Chapter 4 - Elections for the Senate

Terms of state senators

Except in cases of simultaneous dissolution, senators representing the states are elected for terms of six years. Terms commence on 1 July following the election.

The terms of senators elected following a dissolution of the Senate (Constitution, s. 57) commence on 1 July preceding the date of the general election. Following a general election for the Senate, senators are divided into two classes. Unless another simultaneous election for both Houses intervenes, those in the first class retire on 30 June two years after the general election; those in the second class retire on 30 June five years after the general election. The method of dividing senators is described below.

The provision for dating a senator’s term from 1 July preceding simultaneous general elections for both Houses has been seen to be the source of a problem stemming from the preference of governments, for financial reasons as well as others of party advantage, to avoid separate dates for a general election of the House of Representatives (the term of which is governed by the date of the simultaneous dissolution) and an ensuing periodical election for half the Senate. The consequence in most cases has been to hold an “early” general election of the House to coincide with the next periodical Senate election (1903; 1955; 1977; 1984; 1987 (the latter a simultaneous dissolution)). An instance where an “early” general election for the House was not subsequently held in order to synchronise with the next periodical election for the Senate was May 1953; the 1955 general election for the House is the only occasion when an “early” general election has been called to coincide with election of senators to fill the places of second class (long term) senators elected following simultaneous elections for both Houses.

Elections arising from simultaneous dissolutions of August 1914 and July 1987 did not give rise in significant form to the issue of keeping elections for the two Houses synchronised because of the close proximity of the commencing dates for Senate and House terms in the relevant circumstances. The early dissolution of the House of Representatives in November 1929 had, in the event, no effect on synchronisation of Senate and House elections because another early dissolution, occasioned by defeat of the Scullin Government on the floor of the House, was needed in December 1931, a date when a periodical election for the Senate was convenient.

The House of Representatives was prematurely dissolved in 1963; as a consequence there was a periodical election for the Senate the following year. Subsequently there were general elections for the House in 1966, 1969 and 1972, and periodical elections for the Senate in 1967 and 1970. This sequence of unsynchronised elections ended with the simultaneous dissolutions of April 1974.

The case for synchronisation of elections for the two Houses is more a question of convenience and partisan advantage than one of institutional philosophy. Financial considerations simply buttress arguments of party advantage. In a truly bicameral system there is no requirement at all for synchronisation of elections. Proposals to make this a requirement of the Australian Constitution have four times failed at referendum (1974, 1977, 1984, 1988), even though “expert” opinion continues to favour a constitutional amendment of this character (First Report of the Constitutional Commission, Vol. I, April 1988, PP 96/1988, pp 345-8).

If there is to be change, a more practical approach would be an alteration of the Constitution to provide that the terms of senators elected in a simultaneous dissolution election should be deemed to commence on 1 July following (rather than preceding) the date of election. Provided that the House of Representatives was not subsequently dissolved within two years of election, synchronisation of a general election for the House and a periodical election for the Senate could be restored with relative ease. Such a proposal, if adopted, would remove the current defect in simultaneous dissolution arrangements of circumscribing the standard six-year term for senators by anything up to one year. This approach would, on the other hand, avoid the two major deficiencies posed by simultaneous election proposals: the augmented power placed in the hands of a prime minister by extending executive government authority over the life of the House of Representatives to half the Senate; and diminishing bicameralism by irrevocably tying the electoral schedule for the Senate to that of the House of Representatives. Effective bicameralism requires that the second chamber should have a significant measure of autonomy in its electoral cycle, as well as distinctive electoral arrangements. (See H. Evans, ‘A modest proposal addressing the question of “too many elections”’, The House Magazine, 15 May 1991.)

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