Aspects of the role of the House of Representatives
The bicameral nature of the national legislature reflects the federal nature of the Commonwealth. The House of Representatives was seen by Quick and Garran in 1901 as embodying the national aspect and the Senate the State aspect of the federal duality.
It has been said that the federal part of the Australian Parliament is the Senate which being the organ of the States links them together as integral parts of the federal union. Thus, the Senate is the Chamber in which the States, considered as separate entities and corporate parts of the Commonwealth, are represented. The (original) States have equal representation in the Senate, irrespective of great discrepancies in population size.
On the other hand the House of Representatives is the national branch of the Federal Parliament in which the people are represented in proportion to their numbers—that is, each Member represents an (approximately) equal number of voters. In this sense the House may be said to be not only the national Chamber but also the democratic Chamber. Quick and Garran stated ‘its operation and tendency will be in the direction of unification and consolidation of the people into one integrated whole, irrespective of State boundaries, State rights or State interests’. Thus, the House of Representatives is the people’s House and the inheritance of responsible government, through the Cabinet system, is the most significant characteristic attaching to it.
The framers of our Constitution, in some cases almost as a matter of course, took the Westminster model of responsible government (influenced by the colonial experience and by the experience of the United States of America) and fitted it into the federal scheme. Thus the role and functions of the House of Representatives are direct derivatives of the House of Commons, principal features being the system of Cabinet Government and the traditional supremacy of the lower House in financial matters.
The notion of responsible government is embodied in the structure and functions of the House of Representatives. That party or coalition of parties which commands a majority in the House is entitled to form the Government. From this group emerges the Prime Minister and the major portion of the Ministry, usually more than 75 per cent. This fact, and certain provisions of the Constitution concerning legislation, means that most legislation originates in the House of Representatives, and this emphasises its initiating and policy roles as distinct from the review role of the Senate.
In Australia the legal power to initiate legislation is vested in the legislature and nowhere else. In practice the responsibility falls overwhelmingly to one group within the legislature—the Ministry. However there are checks and balances and potential delays (which may sometimes be regarded as obstruction) in the legislative process because of the bicameral nature of the legislature, and these have particular importance when the party or coalition with a majority in the House does not have a majority in the Senate.
The Ministry is responsible for making and defending government decisions and legislative proposals. There are few important decisions made by the Parliament which are not first considered by the Government. However, government proposals are subject to parliamentary scrutiny which is essential in the concept of responsible government. The efficiency and effectiveness of a parliamentary democracy is in some measure dependent on the effectiveness of the Opposition; the more effective the Opposition, the more responsible and thorough the Government must become in its decision making.
The nature of representation in the Senate, the voting system used to elect Senators and the fact that only half the Senators are elected each third year may cause the Senate to reflect a different electoral opinion from that of the House. The House reflects, in its entirety, the most recent political view of the people and is the natural vehicle for making or unmaking governments. Jennings emphasises the role of the lower House in the following way:
The fact that the House of Commons is representative, that most of the ministers and most of the leading members of Opposition parties are in that House, and that the Government is responsible to that House alone, gives the Commons a great preponderance of authority. The great forum of political discussion is therefore in the Lower House.
In Parliaments in the Westminster tradition the greater financial power is vested in the lower House. The modern practice in respect of the House of Commons’ financial privileges is based upon principles expressed in resolutions of that House as long ago as 1671 and 1678:
That in all aids given to the King by the Commons, the rate or tax ought not to be altered by the Lords;…
That all aids and supplies, and aids to his Majesty in Parliament, are the sole gift of the Commons; and all bills for the granting of any such aids and supplies ought to begin with the Commons; and that it is the undoubted and sole right of the Commons to direct, limit, and appoint in such bills the ends, purposes, considerations, conditions, limitations, and qualifications of such grants, which ought not to be changed or altered by the House of Lords.
These principles are reflected in a modified way in the Australian Constitution. The Constitution was framed to express the traditional right of the lower House, the representative House, to initiate financial matters, to prevent the Senate from amending certain financial bills and to prevent the Senate from amending any proposed law so as to increase any proposed charge or burden on the people. In all other respects the Constitution gives to the Senate equal power with the House of Representatives in respect of all proposed laws, including the power of rejection.