The Senate versus the House

Dr Scott Brenton

  < - Contents -  Chapter: Work/life imbalance - >

The Senate versus the House

Choice of chamber

The House of Representatives is generally considered the ‘main game’ in politics for most of the media and the public, as government is formed in the lower house. The ‘nexus’ provision of the Constitution (Section 24) stipulates that the membership of the House of Representatives ‘shall be, as nearly as practicable, twice the number of senators’, which Uhr notes is a reflection of the original understanding of the political weight of the two houses.[1] Members of the House of Representatives enjoy pre-eminence, in contrast to the United States. Bach observes:

In Washington, members of the two houses often have different ambitions. Many Representatives hope to become Senators or perhaps state governors; many Senators hope to become President and some believe that is their destiny. In Canberra too, members of the two houses have different ambitions, but Representatives hope to become ministers, not Senators, and some easily can envision themselves as prime minister. Australian Senators also seek ministerial appointments, but fewer of these positions are available for Senators, so Senators may seek election to the House in their quest for political advancement. Only once has a Senator been chosen as prime minister and he quickly sought election to the House. So in Washington, the movement within Congress is from the House to the Senate; in Canberra, not surprisingly, it is the reverse. A US Senator has not voluntarily relinquished his seat to run for a seat in the House since well before the American Civil War.[2]

The stature of United States’ senators is reinforced by their longer terms (three times the length of House terms) and exclusivity of their membership. With only two senators per state and only one vacancy (if that) at an election, Senate races are very competitive. While Australian senators also enjoy longer terms than members (six years to, at most, three years),[3] there are usually six vacancies per state at an election filled using proportional representation. The comparatively lower thresholds for election mean that it can be easier to be elected to the Australian Senate with party endorsement than the House, hence the election of minor parties to the Senate. Furthermore, while the Senate is the more common breeding ground for Presidential aspirants in the United States, it is the House of Representatives where prime ministers and treasurers traditionally sit.

When Liberal Senator John Gorton became Prime Minister he resigned from the Senate and contested a lower house seat.[4] High-profile senators who are touted as potential future prime ministers have switched to the House of Representatives, for example Liberals Fred Chaney and Bronwyn Bishop, Labor’s Gareth Evans, and Democrat-turned-Labor Party member Cheryl Kernot. Yet constitutionally there is no requirement for this to occur; after all the Prime Minister is not even mentioned in the Constitution. It is only by convention that the leader of the majority party (or parties) in the lower house becomes Prime Minister. This Westminster convention is largely based on the democratic legitimacy of Britain’s elected lower house, even though British prime ministers have sat in the unelected upper house. However, both Australian houses are popularly elected.

Treasurers have also traditionally sat in the House of Representatives, as appropriation bills can only originate in the lower house. However, in practice this is not necessary, as Treasurers have served in the upper houses of New South Wales (Michael Egan, Michael Costa and Eric Roozendaal), Victoria (John Lenders) and Tasmania (Michael Aird). Furthermore, while members of the House of Representatives (including its ministers) are accountable (in the context of parliament) only in the House, and senators are accountable only to the Senate, there are provisions in the Standing Orders to enable minsters from one house appearing before the other or its committees. For example, Tasmanian upper house ministers regularly appear before the lower house to answer questions in relation to their portfolios.[5] Although unusual, there have been Deputy Leaders in the major parties from the Senate. Furthermore, minor parties such as the Greens do not automatically presume that their leader has to be based in the House.[6] Despite these innovations, the perception exists that more ambitious politicians contest the lower house. Survey respondents were asked to indicate their main reasons for seeking election to the House or the Senate, rather than the other chamber. Respondents were given the following options:

  • more interested in the House’s/Senate’s work
  • wanted to represent a defined electorate (in the House) / the whole state/territory (in the Senate)
  • House/Senate is more exciting
  • higher status (for members) / prefer six-year terms (for senators)
  • more confident of election
  • easier preselection or House/Senate seats were already filled
  • easier to become a Minister, and
  • an open-ended ‘other’ category.

The results for current parliamentarians are shown in Figure 6a, followed by the survey responses of former parliamentarians in Figure 6b.

Figure 6a: Main reasons current parliamentarians sought election to a particular chamber

Main reasons current parliamentarians sought election to a particular chamber

None of the current parliamentary respondents chose ‘easier to become a Minister’.

Figure 6b: Main reasons former parliamentarians sought election to a particular chamber 

Main reasons former parliamentarians sought election to a particular chamber

Among current parliamentarians, the most noticeable differences between respondents can be seen in terms of interest and excitement. Much higher proportions of Senate respondents found their chamber more exciting and were more interested in the work of a senator. A current senator found that there was more of a national focus in the Senate, along with more excitement and ability to set the agenda. Another crossbench senator saw the ability to influence government policy as the attraction of the upper house. Interestingly, this appears to be a more recent development, as the response of former senators did not reveal a similar level of interest and excitement. Indeed, higher proportions of former members found their chamber more exciting while the proportions of respondents in both the House and Senate who were interested in their work were similar. The key difference among former parliamentarians was that members were more attracted to the House in order to represent a defined electorate. Again, this seems to have changed over time, with comparatively higher proportions of current Senate respondents seeking to represent a state/territory than in the past. These findings suggest a change in the role of the Senate and the work of senators, and will be further explored later in this monograph.

While the option ‘easier to become a Minister’ registered limited support, during the interviews a one-time senator admitting switching to the House with leadership ambitions because that is where government is formed and where the Prime Minister sits. However, they acknowledged that it was a hard transition and that their high Senate profile did not easily translate to the lower house. For minor parties, the chances of winning are greater in the Senate, and therefore more ambitious minor party politicians run for the Senate. Minor party candidates have often only run for the lower house to support the Senate ticket. Many minor party senators mentioned the lower electoral thresholds for a Senate seat as the main attraction.

Other reasons

‘[I] wanted to be Parliamentarian rather than Politician’ – former senator on why the Senate was their chamber of choice

Among both current and former members, ‘other’ responses generally related to wanting more contact with ‘the people’ and that the House was (then) more powerful and where government is formed. ‘Other’ responses by current and former senators seemed to come mainly from minor party representatives, who due to the different electoral systems have experienced more success in the Senate, whilst also attracted to the review role of the Senate. One interviewee described becoming a politician as ‘a spiritual calling’.

 ‘Often politics is being in the right place at the right time’ – current senator

Another common reason given by survey respondents and interviewees from both houses was opportunity, with many simply contesting an available, or winnable, seat. Some politicians lived in areas with high levels of support for an opposing party, and therefore opted for the Senate. Some were requested to stand in a certain seat by their parties. One senator changed to the House for electoral reasons, using their high profile to consolidate support for the party. Others found that only certain seats had open preselections, and therefore did not make a conscious choice of one chamber over the other. The next section provides an overview of internal party preselection processes.

Getting preselected

While free and fair elections provide the ultimate open and transparent job interview for politicians in a democracy, the process of ‘shortlisting’ candidates for that interview is relatively closed and generally contained within the parties. Many former parliamentarians were particularly critical of internal party preselection processes and the influence on their final choice of chamber. It is difficult to get an accurate picture of the processes from outside the parties, as written rules only seem to guide the practices, which can also vary from state to state. The following were some of the recurring observations made by the survey respondents and interviewees, but should only be regarded as informed opinion of the practices rather than the written rules.

Many major party interviewees, from both the Senate and House, commented on the difficulties in gaining preselection for the Senate. One senator argued that it is as tough to get preselected for winnable Senate seats as it is for safe lower house seats. In the Labor Party, the top two positions are divided between the Left and Right factions in a predetermined order, even though it can result with a higher-profile (and as many argued, a harder-working) senator in the second, or even third position. One Labor senator described Senate preselections as much less onerous than having to build a profile in a local electorate, although this senator had a profile within the party and the support of unions controlling half of the preselection votes. House seats are also often divided between the factions, and while often decided by local electorate preselectors, the party’s executive and leadership can intervene. Labor also has an affirmative action quota requiring that women are preselected in at least 40 per cent of winnable seats.

While the Liberal Party does not have such organised or formalised factions, their Senate preselections operate in similar manner. A Liberal parliamentarian argued that Senate preselection requires a much higher profile within the party organisation and the state division as it is a state-wide contest. However, one Liberal questioned the preselection process, arguing that the panels were not necessarily representative of the party or the community. Liberal Senate preselection panels also draw from local electorates, and in Tasmania, for example, efforts are made to draw candidates from across the regions. House preselections in the Liberal Party are generally conducted by local party committees with panels as few as 100 people. One former Liberal who crossed the floor many times was never threatened with deselection, believing that putting the electorate first would ensure re-election with or without party endorsement. A senator (and former party president) noted that sitting members rarely get challenged for preselection but sitting senators have to stand for preselection at the end of every term (and often for a place on a full Senate ticket when a double dissolution is a possibility). While incumbent members have an advantage over challengers, incumbent senators usually face competition from other incumbents in the same party and therefore maintaining one’s place on the Senate ticket is difficult. There have been many occasions where sitting senators have been moved to unwinnable positions.

Minor party senators in particular (supported by many former major party parliamentarians) were critical of these methods, arguing that the major parties use seats as rewards for party loyalty. One senator viewed Senate positions as prizes for factional wins, with party preselectors retaining power over the senators and forcing them to vote in certain ways. Another saw the Senate as a two-tiered structure, likening it to a kind of cricket team with a first eleven and second eleven in the major parties. This senator argued that Senate seats are used as a reward system (particularly within the Labor factions) for long and loyal service and to make up the numbers on committees. The first eleven are careerists, interested in ministries and wanting to rise through the ranks. The second eleven are at the end of their careers. Senators rewarded with ‘safe’ seats (i.e. at the top of their party’s tickets) are not there because of what the electorate thinks but what the party thinks, with preselection being more important than the election. While a strong supporter of proportional representation and multi-member electorates, in this senator’s view the current system does not result in electing the best parliamentarians.

However, minor parties such as the Greens are not above criticism. One Greens senator raised concerns that the party was primarily drawing candidates from a relatively small party membership rather than their million supporters. However, the senator conceded that at the moment you have to be active in the party, and it is natural that those with political ambitions will want to work for the party. The Greens senator suggested that the party needed to do more outreach as previous parliamentarians have come from a tradition of community activism.

One innovative change to these closed preselection processes has been proposed by the National Party, following the American tradition of open and contested preselections and drawing supporters from outside the party membership.[7] The Nationals have proposed open primaries as means of providing the local community with a sense of ‘ownership’ over the candidate, and assisting the party against popular local mayors running as independents. One National claimed it was great for democracy.

Getting elected

‘If I was ever reincarnated I would come back as a senator’ – former member who held a marginal seat

One interviewee with experience in an upper and lower house found that lower house members are kept locally accountable to the constituency everyday and have to be very responsive. Campaigning is also very different with more pressure and daily accountability to the electorate, which is the priority. This interviewee argued that it is all up to the individual candidate and there is no hiding behind a party ticket, although upper house candidates are also on the ground campaigning for the party. Another interviewee who served in both houses agreed that campaigning for the two houses is very different, as a senator is elected on a party ticket. However, senators do become involved in campaigning, often in marginal seats. For minor parties, senators discussed having to work hard to build a state-wide profile as achieving just one quota is a challenge. Name recognition, as much as party profile, is crucial for minor party senators. Crossbench senators felt that they were constantly in campaign mode, like being a marginal-seat holder. Ever after the election there are different challenges for senators and members due to Constitutional anomalies. A minor party senator noted that being a senator-elect as the most difficult role, as unlike members, senators often take their seats months after being elected and in that time do not have access to an office, staff or salary and yet they can be expected by supporters to work immediately.

Perceptions of the ‘dark’ side

‘The chambers are only about 70 metres apart [in Parliament House], but it could be a kilometre’ – current parliamentarian who has served in both houses

Parliament House symmetrically divides the Senate and the House of Representatives, with the occupants of each side often jokingly referring to the ‘other side’ as the ‘dark side’. With the Ministerial Wing (and Senators and Members Dining Room) conveniently located in the middle, the only requirement for (major party) senators to ‘cross over’ is to attend party room meetings, while for members, the Canberra Press Galley is located on the Senate side. This separation is symbolic of the limited understandings and appreciation of the work of their colleagues, and critical sentiments were frequently expressed in both the surveys and interviews. The House was derided as the ‘Monkey’ house with bad behaviour and shouting, a focus on politics rather than policy, and boring predictability with the government in control. Yet even more negatively, the Senate has been regarded in the past as a retirement home for time-servers in the major parties, once exemplified by media articles of the time describing the Senate as ‘a comfortable Home for Old Men’ with their ‘weak, arthritic wrists and wheezing voices’.[8] The televising of parliament, with many debates occurring in the smaller and often empty chamber, could also contribute to negative perceptions. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating famously described the Senate as ‘a spoiling chamber … usurping the responsibilities of the executive drawn from the representative chamber’[9] while ridiculing senators as ‘unrepresentative swill’.[10]

Survey respondents were asked whether the types of work that they do and the balance between them was similar or different to their colleagues (in an equivalent position) in the other chamber. The opinions of current parliaments are presented in Figure 7a and former parliamentarians in Figure 7b. Clear majorities of both House and Senate respondents thought that the work patterns of their colleagues in the other chamber were very different or quite different. Only one former member and one former senator thought the work patterns were very similar.

Figure 7a: Current parliamentarians’ perceptions of the work patterns of their colleagues in the other chamber

Current parliamentarians’ perceptions of the work patterns of their colleagues in the other chamber

Figure 7b: Former parliamentarians’ perceptions of the work patterns of their colleagues in the other chamber

Former parliamentarians’ perceptions of the work patterns of their colleagues in the other chamber

There also appears to have been a slight change over time, with higher proportions of both current senators and members perceiving the work of their opposite chamber colleagues as being different. One member saw the Senate as a House of Review with a more considered view, where they do extra work on committees compared with members, who have single-member constituencies. An interviewee who served in both houses argued that the Senate was more about policy than politics, although there is not the same connection with local people in the Senate. Another interviewee who served in both houses suggested that the difference is that as a member you have to be aware of the constituency from a survival point of view whereas in the Senate one could approach issues from a wider perspective.

Respondents were also asked a series of questions about their attitudes towards the other chamber including:

  • whether they had contested, or seriously considered contesting, a seat in the other chamber (responses shown in the left-hand column of Figures 8a and 8b)
  • whether they would have considered standing for a seat in the other chamber if they had not been elected (responses shown in the middle columns), and
  • whether they would feel confident of being able to perform the duties of their colleagues in the other chamber (responses shown in the right-hand column).

The responses of current and former parliamentarians are shown in Figures 8a and 8b respectively.

Figure 8a: Current parliamentarians’ consideration of a career in the other chamber

Current parliamentarians’ consideration of a career in the other chamber

Figure 8b: Former parliamentarians’ consideration of a career in the other chamber

Former parliamentarians’ consideration of a career in the other chamber

Senators were generally more open to the idea of contesting and standing for the House, and despite perceiving the work of their opposite chamber colleagues as being different, high proportions of current and former senators and members felt confident that they could switch houses. In the interviews, crossbench senators were more adamant that they would never switch houses, while major party senators were more open to the idea. One minor party senator believed that switching to the lower house was political suicide, due to the different electoral systems, which is discussed later.

Misconceptions

While many senators and members were quite critical of their colleagues in the other chamber and both House and Senate respondents thought that the work patterns were very different or quite different, it became clear during this study that these perceptions were based on ignorance rather than fact. Partly, it is because senators and members are so consumed in their own work to even think about the ‘other’ side and partly because Parliament House, particularly ‘new’ Parliament House, separates senators and members rather than encouraging interaction. Many interviewees remarked that new Parliament House is a wonderful new building, but very sterile and you do not get to know many other occupants. Surprisingly, most politicians do not know everyone in their own party or even their own state, and this could be the source of the misconceptions. Figures 9a to 9d show the responses of current and former senators and members, in terms of how many of their colleagues they know or knew well.

Figure 9a: Responses of current members in terms of how many of their colleagues they know well

Responses of current members in terms of how many of their colleagues they know well

Figure 9b: Responses of current senators in terms of how many of their colleagues they know well

Responses of current senators in terms of how many of their colleagues they know well

Figure 9c: Responses of former members in terms of how many of their colleagues they knew well

Responses of former members in terms of how many of their colleagues they knew well

Figure 9d: Responses of former senators in terms of how many of their colleagues they knew well

Responses of former senators in terms of how many of their colleagues they knew well



[1].         J Uhr, ‘Generating divided government: the Australian Senate’, in SC Patterson and A Mughan (eds), Senates: bicameralism in the contemporary world, op. cit., p. 104.

[2].         S Bach, Platypus and parliament: the Australian Senate in theory and practice, op. cit., p. 248.

[3].         Territory senators do not enjoy fixed terms, with their terms the same as for members.

[4].         See M Mackerras, ‘From the senate to the Lodge’, The Australian, 28 May 2009, p. 12.

[5].         See Ibid. and D Bartlett, MP (Tasmanian Premier), Another step in open government, media release, 23 March 2009, viewed 23 March 2009, http://www.media.tas.gov.au/print.php?id=26266.

[6].         Unlike the major parties the Greens leader can (and does) sit in the upper house even when they also have lower house representation. This is incorporated in the official party room rules.

[7].         See NSW Nationals, A party of community champions: A new system for The Nationals, community preselections briefing paper, January 2009, viewed 7 December 2009, http://nsw.nationals.org.au/policies/community-preselections-briefing-paper.aspx.

[8].          R Hughes, 1944, cited in S Bennett, The Australian Senate, Research Paper, no. 6, 2003–04, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2004, p. 8.

[9].          P Keating, Prime Minister, ‘Questions without notice: Senate voting system’, House of Representatives, Debates, 3 March 1994, p. 1746.

[10].        P Keating, Prime Minister, ‘Questions without notice: Loan Council arrangements’, House of Representatives, Debates, 4 November 1992, p. 2547.

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