Elections Part 3: Step inside the houses of federal parliament
PART 3: The business of Australia’s parliament takes place in two houses. Learn about what happens there and how parliamentarians represent Australians
READING LEVEL: GREEN
The Australian parliament is the name for the organisation that represents the Australian people. It’s where the government is formed and meets. Its home is at Parliament House in Canberra.
Parliament is also sometimes called the federal parliament or the commonwealth parliament and its job is to make or change laws and keep a check on the work of the government.
Parliament is made up of three parts: the House of Representatives (where the prime minister sits as the head of the government), the Senate, plus the Queen (represented by the governor-general).
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Australia is divided into 151 sections or areas called federal electorates or divisions of the House of Representatives. Electoral boundaries are set so that each electorate has about the same number of voters. The boundaries sometimes change in line with population growth or decline in an area.
On election day, voters cast their vote to choose (from a list of candidates*) a representative in federal parliament for the electorate they live in.
The candidate who gets the most votes wins a seat in the House of Representatives, which means they become a member of parliament (MP) in the House of Representatives.
People sometimes refer to these MPs as their local member.
The job of each of these MPs is to speak on behalf of the people in their electorate and Australians collectively*.
The MP will have an office in their electorate that people can visit if they would like to talk about an issue the MP might be able to help them solve.
MPs also attend events in their electorate as a way of being available to the people they represent. If you see your local MP out and about, it’s okay to talk to them about an issue.
Things that you can ask an MP to do to help address an issue you are worried about include:
- VOTE for or against something that is going to be voted on in parliament;
- MAKE a speech in parliament so other parliamentarians learn about the issue;
- MOVE a motion in parliament, which means the MP will ask for there to be a formal statement made on an issue;
- ASK a question in parliament about the issue to get more information from the government on its position and plans.
When a big decision or a possible new law (called a Bill) is to be discussed and voted on by federal parliamentarians, this happens first in the House of Representatives.
It is written in the Constitution* that there must be a House of Representatives election every three years.
When you see photos of a big room in Parliament House in which the carpet and seats – arranged in a big oval – are green, that’s the chamber of the House of Representatives.
The other part of a federal election is a vote to choose senators to represent the state or territory a voter lives in. The senators are the parliamentarians in the Senate, also called the upper house.
There are 76 senators, 12 from each state and two from each of the ACT and the Northern Territory.
The carpet and seats in the Senate are red, rather than green like the House of Reps.
If someone says: “It’s got through the House of Reps and now it just has to get through the Senate”, they mean a big decision or a Bill successfully passed a vote in the House of Representatives and is now to be discussed and voted on by the Senators.
The Senate is sometimes called the house of review, for this reason.
Senators also form committees with the job of checking, discussing and recommending action on specific issues. These could be to do with making a small change to existing laws or checking on money that has been or will be spent in the future.
If the government says it estimates it will need to spend $5 billion to build a new airport, for instance, the budget for the airport will be carefully checked by a Senate estimates committee.
Senators are elected for a six-year term. There is an election for half of these senate positions every three years.
- candidates: people nominated and trying to be elected to parliament
- collectively: as a group or whole
- Constitution: The Australian Constitution, the set of rules for how Australia should be governed
- What are the two houses of parliament called?
- What colour are the seats and carpet in each of these houses?
- How many electorates is Australia divided into?
- How many Senators are there in parliament?
- How many Senators does each state and each territory have?
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