House of Representatives Practice, 6th edition – HTML version

3 - Elections and the electoral system

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Number of Members

The Constitution determines the composition of the House of Representatives and provides that it shall consist of Members directly chosen by the people of the Commonwealth and that the number of Members representing the States shall be, as nearly as practicable, twice the number of Senators representing the States. The number of Members in each State shall be proportionate to the populations of the respective States. The manner in which the number is determined, although set down in the Constitution, was a matter in respect of which the Parliament could legislate, and it has subsequently done so.[31]

A list showing the number of Members of the House of Representatives in each Parliament since 1901 is shown at Appendix 11.

At the 2010 general election representation of the States and Territories was:

New South Wales






Western Australia


South Australia




Australian Capital Territory


Northern Territory



Territorial representation

The Parliament may admit new States to the Commonwealth or establish new States, and may determine the extent of representation of new States in either House.[32] The Parliament may also make laws for the government of any Commonwealth Territory and determine the extent and terms of representation of any such Territory in either House.[33] Thus, the Parliament has determined that the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory shall be represented in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.[34]

The Commonwealth Electoral Act provides for Territories to be represented in proportion to their populations, population quotas being determined in the same manner as for the original States, subject to provisos that:

  • the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory each have at least one Member; and
  • any other external Commonwealth Territory be entitled to separate representation only if its population exceeds one half of a quota; until so entitled the Territories of Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island continue to be included in the electoral division of the Northern Territory.[35]

The Territory of Norfolk Island is not represented. However, Norfolk Islanders are entitled to be enrolled in a State or Territory subdivision.[36]

In 2004 the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended to set aside a determination under section 48 of the Act which had specified one Member for the Northern Territory at the next election, and to provide that the prior determination (specifying two Members) should apply.[37] The amendments also made provision for the Electoral Commissioner to allow for the effect of statistical error in respect of the population count of the territory concerned, before making a determination resulting in a reduction in the representation of the Australian Capital Territory or the Northern Territory.[38]

The growth of the House

Appendix 11 shows the number of Members of the House of Representatives and the representation of each State and Territory for each Parliament since 1901. Significant variation in membership has occurred as follows:

  • In 1949 the membership of the House increased from 75 to 123 following legislation increasing the number of Senators from six to 10 for each original State.[39]
  • In 1977 the High Court ruling in McKellar’s case invalidated the formula then being used for allocating Members to the States in proportion to their populations,[40] and consequently the number of Members, which had reached 127 during 1974–75, was reduced to 124 for the ensuing Parliament.
  • In 1984 the membership of the House increased from 125 to 148 following legislation increasing the number of Senators to 12 for each original State.[41]
  • Redistributions increased the number of Members to 150 from the 2001 general election.

In both 1949 and 1984 a major reason given for the enlargement of the House was the increase in the number of people to be represented.

Table 3.1 Ratio of electors to Members

Year of election



Average number of electors per Member


907 658


12 102


4 744 017


63 254


4 913 654


39 948


9 373 580


74 989


9 866 266


66 664


12 636 631


84 244


14 088 260


93 922

31. Constitution, s. 24; Representation Act 1905 (repealed). The provisions are now in the Commonwealth Electoral Act—see ‘Determination of divisions’ at p. 87.
32. Constitution, s. 121.
33. Constitution, s. 122.
34. For a description of former provisions for the representation of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory and limitations on Members representing the Territories in earlier years see pages 168–9 of the second edition.
35. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 48, as amended by Electoral and Referendum Amendment Act 1989.
36. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 95AA.
37. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 48A, inserted by the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Representation in the House of Representatives) Act 2004.
38. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 48.
39. Representation Act 1948.
40. Attorney-General (NSW); Ex rel. McKellar v. Commonwealth (1977) 139 CLR 527. The invalidated formula, introduced by the Representation Act 1964, had involved rounding up, instead of rounding to the nearest integer. In this ruling the High Court also upheld the validity of provisions of the Representation Act 1973 which provided that the four Territory Senate places created in 1974 could not be included for the purpose of calculating the number of Members of the House under the ‘nexus’ provision of the Constitution.
41. Representation Act 1983.