such an election, the government may convene a joint sitting of both Houses to consider the disputed legislation. This has occurred only once, after the election following the 1974 double dissolution.
A minister is not required to be a member of the House or the Senate at the time of their appointment, but their office is forfeited if they do not become a member of either house within 3 months of their appointment.
- This provision was included in the Constitution 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.
- The provision also came into effect when the then Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt drowned on 17 December 1967. He was succeeded, not by the deputy Liberal leader William McMahon, but by the Deputy Prime Minister John McEwen who was leader of the junior coalition partner the Country Party. This was a stop-gap measure while the coalition parties considered the leadership question in depth. McEwen despised McMahon, and refused to continue the coalition with him as Prime Minister, and so to ensure the viability of the coalition (and remain in government) the Liberal Party had to find a leader acceptable to McEwen. Such a person was John Gorton, a sitting Senator from Victoria, who was duly chosen as Liberal Leader and was sworn in as Prime Minister on 10 January 1968. Constitutionally, there was no barrier to this as Ministers can be members of either house (and the office of Prime Minister is not recognised at all). However the political convention demands that the Prime Minister, the leader of the government, be a member of the house in which the government is formed, the House of Representatives. In order to do this, Gorton had to resign from the Senate and stand for the by-election in Holt's former electorate of Higgins. In the meantime, for 24 days (1–24 February 1968) he remained Prime Minister while being a member of neither house.
- On a number of occasions when a Minister has retired from their seat prior to an election, they have retained their Ministerial office until the next government is sworn in.
Members of the Parliament
- List of members of the Australian House of Representatives
- List of members of the Australian Senate
- US/Australia Parliamentary Friendship Group
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