Political parties

Although political parties were not recognised by the Constitution until 1977,[35] their existence has since Federation, and more particularly since 1910, dominated the operation of the House of Representatives.

Political parties are not formally recognised in the standing orders of the House yet the proceedings of the House turn on the interaction of the major parties forming the Government and Opposition.[36] In the Commonwealth Parliament party loyalty and discipline are strong, with the effect of Members generally voting in accordance with the decision taken by the party unless a ‘free’ vote has been permitted.[37] Failure to vote along party lines on important issues may seriously jeopardise a Member’s chances of re-election in the event of the party organisation withdrawing its support.[38] Party discipline is essential to the governing party in order to retain the support of the majority of the Members of the House, without which it could not continue to govern. Conversely, the basic strength of the private Member lies in the dependence of ministries and shadow ministries on the support of the individual Members of the parliamentary party. While it can be said that in some respects a private Member does not, for practical purposes, normally exercise great authority in the House, where party solidarity is usually exhibited, he or she has many opportunities to put a matter before the House under the opportunities available under the standing orders or to put a personal point of view within the party (see page 56).

From the practical point of view, the working of the House is greatly facilitated by the existence of political parties, as they create a degree of certainty and add stability. Parties create ‘numbers’, or blocks of votes, on many issues which come before the House and it is around these ‘numbers’ on each side of a question that parliamentary activity often revolves. However, when from time to time the governing party is not able to maintain a majority of votes, the immediate consequences of this inability fall on the party, and the machinery of the House is not affected.

Between 1901 and 1910 allegiances to party, particularly in respect of the groups known as protectionists and free traders, were fluid and governments were made and unmade on the floor of the House.[39] Following the defeat of the Deakin ‘Fusion’ Ministry at the general election of 1910 a two party situation developed in the ensuing Parliament—Labour and Liberal.[40] With the formation of the Country Party in 1919 a third party was introduced into the House.[41] Since then representation in the House of Representatives has been composed almost entirely of these three political parties and their successors, namely, the Australian Labor Party,[42] the Liberal Party of Australia (under various names) and the National Party of Australia (under various names). Since 1910 Australia has generally had majority Governments under which either the Australian Labor Party or a coalition of non-Labor parties has held office.[43]

The Labor Party is Australia’s oldest political party, having evolved in the 1890s as the political wing of the trade union movement. The present Liberal Party was formed in October 1944 out of the United Australia Party and its earlier predecessor, the Nationalist Party. Since the general election of 1949 the Liberal Party and the National Country Party (later renamed the National Party of Australia and since 2003 known as the Nationals) when forming government have done so as a coalition.[44]

The three major political parties are organised at a national, State and sometimes at local level. While there are important differences in the structure of the parties represented in Parliament, at the national level they all have an organisational and a parliamentary wing. The extra-parliamentary or organisational wings of the political parties are not recognised in a procedural sense and have no role in the formal parliamentary structure and workings of the Parliament. Parliamentary activity revolves in a large measure around the parliamentary wings of the political parties—that is, the elected representatives.

Leaders and office holders

The parliamentary parties determine who shall be their leaders and deputy leaders in both Houses; hence they determine who shall be Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. Leaders and other office holders receive a salary additional to their salary as a Member of Parliament.[45] While Ministers are in fact holders of (ministerial) office, those offices are strictly positions of government under the Crown.[46] For constitutional and statutory reasons therefore, and for the purposes of the Remuneration Tribunal, Ministers are not defined as office holders of the Parliament.

The Remuneration Tribunal regards the occupants of the following positions as office holders of the Parliament for the purposes of payment of salaries in addition to their salary as a Member:[47]

Speaker of the House of Representatives
President of the Senate
Deputy Speaker in the House of Representatives
Deputy President and Chair of Committees in the Senate
Second Deputy Speaker in the House of Representatives
Temporary Chair of Committees in the Senate

Member of the Speaker’s Panel in the House of Representatives

Chair or Deputy Chair of a parliamentary committee
Leader of the Opposition

Deputy Leader of the Opposition

Leader of the Opposition in the Senate

Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate
Leader of a recognised party
Head of a recognised party where Leader of party sits in the other house
Manager of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives

Shadow Minister

Chief Government Whip in the House of Representatives
Chief Opposition Whip in the House of Representatives

Chief Government Whip in the Senate

Chief Opposition Whip in the Senate


(The Leader of the House and the Leader of the Government in the Senate, who also have parliamentary roles, receive additional salary as Ministers—see page 72.)

For parliamentary purposes the Remuneration Tribunal’s definition of office holders of the Parliament needs some qualification to distinguish their parliamentary or party relationship:

  • The Presiding Officers and their deputies[52] are elected by their respective Houses and are correctly known as Officers of the House and the Senate respectively. These are strictly parliamentary offices.
  • Temporary Chairs of Committees in the Senate and members of the Speaker’s Panel in the House are nominated by the Presiding Officers in consultation with the respective parties. These are parliamentary positions.
  • Chairs and Deputy Chairs of parliamentary committees may be either elected by the committee[53] or nominated by the Prime Minister. These are parliamentary positions.
  • Leaders and deputy leaders of the political parties, although receiving parliamentary recognition, hold party positions determined within the parliamentary parties.
  • Whips and deputy whips strictly hold party positions determined within the parliamentary parties.[54]

At the commencement of each Parliament (or whenever a change occurs) the leader of each party makes a formal announcement to the House as to its leadership and whips.[55]

Party whips

All parties have whips whose main functions are to act as administrative officers to their parliamentary parties. Although whips, and especially the Chief Government Whip, have duties in relation to the proceedings of the House, they occupy essentially party political positions. Outside the Chamber the whips may be required to provide support for such matters as party meetings and consultations, party committees, arranging party nominations to parliamentary committees and organising any party balloting which may be required.[56]

The term ‘whip’ is derived from the English hunting expression ‘whipper-in’, which was the title for the person responsible for preventing the hunting hounds from straying from the pack. The first use of the term in a parliamentary context has been attributed to Edmund Burke who, in 1769, described the intense lobbying over a particular division as a ‘whipping-in’ of Members.[57] Wilding and Laundy, however, trace the use of the term back even further, when they refer to Porritt’s claim that the whip, meaning a document instructing persons which side to take on a particular question, was in vogue as early as 1621. In the House of Commons, whips of all parties supply their Members with information on forthcoming business with each item of business underlined according to its importance, hence the use of the term ‘whip’ in relation to the document, for example, a ‘three line whip’.[58]

In recent Parliaments the Government and Opposition have each had a Chief Whip and two other whips. In the case of a coalition the whips of the senior party have taken the various government whip positions when in government and the various opposition whip positions when in opposition. The National Party, the junior coalition party, has had its own Chief Whip and another whip. The positions of Chief Government Whip and Chief Opposition Whip were created in 1994 with the establishment of the Main Committee (later renamed Federation Chamber) and the consequential additional workload on the whips. Whips are either elected by the parliamentary party or appointed by the parliamentary leader of the party. Whips do not have any administrative responsibility or control in relation to the parliamentary or government administrations. The Chief Government Whip in the House of Representatives is not a Minister as he or she is in the House of Commons. In recognition of their party duties, not shared by other private Members, whips and their deputies receive an additional salary in addition to their salary as Members.

Within the parliamentary process a whip is required to perform a multitude of tasks including:

  • arrangement of the number and order of Members who wish to speak in debate;[59] this may be done in consultation with the Leader of the House in respect of government Members and his or her counterpart in the Opposition or the party leader(s) in respect of opposition Members;
  • ensuring the attendance of party members for divisions and quorum calls (this responsibility is more onerous on the government whips as it has been considered that the Government should ensure that a quorum is maintained[60]);
  • in conjunction with other whips, the arrangement of ‘pairs’[61] for Members who are, or who may desire to be, absent from the House; and
  • in divisions, by convention on appointment from the Chair, to act as a teller.

The Chief Government Whip has the added responsibility of assisting the Leader of the House in ensuring that the timetable for the Government’s legislative program is met and regularly moves procedural motions such as the motion for the closure. On the creation of the position in 1994 the Chief Government Whip was empowered to move motions, without the requirement for a seconder, relating to the conduct of the business or the sitting arrangements of the House or the then Main Committee (now Federation Chamber).[62] The Chief Government Whip exercises these functions, previously the preserve of the Leader of the House, principally in relation to the business of the Federation Chamber. The Chief Government Whip has primary responsibility for determining the Federation Chamber’s agenda in relation to government business, following consultation with Ministers, opposition whips and independent Members, and normally moves the motions referring bills and other orders of the day to the Federation Chamber. The Chief Government Whip, Chief Opposition Whip and the Third Party Whip, or their nominees, are members of the Selection Committee. Any procedural function of a Chief Whip under the standing orders can be performed by another whip acting on his or her behalf.[63]

Party committees and meetings

Both the government and the opposition parties have backbench committees to assist them in the consideration of legislative proposals and other issues of political significance allied to each committee’s function. These committees, which consist of Members and Senators having a special interest in the subject matter of the committee, provide a forum in which a Member is able to discuss on a party basis matters of importance to his or her party and possibly to the Member’s electoral division. These committees have been shown to influence (and in some cases directly or indirectly overturn) government policy or decisions.

All parties have party meetings in sitting weeks but usually at times when the House is not sitting. The proceedings of party meetings are regarded as confidential, and the detail of discussions is not normally made public. These meetings provide the forum, particularly for backbenchers, for internal party discussion of party policy, parliamentary activity, parliamentary tactics, the resolution of internal party disputes, the election of officers, and they provide a means of exerting backbench pressure on, and communication with, its leaders.

Party meetings of the Parliamentary Labor Party are commonly referred to as ‘caucus’ meetings.[64] Used in its collective sense the ‘caucus’ of the Labor Party is composed of all Labor Members of the House and the Senate meeting together. In its extended sense the ‘caucus system’, as applying to all parties, has developed from the development of formalised party arrangements and rules.

Important differences between the two main parties in their caucus arrangements are:

  • The Chair of the Labor Party caucus is elected from among its members and is usually a backbencher, while in the Liberal Party the leader traditionally presides over party meetings, including joint party meetings.
  • The Labor Party caucus historically has elected its members to all positions of office including Ministers, while the leader of the Liberal Party has appointed members to most offices, including Ministers.[65]
  • Party discipline, in particular voting requirements, may be more formal in the Labor Party and the Nationals than the Liberal Party, but in each case party discipline is strong.

Parties and their effect on the House

In many respects the functioning of the House is based on the clear-cut division between Government and Opposition, that is, the opposing political parties, and the working arrangements and conduct of business reflect this. An obvious recognition of this historical development is the seating arrangement in the House with government Members sitting to the right of the Speaker’s Chair and opposition Members to the left. Procedural recognition is exemplified by the practice of the Chair of alternating the call between government and non-government Members.

The important functions performed by the parties are mostly unrecognised by the standing orders in the working of procedure, although the standing orders recognise the Government’s control in arranging the business of the House (see page 45).[66]

The party system has a strong influence on the day-to-day workings and decision-making of the modern legislature. This has not been without criticism; one commentator has written:

The implications of a predominantly team approach to parliamentary matters even to the abrogation of any effective rights of the individual representative raises important questions about the nature of our modern parliamentary system and the extent to which public frustration with it as an institution may relate to undue party cohesiveness.[67]

To facilitate the management and programming of the business of the House, a Government/Opposition consultative arrangement has existed since 1951. The Leader of the House, generally a senior Minister, consults, or ensures that consultations are held, with a member of the shadow ministry nominated by the Leader of the Opposition (the Manager of Opposition Business) and is assisted by the Chief Government Whip. They are jointly responsible, within the requirements of the standing orders, for the daily programming of the House, although the final responsibility remains with the Leader of the House acting on behalf of the Government (see page 65).