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Australian Senate facts for kids

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47th Parliament of Australia
Coat of arms or logo
Sue Lines, Labor
Since 26 July 2022
Leader of the Government
Penny Wong, Labor
Since 1 June 2022
Manager of Government Business
Katy Gallagher, Labor
Since 1 June 2022
Leader of the Opposition
Simon Birmingham, Liberal
Since 5 June 2022
Manager of Opposition Business
Anne Ruston, Liberal
Since 5 June 2022
Seats 76
2022 Election Australian Senate - Composition of Members.svg
Political groups
Effective 1 July 2022

Government (26)
     Labor (26)

Opposition (32)
     Liberal (26)
     National (6)

Crossbench (18)
     Greens (12)
     One Nation (2)
     Lambie Network (2)
     United Australia (1)

     Independent (1)
Length of term
6 years (state senators)
3 years (territory senators)
Single transferable vote
Last election
21 May 2022
(Half Senate election)
Next election
2024 or 2025
Meeting place
Australian Senate - Parliament of Australia.jpg
Senate Chamber
Parliament House
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory,

The Senate is the upper house of the bicameral Parliament of Australia, the lower house being the House of Representatives. The composition and powers of the Senate are established in Chapter I of the Constitution of Australia. There are a total of 76 senators: 12 are elected from each of the six Australian states regardless of population and 2 from each of the two self-governing internal Australian territories (the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory). Senators are popularly elected under the single transferable vote system of proportional representation.

The Australian Senate is equal in power to the House of Representatives, except that it cannot originate or amend money bills (taxes or laws appropriating money) – only reject or defer them. This feature, closer to the strong bicameralism of the US senate, is not present in other comparable Westminster systems (such as the UK House of Lords) making the Australian system a unique hybrid, sometimes called a "Washminster mutation".

Since 1948, the Senate has been elected using a proportional representation system with a much broader array of parties and independents represented in the chamber, with no individual party usually dominating. Following 1981, the government has only had a majority in the Senate from 2005–2007; otherwise, negotiations with other parties and independents have generally been necessary to pass legislation.

Origins and role

Australian Senate 1923
The Australian Senate in 1923

The Constitution of Australia established the Senate as part of the system of Dominion government in newly federated Australia. In contrast to countries employing a pure Westminster system the Senate plays an active role in legislation and is not merely a chamber of review. Instead of being modeled solely after the House of Lords, as the Senate of Canada was, the Australian Senate was in part modeled after the United States Senate, by giving equal representation to each state and almost equal powers with the lower house. This was done to give less populous states a real influence in the Parliament, while also maintaining the traditional review functions upper houses in the Westminster system. This has led to the description of a "Washminster system" to describe the Australian political structure.

Although the prime minister and treasurer, by convention (though not legal requirement), are members of the House of Representatives (after John Gorton was appointed prime minister in 1968, he resigned from the Senate and was elected to the House), other ministers may come from either house, and the two Houses have almost equal legislative power. As with most upper chambers in bicameral parliaments, the Senate cannot introduce or amend appropriation bills (bills that authorise government expenditure of public revenue) or bills that impose taxation, that role being reserved for the lower house; it can only approve, reject or defer them (as famously occurred in the lead up to the Dismissal). That degree of equality between the Senate and House of Representatives reflects the desire of the Constitution's authors to prevent the more populous states totally dominating the legislative process. The Australian constitution was enacted before the confrontation in 1909 in Britain between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, which ultimately resulted in the restrictions placed on the powers of the House of Lords by the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949.

In practice, however, most legislation (except for private member's bills) in the Australian Parliament is initiated by the government, which has control over the lower house. It is then passed to the Senate, which has the opportunity to amend the bill, pass or reject it. In the majority of cases, voting takes place along party lines, although there are occasional conscience votes.

The Senate maintains a number of committees, which engage in a wide variety of inquiries. The results have no direct legislative power, but are valuable forums that raise many points of view that would otherwise not receive government or public notice.

Senate, Old Parliament House, Canberra
The Senate chamber at Old Parliament House, Canberra, where the Parliament met between 1927 and 1988.

Electoral system

The system for electing senators has changed several times since Federation. The original arrangement involved a first-past-the-post and block voting or "winner takes all" system, on a state-by-state basis. This was replaced in 1919 by preferential block voting. Block voting tended to produce landslide majorities and even "wipe-outs". For instance, from 1920 to 1923 the Nationalist Party held all but one of the 36 seats, and from 1947 to 1950, the Australian Labor Party held all but three.

In 1948, single transferable vote with proportional representation on a state-by-state basis became the method for electing senators. At this time the number of senators was expanded from 36 to 60 and it was argued that a move to proportional representation was needed to even up the balance between both major parties in the chamber. The change in voting systems has been described as an "institutional revolution" that has had the effect of limiting the government's ability to control the chamber, as well as helping the rise of Australian minor parties.

The 1984 election saw the introduction of group ticket voting, in order to reduce a high rate of informal voting that arose from the requirement that each candidate be given a preference, and to allow small parties and independent candidates a reasonable chance of winning a seat. This allowed voters to select a single party "Above the Line" to distribute their preferences on their behalf, but voters were still able to vote directly for individual candidates and distribute their own preferences if they wished "Below the Line" by numbering every box.

Group tickets were abolished in advance of the 2016 election in order to avoid undue influence of preference deals amongst parties that were seen as distorting election results and a form of optional preferential voting was introduced. As a result of the changes, voters may now assign their preferences for parties above the line (numbering as many boxes as they wish), or individual candidates below the line, and are not required to fill all of the boxes. Both above and below the line voting now use optional preferential voting. For above the line, voters are instructed to number at least their first six preferences; however, a "savings provision" is in place to ensure that ballots will still be counted if less than six are given. For below the line, voters are required to number at least their first 12 preferences. Voters are free to continue numbering as many preferences as they like beyond the minimum number specified. Another savings provision allows ballot papers with at least 6 below the line preferences to be formal. The voting changes make it more difficult for new small parties and independent candidates to be elected to the Senate, but also allow a voter to voluntarily "exhaust" preferences — that is, to ensure their vote cannot flow to specific candidates or parties — if none of the voter's candidate preferences are elected.

The changes were subject to a challenge in front of High Court of Australia by sitting South Australian Senator Bob Day of the Family First Party. The senator argued that the changes meant the senators would not be "directly chosen by the people" as required by the constitution. The High Court rejected Day's challenge unanimously, deciding that both above the line and below the line voting were consistent with the constitution.

Ballot paper

The Australian Senate voting paper under the single transferable vote proportional representation system resembles the following example (shown in two parts), which shows the candidates for Victorian senate representation in the 2016 federal election.

Senate ballot paper used in Victoria for 2016

To vote correctly, electors must either:

  • Vote for at least six parties above the thick black line, by writing the numbers 1-6 in party boxes. Votes with fewer than six boxes numbered are still admitted to the count through savings provisions.
  • Vote for at least twelve candidates below the thick black line, by writing the numbers 1-12 in the individual candidates' boxes. Votes with between six and twelve boxes numbered are still admitted to the count through savings provisions.

Because each state elects six senators at each half-Senate election, the quota for election is only one-seventh or 14.3% (one third or 33.3% for territories, where only two senators are elected). Once a candidate has been elected with votes reaching the quota amount, any votes they receive in addition to this may be distributed to other candidates as preferences, if there are still open seats to fill.

With an odd number of seats in a half-Senate election (3 or 5), 50.1% of the vote wins a majority (2/3) or (3/5).

With an even number of seats in a half-Senate election (6), 57.1% of the vote is needed to win a majority of seats (4/6).

The ungrouped candidates in the far right column do not have a box above the line. Therefore, they can only get a primary (number 1) vote from electors who vote below the line. For this reason, some independents register as a group, either with other independents or by themselves, such as group B in the above example.

Names of parties can be shown only if the parties are registered, which requires, among other things, a minimum of 1,500 members.

Size and nexus

Under Section 24 of the Constitution, the number of members of the House of Representatives has to be "as nearly as practicable" double the number of senators.

The reasons for the nexus are twofold: a desire to maintain a constant influence for the smaller states, and maintain a constant balance of the two Houses in the event of a joint sitting after a double dissolution. A referendum in 1967 to eliminate the nexus was rejected.

The size of the Senate has changed over the years. The Constitution originally provided for six senators for each state, resulting in a total of 36 senators.

The Constitution permits the Parliament to increase the number of senators, provided that equal numbers of senators from each original state are maintained; accordingly, in 1948, Senate representation was increased from 6 to 10 senators for each state, increasing the total to 60.

In 1975, the two territories, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, were given an entitlement to elect two senators each for the first time, bringing the number to 64. The senators from the Northern Territory also represent constituents from Australia's Indian Ocean Territories (Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands), while the senators from the Australian Capital Territory also represent voters from the Jervis Bay Territory and since 1 July 2016, Norfolk Island.

The latest expansion in Senate numbers took place in 1984, when the number of senators from each state was increased from 10 to 12, resulting in a total of 76 senators.


Senators normally serve fixed six-year terms (from 1 July to 30 June). At most federal elections, the seats of 40 of the 76 senators (half of the 72 senators from the six states and all four of the senators from the territories) are contested, along with the entire House of Representatives; such an election is sometimes known as a half-Senate election. The seats of senators representing states elected at a half-Senate election are not contested at the next election, provided it is a half-Senate election. However, under some circumstances, the entire Senate (and the House of Representatives) is dissolved, in what is known as a double dissolution. Following a double dissolution, half the senators representing states serve terms ending on the third 30 June following the election (two to three years) and the rest serve a five to six-year term. Section 13 of the Constitution requires the Senate to allocate long and short terms amongst its members. The term of senators representing a territory expires at the same time as there is an election for the House of Representatives.

Section 13 of the Constitution requires that in half-Senate elections, the election of State senators shall take place within one year before the places become vacant. The actual election date is determined by the Governor of each State, who acts on the advice of the State Premier. The Governors almost always act on the recommendation of the Governor-General, with the last independent Senate election writ being issued by the Governor of Queensland during the Gair Affair in 1974.

Slightly more than half of the Senate is contested at each general election (half of the 72 state senators, and all four of the territory senators), along with the entire House of Representatives. Except in the case of a double dissolution, senators for the states are elected for fixed terms of six years, commencing on 1 July following the election, and ceasing on 30 June six years later.

The term of the four senators from the territories is not fixed, but is defined by the dates of the general elections for the House of Representatives, the period between which can vary greatly, to a maximum of three years and three months. Territory senators commence their terms on the day that they are elected. Their terms expire the day prior to the following general election day.

While there is no constitutional requirement for the election of senators to take place at the same time as those for members of the House of Representatives, the government usually synchronises the dates of elections for the Senate and House of Representatives. However, because their terms do not coincide, the incoming Parliament will for some time comprise the new House of Representatives and the old Senate, except for the senators representing the territories, until the new senators start their term on the next 1 July.

Following a double dissolution, all 76 senators face re-election. If there is an early House election outside the 12-month period in which Senate elections can occur, the synchronisation of the election will be disrupted, and there can be half-Senate elections without a concurrent House election. The last time this occurred was on 21 November 1970.

Quota size

The number of votes that a candidate must receive to be elected to the senate is referred to as a "quota". The quota is worked out by dividing the number of formal votes by one more than the number of vacancies to be filled and then adding one to the result. The 2019 senate election was a half senate election, so 6 senate vacancies were contested in each state. At this election, the quotas in each state were:

State 2019 quota  % of the NSW 2019 quota 2016 double dissolution quota
NSW 670,761 100% 345,554
Vic 534,207 80% 269,250
Qld 414,495 62% 209,475
WA 206,661 31% 105,091
SA 156,404 23% 81,629
Tas 50,285 7% 26,090

Proportional representation of the states vs one vote one value

Each state elects the same number of senators, meaning there is equal representation for each of the Australian states, regardless of population, so the Senate, like many upper Houses, does not adhere to the principle of "one vote one value". Tasmania, with a population of around 500,000, elects the same number of senators as New South Wales, which has a population of more than 8 million. Because of this imbalance, governments favoured by the more populous states are occasionally frustrated by the extra power the smaller states have in the Senate, to the degree that former Prime Minister Paul Keating famously referred to the Senate's members as "unrepresentative swill". The proportional election system within each state ensures that the Senate incorporates more political diversity than the lower house, which has historically been a two party body. The elected membership of the Senate more closely reflects the first voting preference of the electorate as a whole than does the composition of the House of Representatives, despite the large discrepancies from state to state in the ratio of voters to senators. This often means that the composition of the Senate is different from that of the House of Representatives, contributing to the Senate's function as a house of review.

With proportional representation, and the small majorities in the Senate compared to the generally larger majorities in the House of Representatives, and the requirement that the number of members of the House be "nearly as practicable" twice that of the Senate, a joint sitting after a double dissolution is more likely than not to lead to a victory for the House over the Senate. When the Senate had an odd number of senators retiring at an election (3 or 5), 51% of the vote would lead to a clear majority of 3 out of 5 per state. With an even number of senators retiring at an election, it takes 57% of the vote to win 4 out of 6 seats, which may be insurmountable. This gives the House an advantage in joint sittings but not in ordinary elections, where the Senate may be too evenly balanced to get House legislation through.

A party does not need the support of the Senate to form government (needing only a majority in the House of Representatives), however the Senate can block supply, effectively preventing the government from lawfully spending money. Whether a government facing a Senate that blocks supply is obliged to either resign or call an election was one of the major disputes of the 1975 constitutional crisis. However, even where the Senate does not block supply, they can still use their power to frustrate the legislative agenda of the government.


The overwhelming majority of senators have always been elected as representatives of political parties. Parties which currently have representation in the Senate are:

Other parties that have achieved Senate representation in the past include the Australian Conservatives, Derryn Hinch's Justice Party, Family First Party, Australian Democrats, Palmer United Party, Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, Nuclear Disarmament Party, Liberal Movement, Liberal Democratic Party and Democratic Labour Party.

Due to the need to obtain votes statewide, independent candidates have difficulty getting elected. The exceptions in recent times have been elected in less populous States — the former Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine and the former South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon. David Pocock was also elected to represent the ACT at the 2022 election. It is less uncommon for a senator initially elected representing a party to become an independent, most recently in the cases of Senator Lucy Gichuhi not joining the Conservatives following its merger with Family First, Senators Rod Culleton and Fraser Anning resigning from One Nation, Senator Steve Martin being expelled from the Jacqui Lambie Network, and Lidia Thorpe resigning from the Australian Greens.

The Australian Senate serves as a model for some politicians in Canada, particularly in the Western provinces, who wish to reform the Canadian Senate so that it takes a more active legislative role.

There are also small factions in the United Kingdom (both from the right and left) who wish to the see the House of Lords take on a structure similar to that of the Australian Senate.


Senate panorama
The Australian Senate

The Australian Senate typically sits for 50 to 60 days a year. Most of those days are grouped into 'sitting fortnights' of two four-day weeks. These are in turn arranged in three periods: the autumn sittings, from February to April; the winter sittings, which commence with the delivery of the budget in the House of Representatives on the first sitting day of May and run through to June or July; and the spring sittings, which commence around August and continue until December, and which typically contain the largest number of the year's sitting days.

The senate has a regular schedule that structures its typical working week.

Images for kids

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Senado de Australia para niños

  • 2019 Australian federal election
  • Canberra Press Gallery
  • Clerk of the Australian Senate
  • Double dissolution
  • Father of the Australian Senate
  • List of Australian Senate appointments
  • Members of the Australian Parliament who have served for at least 30 years
  • Members of the Australian Senate, 2022–2025
  • Women in the Australian Senate
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